It’s going to take me a long time to say everything I want to say about this book. And it starts here:
One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.
This is one of the central themes of Harris’ book. In fact, it may be the central message. Watch for the words “dogma” and “unjustified beliefs” in future quotes. They are key to understanding Harris’ message. But before we go there, let’s take a closer look at the problem of religious moderation from Harris’ point of view:
While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.
“By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.” I’ve been saying something similar to that for years—that I don’t understand religious moderates, people who accept only a portion of the teachings of a particular religion. It has always seemed to me that these people aren’t willing to accept God on the terms that any organized religion is trying to deliver Him, and by deciding to follow only a portion of the teachings, or a salad bar selection of teachings from a variety of religions, they are in fact inventing their own religion and by extension their own god. If you ask me, in terms of getting through the day-to-day trials and tribulations we all face, they think and act much more like unbelievers than believers. But that’s me. Let’s get back to Harris and his musings on religious moderation.
The benignity of most religious moderates does not suggest that religious faith is anything more sublime than a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance, nor does it guarantee that there is not a terrible price to be paid for limiting the scope of reason in our dealings with other human beings. Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities. Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience.
I know the point Harris is trying to make here, that by following a “watered down” version of ancient religions, moderates are advocating an ineffective, ancient solution to the modern problems we face. It’s an interesting thought, and certainly not the kind of thing we’re used to seeing in print and stated so boldly, but I’m not so sure I agree with it. In many cases, moderates are not watering down ancient philosophy, they are in fact updating and modernizing it with the addition of more secular-styled beliefs and priorities. Harris himself effectively makes this point:
The first thing to observe about the moderate’s retreat from scriptural literalism is that it draws its inspiration not from scripture but from cultural developments that have rendered many of God’s utterances difficult to accept as written.
The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it. Even most fundamentalists live by the lights of reason in this regard; it is just that their minds seem to have been partitioned to accommodate the profligate truth claims on their faith. Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.
So I think Harris is trying to walk down both sides of the street by saying religious moderation is both weaker than fundamentalism because it lacks its conviction and stronger than it because it has been updated with over two thousand years of human progress. If, in fact, that is what he is saying. But, no matter. It’s the second point—that religious faith has not evolved into something more humane of its own accord, rather that it has been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world by two thousand years of secular progress—that I really want to focus on. Let’s go back to Harris:
Our past is not sacred for being past, and there is much that is behind us that we are struggling to keep behind us, and to which, it is to be hoped, we could never return with a clear conscience: the divine right of kings, feudalism, the caste system, slavery, political executions, forced castration, vivisection, bearbaiting, honorable duels, chastity belts, trial by ordeal, child labor, human and animal sacrifice, the stoning of heretics, cannibalism, sodomy laws, taboos against contraception, human radiation experiments—the list is nearly endless, and if it were extended indefinitely, the proportion of abuses for which religion could be found directly responsible is likely to remain undiminished. In fact, almost every indignity just mentioned can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence, to an uncritical faith in one dogma or another. The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention—distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence—is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory.
Religion certainly doesn’t have a good track record, but it is here that I think Harris makes his most critical error, and it brings us back to the central theme we started with. Too often, as he does here, Harris equates “religion” with “uncritical faith in one dogma or another.” Religion certainly is an uncritical faith in dogma, but it is not the only thing that is, and to equate the two is only justified a portion of the time. The true “enemy” in Harris’ thesis is not religion but dogma, and dogma comes in both the religious and non-religious varieties. Harris knows this, and even cites examples throughout the book of non-religious dogmas that cause just as many problems as religious ones, but he sometimes seems a little sloppy with the distinction, as he is in the quotation noted above.
Here’s an interesting case in point:
The response of the Muslim world to the events of September 11, 2001, leaves no doubt that a significant number of human beings in the twenty-first century believe in the possibility of martyrdom. We have, in response to this improbable fact, declared war on “terrorism.” This is rather like declaring war on “murder”; it is a category error that obscures the true cause of our troubles. Terrorism is not a source of human violence, but merely one of its inflections. If Osama bin Laden were the leader of a nation, and the World Trade Center had been brought down with missiles, the atrocities of September 11 would have been acts of war. It should go without saying that we would have resisted the temptation to declare a war on “war” in response.
I very much appreciate the distinction Harris is making here, but he then goes on to argue that we are in fact at war with Islam, not with terrorism. I would correct him only slightly. I believe the war in question is better viewed as one against any kind of dogma that allows something like the belief system of Islam to flourish. Even his proposed solution, although appropriately dealing with the root cause, still refers to it as “religious matters.”
The appropriate response to the bin Ladens of the world is to correct everyone’s reading of these texts by making the same evidentiary demands in religious matters that we make in all others. If we cannot find our way to a time when most of us are willing to admit that, at the very least, we are not sure whether or not God wrote some of our books, then we need only count the days to Armageddon—because God has given us far many more reasons to kill one another than to turn the other cheek.
Yes, we need to hold religious matters to tough evidentiary demands, but we also need to hold non-religious dogma to the same demands. The costs of not doing so are downright scary:
Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything—anything—be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in.
He’s right. That is the world we’re living in. Why do so few people see it that way?
There’s a lot in Harris’ book that just makes me angry. Not angry at Harris, but angry at the world because Harris is so good at describing it in ways that makes my blood boil. Here’s one:
As I have said, people of faith tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence. But I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe. Because most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors. If we would speak of the baseness of our natures, our willingness to live, kill, and die on account of propositions for which we have no evidence should be among the first topics of discussion.
