By Blair Golson
With the publication of his 2004 New York Times bestseller, “The End of Faith,” a full-throttle attack on religion, Sam Harris became the most prominent atheist in America.
For many, that would be a profoundly dubious honor. A recent national study by University of Minnesota researchers found that atheists are America’s least trusted minority group—trusted less than Muslims, recent immigrants and homosexuals. Americans are also least willing to approve of their children marrying atheists, according to the study.
But Harris, a Stanford graduate in philosophy who is now completing his doctorate in neuroscience, wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest. Far from it. In his book, Harris sets out to shame, embarrass, stun and reason the religious-minded people of the world into abandoning faith-based belief systems, which he argues could soon lead us to apocalypse. He writes:
We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
Distilling 20 years of study of both Eastern and Western religious disciplines, along with the blood-soaked lessons of thousands of years of religious violence, Harris aims to incite a reason-based revolution in the minds of the faithful everywhere. And indeed, his criticism extends far beyond fundamentalists. Harris also makes life very uncomfortable for religious moderates, who, he argues, pave the way for fundamentalism by their insistence on tolerance and respect for all religious beliefs—no matter their implications. To wit:
To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world—to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.
For someone who’s lodging an indictment against roughly 97% of America—the other 3% being atheists—Harris might be expected to come off like a crank. But his writing style draws rhetorical power from its colloquial style—which is heavy on caustic sarcasm and irony. From his first chapter:
...120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent deity.
The winner of the 2005 PEN / Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction, Harris’ book has garnered passionate reviews from figures as varied as Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz and Joseph Hough Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary, who wrote that Harris’ “wake-up call to religious liberals is right on the mark.”
Late last year, Harris adapted and extended some of the arguments of his book in an essay for Truthdig, entitled “An Atheist Manifesto”—which continues to inspire spirited commentary nearly four months after its publication. In light of some of those comments, Truthdig Managing Editor Blair Golson recently sat down with Harris to ask him to defend his arguments, and to apply them to the religious-inspired conflicts now raging in Iraq and beyond.
In the discussion, Harris spoke publicly for the first time about a foundation he is creating to promote secular values worldwide; about his new book, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” to be published by Knopf around Thanksgiving; about how he navigates dinner parties without coming off as the Antichrist; and about the “Salman Rushdie effect” that accompanies his newfound celebrity as an atheist.
Blair Golson: What prompted you to write “The End of Faith” ?
Sam Harris: It was my immediate reaction to Sept. 11—the moment it became clear that we were meandering into a global, theologically-inspired conflict with the Muslim world, and were going to tell ourselves otherwise, based on the respect we pay to faith.
The last thing we were going to admit was that people were flying planes into our buildings because of what they believed about God. We came up with euphemisms about this being a war on terror, and Islam being a religion of peace, and we were pushed even further into our own religiosity as a nation. At the moment that this dynamic became clear—and it became clear within about 24 hours—I started writing the book.
Within 24 hours?
In the first few days there were some people who were willing to call a spade a spade and speak critically about Islam, but very quickly we began to talk about Osama Bin Laden and the extremists of the Muslim world as being the exceptions—people who had hijacked a peaceful religion and utterly distorted it. Many people compared Osama Bin Laden to the Reverend Jim Jones, David Koresh, or some other marginal figure, and all of that is completely untrue. Osama Bin Laden’s version of Islam is a much more central, plausible version of Islam than people tend to acknowledge. My discussion of Islam in the book is a response to this sort of denial.
Next Page: “I don’t make my whereabouts particularly well known and I have security whenever I do an event.”
What kind of fears did you have before writing such a book, and putting your name and picture on it?
There are security concerns, obviously. The Salaman Rushdie effect was not totally distant from my imagination as I was writing the book, but at a certain point you just have to speak honestly about these things, and I’ve taken reasonable steps to ensure my security.
Can you elaborate?
I don’t make my whereabouts particularly well known and I have security whenever I do an event—bodyguards and other precautions that are probably best not publicized.
Have any of those fears been realized?
I’ve had some reasonably scary e-mails, but nothing that has risen to the level of a death threat.
