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Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
By Blair Golson
One of the most persistent criticisms of your theory is that the two largest genocides of the 20th century, the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, were explicitly irreligious. How do you respond to that?
The problem that I am confronting is the problem of dogma. What you have just done is to point to political dogmatism, instead of religious dogmatism. The argument against religious dogma is not an argument for atheist dogma. We should be fundamentally hostile to claims to certainty that are not backed up by evidence and argument. And what we find with Nazism is a kind of political religion. We find this with Stalinism as well—where claims about racial purity and the march of history and the dangers of intellectualism, are made in a fanatical and rigid and indefensible way. The people at the top of these hierarchies—Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Il Sung in North Korea—these were not the kings of reason. These were highly peculiar individuals who had all kinds of strange convictions. The upper echelons of the Third Reich were filled with people who believed crazy things, like that the Aryans had been preserved in ice since the beginning of the world. Heinrich Himmler created a meteorological division of the Reich to test this ice theory. This is not what people do when they reason too carefully, or become too unwilling to accept mythology as fact. It’s another kind of mythology, and one that is no less dangerous than religious mythology.
How do you define the differences between an atheist and an agnostic?
“Agnosticism” is a word that was brought into use by T.H. Huxley. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful word. It tends to be defined as the belief that one can’t know whether or not there is a god. An agnostic is someone who thinks we don’t know and can’t know the truth of a position. So it’s a non-committal attitude.
But it’s not an intellectually honest position, because everyone is walking around presuming to know that there isn’t a Zeus, there isn’t a Poseidon, and there isn’t a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn’t sending down lightning bolts? No, you can’t prove it. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “Is there any reason whatsoever to think there’s a god named Thor?” And of course there isn’t. There are many good reasons to think that he was a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia.
The problem for religious people is that the god of the Bible is on no firmer footing, epistemologically, than these dead gods. Which is to say that nobody ever discovered that Thor doesn’t exist, but that the biblical god really does. So we have learned to talk and use the word ‘god’ in a way so as not to notice that we’re using a very strange word and evoking a very vacuous concept, like the concept of Thor.
And therefore the definition of an atheist is?
And atheist is not someone who can prove that there is no Thor. An atheist is simply someone who says, “show me the evidence,” and who is unconvinced by evidence like:
This is not a story that anyone would find plausible except for the fact that it was drummed into them by previous generations of people who were taught not to think critically about it.
The thing to reiterate is that every Christian knows exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims, for instance. Muslims have the same reasons for being Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. They have a book they’re sure was written or dictated by the creator of the universe-because the book says that it was written or dictated by the creator of the universe. Christians look at Muslim discourse and find it fundamentally unpersuasive. Christians aren’t lying awake at night worrying about whether they should convert to Islam. Why not? Because Muslims can’t really back up their claims. They are clearly engaged in a style of discourse that is just not intellectually honest. It’s not purposed to genuine inquiry into the nature of the world. It is a reiteration of dogma, and they are clearly committed to a massive program of self-deception. Every Christian recognizes this about every religion other than Christianity. So every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist. They just don’t turn the same candor and intellectual honesty on to their own faith.
Liberals started calling themselves progressives when the term ‘liberal’ accumulated too much baggage and negative connotations. Is there an analog for the term atheist?
I’m not a big fan of the term atheist. In my Atheist Manifesto, the first thing I argue is that we really don’t need the word and probably shouldn’t use it. It has the stigma of a term like “child molester” in the culture, for reasons that are not good, but nevertheless worth taking into consideration. The term simply has a massive P.R. problem.
But the word is also conceptually unnecessary. We don’t have words for people who are not astrologers or alchemists; we don’t have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive. It is sufficient to talk about reason and commonsense in these circumstances.
You write passionately in your book about the spirituality of Buddhism. How do you describe yourself in terms of your spirituality?
I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I recently wrote an article in the Shambhala Sun, which is one of the more widely read Buddhist magazines, entitled “Killing the Buddha.” I essentially argued that that the wisdom of the Buddha is trapped in the religion of Buddhism. The teachings of the Buddha, taken as a whole, probably represent the richest source of contemplative wisdom that we have, but anyone who values these teachings should get out of the religion business. It’s the wrong message. And, in any case, 99 percent of Buddhists practice Buddhism as a religion, and therefore are part of the same egregious discourse.
I think there really is something worth extracting from our contemplative traditions in general, and from Buddhism in particular. It’s a phenomenology of meditative experience—what people do and realize when they go into a cave for a year or 10 years and practice meditation. There really is a landscape there that has been brilliantly articulated in Buddhism, and not so brilliantly articulated in some of our other contemplative traditions. And so I think all of this is worth talking about and studying.
But I don’t call myself a Buddhist. and yet, if you asked me how you should learn to meditate, what books you should read, etc., I’d point you in the direction of Buddhist techniques of meditation, and to the Buddhist literature on the subject.
So you don’t need any recourse to the supernatural in Buddhism?
The core truths of Buddhism, the truth of selflessness, for instance. It’s simply a fact that it is possible to realize that the ego, as you presently feel it and conceive of it, is an illusion. You can experience the continuum of consciousness without the sense of self. This experience can be had without believing anything on insufficient evidence. You can simply be taught to look closely enough at your experience, to de-construct the sense of self, and then discover what the consequences are of that happening. And the consequences turn out to be very positive. There’s a whole discourse in Buddhism about the relief of psychological suffering, the transcendence of self, and the nature of positive human emotions like compassion and loving kindness. These phenomena have been mapped out with incredible rigor in Buddhism, and one doesn’t need to swallow any mumbo jumbo to find this discourse useful.
And yet, much that people believe under the guise of Buddhism is dubious: certainties about re-birth, the idea that one’s teacher in the Tibetan tradition is absolutely the reincarnation of some previous historical personality—all of this stuff is held rather dogmatically by most Buddhists, and I think we should be skeptical of it. If people present evidence of it,—and there’s certainly been some interesting studies on the subject of rebirth—we should look at the evidence. As someone once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
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