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Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
By Blair Golson
Are there any historical parallels that suggest it would be possible for people en masse to abandon irrational faith?
There are societies that are profoundly irreligious by our standards. Australia, Canada, and Japan, along with basically all of Western Europe—these are places that have a very different relationship to religious faith. These are not societies where you have people running for Congress or the presidency on the basis of faith, and thanking god at every turn. These are not societies in which you would destroy any chance you have of holding political office by claiming to doubt the existence of god. It’s a completely different picture of what it is to be reasonable and qualified to hold a position of responsibility in these societies. We have a lot to learn from them.
Why do you think Western Europe in particular is so much more of a secular place than America?
It probably comes down to the difference between having a state religion and having this thriving marketplace of ignorance we have here in America, where so many sects and denominations compete for people’s attention. In Western Europe, the state religions seem to have grown more ossified, and they lost their subscribers.
There’s also the fact that the Enlightenment was taken perhaps a little more seriously in Europe. And it was taken in light of the fact that so much religious killing had occured on those very streets for centuries. I think the liability of religious thinking is a little more keenly felt in Europe. But this is probably not a full explanation. I don’t understand why we’re living in a society where 83 percent of people believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, while the Swedes are living in a society where basically that same percentage of people are atheists.
What is the most likely way that American society, if not the rest of the world, will eventually abandon irrational faith?
I think this is a war of ideas that has to be fought on a hundred fronts at once. There’s not one piece that is going to trump all others.
But I think we should not underestimate the power of embarrassment. The book Freakonomics briefly discusses the way the Ku Klux Klan lost its subscribers, and the example is instructive. A man named Stetson Kennedy, almost single-handedly it seems, eroded the prestige of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s by joining them and then leaking all of their secret passwords and goofy lingo to the people who were writing “The Adventures of Superman” radio show. Week after week, there were episodes of Superman fighting the Klan, and the real Klan’s mumbo jumbo was put out all over the airwaves for people to laugh at. Kids were playing Superman vs. the Klan on their front lawns. The Klan was humiliated by this, and was made to look foolish; and we went from a world in which the Klan was a legitimate organization with tens of millions of members—many of whom were senators, and even one president—to a world in which there are now something like 5,000 Klansmen. It’s basically a defunct organization.
So public embarrassment is one principle. Once you lift the taboo around criticizing faith and demand that people start talking sense, then the capacity for making religious certitude look stupid will be exploited, and we’ll start laughing at people who believe the things that the Tom DeLays, the Pat Robertsons of the world believe. We’ll laugh at them in a way that will be synonymous with excluding them from our halls of power.
Are you interested in joining or leading organizations that push for this kind of revolution of belief?
I’m actually in the process of creating a foundation for this purpose. It is going to produce media events, documentaries, conferences, and other means of waging this war of ideas. It’s not something I’ve formally announced yet, but I’m going to look to bring in the most motivated and articulate scientists, journalists, entertainers, and business people around the issue of eroding the prestige of religious dogma in our world. We will be taking on specific projects: for example, empowering secularists in the Muslim world, or empowering the women of the Muslim world. To some degree the organization will take on projects of its own, but it will also find projects that other people are doing that are worth supporting. I think the time is right for it.
What stage are you at with that?
At the moment I’m just drawing up a prospectus, creating a 501c3, meeting with people, and putting out feelers for who will be on the advisory board. So it’s in the earliest stages. But I hope that by the end of the year, I will be in a position to announce the birth of the organization.
What other projects are you working on?
I’ve got a book coming out around Thanksgiving, by Knopf, entitled “Letter to a Christian Nation.” It’s going to be a short broadside against fundamentalist Christianity. It’s a book that a person could simply hand to a member of the religious Right and say, “What’s your answer to this?” It will be my best effort to arm progressives and secularists against the religious certainties of Christian fundamentalists—in about a hundred pages.
How about your doctoral studies?
My day job as a heretic still takes up most of my time. But I still have one foot—or one toe—in the lab. I’m studying belief at the level of the brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging. There’s a point of contact between my academic research and my heresy, in that through neuroimaging, I’m trying to understand what it is to believe something to be true. As an aspect of this question, I’m looking at whether religious belief is different from ordinary belief.
Do you have any preliminary findings you can talk about?
I really can’t talk much about them because they haven’t been published, and to talk about them before they’re published in a scientific journal is considered—
Yeah. Some forms of heresy I endorse, and others I don’t, it seems.
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