How do most people react when you explain to them the thesis of your book? You meet someone at a dinner party, let’s say.
It depends where the conversation begins. If I begin with my criticism of Islam, anyone on the conservative side of the spectrum will tend to understand it, and liberals will find it to be a taboo-breaking repudiation of their political correctness and their multi-culturalism.
Conversely, if I start talking about my concerns about the intrusions of religion into our own public policy, liberals will tend to love this, as they share these concerns, but Christian conservatives will begin to protest. So I can establish rapport, or not, depending on what I emphasize in my argument.
But perhaps the most central thesis of your book, the attack on irrational faith itself, doesn’t that offend people on both sides of the political spectrum?
The most controversial aspect of my book has been this criticism I make of religious moderates. Most people think that while religious extremism is problematic and polarizing, religious tolerance is entirely blameless and is the remedy for all that ails us on this front.
But religious moderates are giving cover to fundamentalists because of the respect that moderates demand of faith-based talk. Religious moderation doesn’t allow us to say the really critical things we must say about the abject stupidity of religious fundamentalism. And as a result, it keeps fundamentalism in play, and fundamentalists make very cynical and artful use of the cover they’re getting by the political correctness in our discourse.
You also say religious moderation closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics and the building of strong communities. What did you mean by that?
Religious moderation is just a cherry-picking of scripture, ultimately. It is just diluted Iron Age philosophy. It isn’t a 21st century approach to talking about the contemplative life, or spiritual experience, or ethical norms, or those features that keep communities strong and healthy.
Religious moderation is a relaxation of the standards of adherence to ancient taboos and superstitions. That’s really all it is. Moderate Christians have agreed not to read the bible literally, and not read certain sections of it at all, and then they come away with a much more progressive, tolerant and ecumenical version of Christianity. They just pay attention to Jesus when he’s sermonizing on the Mount, and claim that is the true Christianity. Well that’s not the true Christianity. It’s a selective reading of certain aspects of Christianity. The other face of Christianity is always waiting in the book to be resurrected. You can find the Jesus of Second Thessalonians who’s going to come back and hurl sinners into the pit. This is the Jesus being celebrated in the Left Behind novels. This is the Jesus that half the American population is expecting to see come down out of the clouds.
Switching gears: to what extent do you see religion—as opposed to tribalism or just a plain desire to avenge past wrongs—responsible for the sectarian violence destabilizing Iraq?
I don’t think you can necessarily draw a neat line of separation here, because clearly the Shia and the Sunni, for instance, have defined their moral communities in terms of their religious affiliation. These communities have a long history of victimizing one another on that basis, so their conflict does have the character of a tribal feud. But the only difference between these two groups, really, is their religious identity—and it’s a marginal difference at best. These are two groups who really do worship the same god. They just can’t agree to worship him in the same way, and for this they’ve been killing each other for centuries.
To what extent will America be responsible if a theocracy takes over in Iraq?
Many people draw a lesson from the chaos in Iraq now—a lesson which suggests that we were rapacious, oil-greedy colonialists who ineptly wandered into a sectarian hell-realm and have inflamed the place. But I think it’s worth stepping back to ask what would be the best-case scenario—had we gone in purely for altruistic motives, to liberate 25 million people from Saddam Hussein and his diabolical sons.
I think it’s quite possible that we would see precisely the same chaos. Now, this is not to deny that we did many things terribly and ineptly, and Abu Ghraib cost us dearly. But it’s likely that we would still have some significant percentage of Muslims who would be ready to fight to the death simply to eject the infidels from Babylon, no matter how altruistic the infidels’ motives.
Given that fact, I think our culpability is somewhat mitigated, because I think there was a very good argument for trying to create a model democracy in the heart of the Muslim world, and Iraq was a plausible place to do that. But none of what I just said should be construed as a denial of the fact that we have done it horribly, or that we’re paying a terrible price for our failures. We are likely to pay for these failures long into the future.
Many people fear that Iraq will adopt Sharia [the Islamic fundamentalist legal code]. Is that preferable to a secular totalitarian regime?
No, I don’t think it is at all. They’re two evils. But if you get a truly ethical despot in charge—a benevolent despot—that may be the necessary transitional mechanism to democracy.
It should be pretty clear that much of the Muslim world is not ready for democracy, and we have to confront that reality. Many Muslims are prepared to tear out their freedoms by the root the moment they are given a chance to decide their destiny.
How we transition to a democracy in the Middle East—a true democracy—is a very difficult problem. We should consider the examples of Muslim communities living in Western Europe, and their failure to assimilate democratic values. If ever there were a test case for how immune a community can be to the charms of democracy, just look at the Muslim communities in Holland or France or Denmark. Look at the crowds of people who want newspaper editors and cartoonists decapitated. These are people who are living in Western Europe. Many of them have lived their whole lives there.
So you really think Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy?
For the most part, yes. Just look at the case of the apostate in Afghanistan who converted to Christianity and who was up for a death sentence. Then, after all the nations of the earth applied pressure on Hamid Karzai, he got spirited away. This is the reality under Islam: you take your life in your hands for criticizing the faith. A Muslim is simply not free to wake up in the morning and decide he no longer wants to be a Muslim. Such a change of mind is really punishable by death. So unless Muslims reform this feature of their religion, at a minimum, there is not much hope for Muslim democracy.
We’re not tending to talk about all of the deal-breakers that lurk in the mainstream theology of Islam. We’re pretending as though they’re not there, and we’re invading countries and creating constitutional democracies, apparently in ignorance of the fact that a majority of the people still want their neighbors killed for thought crimes. Until you change peoples’ minds on this subject—until you get them to run a different moral calculus, where cartoons cease to be the thing that most animates them, and a genuine compassion for other peoples’ suffering is the real gold standard of their morality—I don’t see how putting the structures of democracy in place will help anyone. You need a civil society before you have a democracy.
Next Page: “The Jewish settlers are really deranged by their theology, and I would argue that they are some of the most dangerous and irresponsible people on earth right now.”
In your book, you write that when a suicide bomber blows himself up, the role that faith played in his actions is invariably discounted. His motives must have been “political, economical, or entirely personal.” Why does faith get a free pass?
This is one of the interesting things about our discourse right now. Our own religious demagogues, the fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, will call a spade a spade and observe that there is a link between Islam and the kind of violence we see in the Muslim world. While I don’t agree with these people on anything else, they are actually offering a much more candid and accurate diagnosis of the problem, vis a vis Islam, than anything that’s coming from the Left.
Leftists, secularists, religious moderates, and religious liberals tend to be very poorly placed to recognize that when somebody looks into a video camera and says, “I love death more than the infidel loves life,” and then blows himself up, he’s actually being honest about his state of mind.
This is not propaganda, this is not politics and economic desperation masquerading as religion. People are really being motivated by the content of religious beliefs, and there are people who are really willing and eager to blow themselves up because they think they’re going to get to paradise.
Religious moderates and secularists don’t understand that because they don’t really know what it’s like to believe in God. They don’t know what it’s like to be sure God is there to hear their prayers , that He has dictated a book, and that the book is perfect in every syllable, and it’s a roadmap to paradise. And fundamentalists understand what it’s like to believe these preposterous things.
You assert that Islamic suicide bombers aren’t using religion as a pretext for political or economic grievances. But how do you know?
First of all, the 9/11 hijackers showed no evidence whatsoever of being people who were concerned with poverty or the plight of the Palestinians—that’s just not where their heads were at. They were talking about the evils of infidel culture, and the pleasures that await martyrs in paradise.
When you read about what they were doing with their lives, these people did not seem to have a political bone in their bodies. And they were not people who personally suffered oppression under the U.S. , the British, or the Israelis.
Osama Bin Laden is another example of this. He is not somebody who himself had been victimized, and he’s not somebody who, if you read his diatribes, spends a lot of time thinking about the poor. In fact, he only added the Palestinians to his list of woes as an afterthought. Originally, he was really concerned about theological offenses, about the fact that there were infidel boots on the ground near the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
So we have people who are unambiguously well off, unambiguously well educated, willing to hit the wall at 400 miles-per-hour. And they spend a lot of time talking about paradise and virgins.
So it seems like a case of really tortured reasoning that somehow religion is not the motive for their actions—that their motives are economic or political—even though they are saying it is, and doing things that are only rational in light of these religious beliefs, and when they themselves have no economic or political grievances.
You spend a long chapter writing about beliefs as “principles of action”—that, given the right set of beliefs, a person will almost inexorably act in a certain way. Applying this to Islam, you say that given the tenets of a religion that guarantees a place in heaven for martyrs, it’s no wonder we see so many Islamic suicide bombers. However, if the connection between belief and action were this absolute, then how do you explain that all Moslems aren’t suicide bombers?
There’s always the question of whether you really believe what you say you believe. We have gradations of belief and certainty. Clearly if you were certain that paradise existed, and if you were certain that death in defense of the faith got you and everyone you loved into heaven for eternity, it would only be rational to die in those circumstances.
What we are finding is that there are people who really are certain, or at least are functionally certain of these propositions, and are eager to blow themselves up in the process of killing infidels, because they’re quite sure that the creator of the universe wants infidels to burn in fire for eternity. Of course, any Muslims they happen to kill in the process will go to paradise as well, and will be quite grateful to have been sent there.
Once you imagine what it would actually be like to believe these things, this behavior becomes totally reasonable. You find mothers of suicide bombers literally celebrating the deaths of their children, who have blown themselves up in crowds of other children at discotheques. This is the most obscene and inexplicable human behavior—and yet, it is totally reasonable, given what many Muslims say they believe about martyrdom.
What do you mean when you say that intolerance is intrinsic to every creed? And what are the implications of that?
The core claim of every creed is that it, alone, is true. The truth is, if you’re a Christian, Jesus really was the son of God, and was really resurrected, and he’s really coming back to judge the living and the dead. This is a fact. It is metaphysically true, it is physically true, it is historically true; if you’re standing on the right spot at the right time, you’re going to see Jesus come back with a host of angels.
This description of the world is either right or wrong. If it’s right, only the Christians are right, and only the Christians are going to heaven. So this doctrine, by definition, excludes the truth-claims of every other religion . Muslims claim that Jesus, while he was a prophet, was not divine, and that anyone who thinks he is divine is going to go to hell. This is explicitly spelled out in the Koran. These are mutually incompatible claims about the way the world works. They’re worse than that. They’re incompatible claims that are extremely motivating, because their adherents think that the difference between believing the right thing and the wrong thing is the difference between spending eternity in hell, or eternity in paradise. And that’s a very big difference.
What is it about the tenets of Islam that present a greater danger to the survival of our species, than, say, the tenets of Christianty?
The doctrine of martyrdom and Jihad is more explicit and central to the Islamic faith. There have obviously been martyrs and a lot of killing that has been reconciled with the doctrine of Christianity over the years, and it’s certainly possible to read the Bible in a way that will justify the Inquisition and all of the other things we’ve seen in the history of Christianity that seem every bit as bad as what we’re seeing in the Muslim world now, but there are a few unique features of Islam that are problematic.
One is that it is a much more coherent doctrine, which is to say that the Koran is a much shorter, more coherent book, and there is no sermon on the Mount in there that you can fixate on and use as a bulwark against the rest of the dangerous gibberish in the book in the way that you can with the Bible.
The basic message of the Koran really is hatred of the infidels. The infidel is fit only for the fires of hell; the creator of the universe is in the process of mocking and cursing and shaming and destroying and not forgiving and not reprieving the infidel.
Your job is to ignore the infidel, by all means do not befriend the infidel. When you get the power: subjugate, convert, or kill the infidel. And those are really the only three choices.
Devout Muslims take the Koran and the Haddith seriously because there is no other brand of Islam. There is no moderate school of Islam that suggests the Koran was really just written by men and may not be the word of god, or has to be interpreted very, very loosely. Most Muslims are what we would call “fundamentalists” in the Christian world.
But what about the tradition in Islamic societies of consulting with Mullahs or Imams before acting on a directive in the Koran? Don’t those people tend to moderate the harshest edicts of Islamic law?
It’s not that there’s not a wealth of discourse about what the Koran actually says. There is a lot of Muslim scholarship out there. The problem is that there really is no basis for what we would call a moderate and genuinely pluralistic worldview to be pulled out of Islam. You really need to do some seriously acrobatic theology to get an Islam that is compatible with 21st century civil society. This is witnessed virtually every day we open the newspaper now, the latest case being the apostate in Afghanistan who converted to Christianity. The basic message of this episode should be clear: this is a government that we came in and reformulated and propped up, and the fact that it had to have a constitution that was in conformity to Islam, opened the door to the true face of Islam, which is: apostasy is punishable by death. That is a fact that no liberal exegesis of Islam is going to change. We have to find some way to change it, of course. Islam needs a reformation. But at present, it’s true to say that the real word of God in Islam is that if you change your religion, you should die for it.
Isn’t that also the case in the Bible? Don’t we see similar edicts and punishments for apostasy?
Yes. There’s nothing worse than the first books of the Hebrew bible: Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus, these are the most barbaric, most totalitarian, most Taliban-like documents we can find. But there are a few loopholes, and these loopholes don’t exist in Islam, to my knowledge. One loophole for Christians is that most Christians think that Jesus brought us the doctrine of grace, and therefore you don’t have to follow the law. While it’s true that there are other moments in the New Testament when Jesus can be read as saying that you have to fulfill every “jot and tittle” of the law (this is in Matthew)—and therefore you can get a rationale for killing people for adultery out of the New Testament—most Christians, most of the time, don’t see it that way.
The Bible is a fundamentally self-contradictory document. You can cherry-pick it in a way that you really can’t the Koran, even though there are a few lines in the Koran that say, “Allah does not love aggressors”—if you hew to just those few lines, you can say things like, “Osama Bin Laden is distorting the true teachings of a peaceful religion.” But the basic fact is that Osama Bin Laden is giving a very plausible reading of Islam. You have to split hairs to find a basis for what we would recognize as real moderation in Islam.
Then by that logic, why aren’t we worried that Jews, for instance, who aren’t necessarily following Jesus’ doctrine of grace, why aren’t we worried that they are also directed to kill for apostasy? Why are we only so focused on the Muslims when the edicts are the same in both books?
Again, the details really matter. It really matters what people specifically believe. And with Jews, you don’t have this idea of martyrdom, you don’t have this explicit promise of paradise, the after-death state is not spelled out with any kind of specificity in Judaism, and Judaism is very much a religion of this world. Also, the Jews are massively outnumbered. There are something like 15 million Jews on the planet, and they have tended to be the most beleaguered population historically, so they have not been in a position to demand that people observe their law and to threaten death to infidels.
But is it really your position that were they in the majority, they would follow edicts of killing heretics in the same way that Muslims seem to in higher numbers?
This is an interesting question. If you had an Orthodox Judaism that was truly ascendant, then it would be problematic. The Jewish settlers are really deranged by their theology, and I would argue that they are some of the most dangerous and irresponsible people on earth right now. If anyone is going to push us to a third world war, it’s going to be Jewish settlers doing something stupid like tearing down the Dome of the Rock, or fighting to the death to assert their claims on the West Bank. This expression of Judaism is problematical, without a doubt. But the eschatology of Judaism is rather specific, and they’re waiting for their messiah to come back, for the temple to be re-built, and for the Sanhedrin to be reconvened. If you asked them what they will do once all this happens, what law will we need to live by when the messiah comes back, I think you’ll find the Orthodox Jews will be open-minded about killing people for adultery or working on the Sabbath. I don’t know what argument they could find against doing these things.
Next Page: ”[The term Atheist is] 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.”
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:
“Here’s a book that was dictated by the creator of the universe, and in it, it describes all kinds of miracles that people claim they witnessed, but these people have been dead for 2,000 years, and in fact none of the authors of the book are the people who claim to have witnessed these events, and they wrote the book a hundred years after the events in question.”
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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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.
Illustration by Karen Spector