He’s right. It drives me crazy when believers hold their religion up as a bastion of moral belief and action. When the reverse is what is so patently and obviously true. Here’s another:
But religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others. As a consequence of our silence on these matters, we live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of “knowledge” that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy—those whose decision will inevitably affect human life for generations—are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs?
I’m not arguing here for some kind of “knowledge test” in order to become president, and I don’t think Harris is either. But the very idea that we live in a country where a person who conducts their life based on the empirical truths built up over 2,000 years has absolutely no chance of being accepted as a leader over a person who conducts theirs based on the revealed truth of a 2,000 year old book is enough to keep me up at night. And another:
Our president regularly speaks in phrases appropriate to the fourteenth century, and no one seems inclined to find out what words like “God” and “crusade” and “wonder-working power” mean to him. Not only do we still eat the offal of the ancient world; we are positively smug about it. Garry Wills has noted that the Bush White House “is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery.” This should trouble us as much as it troubles the fanatics of the Muslim world. We should be humbled, perhaps to the point of spontaneous genuflection, by the knowledge that the ancient Greeks began to lay their Olympian myths to rest several hundred years before the birth of Christ, whereas we have the likes of Bill Moyers convening earnest gatherings of scholars for the high purpose of determining just how the book of Genesis can be reconciled with life in the modern world. As we stride boldly into the Middle Ages, it does not seem out of place to wonder whether the myths that now saturate our discourse will wind up killing many of us, as the myths of others already have.
Doesn’t this make you angry? Shouldn’t it? As long as the powerful embrace dogma, even the rational will be subservient to it. Harris cites a study that gives our species no more than a 50% chance to survive this century. That is a scary thought. And if we don’t survive, what a sad and sorry epitaph it will be that we killed ourselves over what was written in our books. What we ourselves wrote there and then convinced ourselves was incontrovertibly true. The delusional capacities of our species are truly mammoth.
Harris is a philosopher in the most academic sense of the word, and big parts of this book are all but undecipherable to me as a result. Interesting while I’m reading it, but very little of its winds up sticking inside my head and making any lasting sense. He’s also studying neuroscience and is now building a scientific construction of the brain on his philosophical platform, further complicating my best efforts to understand what he is saying and having a firm opinion about whether he speaks the truth or is full of shit. Let that be a disclaimer for a lot of what follows.
One of his most interesting propositions is that the brain doesn’t really store much knowledge, that a lot of what we think we know or of what we believe is actually constructed “on the fly” when we start thinking about it or, in some cases, when we say it out loud. His analogy is a computer game that doesn’t construct parts of a virtual world until a player in the game moves in a certain direction and demands its existence. Couple that idea with the much more plausible one that we believe most of what we believe about the world because others have told us to and you have an interesting explanation for why some people believe the objectively crazy things that they do. The beliefs are not constructed on any rational foundation in the brain. They are just believed on the spot, sometimes only when the believer speaks them out loud. Harris says:
We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called “mad,” “psychotic,” or “delusional.”
Jesus Christ—who as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?
All this starts to make me angry again.
However far you feel you have fled the parish (even if you are just now adjusting the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope), you are likely to be the product of a culture that has elevated belief, in the absence of evidence, to the highest place in the hierarchy of human virtues.
This is a difficult world for a skeptic to exist in, and it’s thoughts like these that make me want to ensure that my children are raised to always question things objectively. Faith in unjustified beliefs is no longer just stupid. It is downright dangerous.
All pretensions to theological knowledge should now be seen from the perspective of a man who was just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, only to find his meandering thoughts—of family and friends, of errands run and unrun, of coffee in need of sweetener—inexplicably usurped by a choice of terrible starkness and simplicity: between being burned alive by jet fuel or leaping one thousand feet to the concrete below. In fact, we should take the perspective of thousands of such men, women, and children who were robbed of life, far sooner than they imagined possible, in absolute terror and confusion. The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not “cowards,” as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.
This perspective of Harris’—that unjustified belief is the root cause of the world’s ills—is so interesting to me in part because of its ability to redraw so many of the lines of thought that are otherwise unequivocally supported in our American society. For example:
Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their “freedom of belief” on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is practically sacrilege in the corridors of American public policy, but it’s really true, isn’t it? If war comes, it will be a war fought over competing fairy tales, Jewish, Christian and Moslem.
And then there’s all the wonderful things Harris teaches me about the Bible and the information it contains. As a quick appetizer:
If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.
Why would such a perfect God write such an imperfect book? And why, as Harris quips, would he make Shakespeare a far better writer than himself? But here’s the main course:
The writers of Luke and Matthew, for instance, in seeking to make the life of Jesus conform to Old Testament prophecy, insist that Mary conceived as a virgin (Greek parthenos), harking to the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14. Unfortunately for fanciers of Mary’s virginity, the Hebrew word alma (for which parthenos is an erroneous translation) simply means “young woman,” without any implication of virginity. It seems all but certain that the Christian dogma of the virgin birth, and much of the church’s resulting anxiety about sex, was the result of a mistranslation from the Hebrew.
Another strike against the doctrine of the virgin birth is that the other evangelists, Mark and John, seem to know nothing about it—though both appear troubled by accusations of Jesus’ illegitimacy. Paul apparently thinks that Jesus is the son of Joseph and Mary. He refers to Jesus as being “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3—meaning Joseph was his father), and “born of woman” (Galatians 4:4—meaning that Jesus was really human), with no reference to Mary’s virginity.
Mary’s virginity has always been suggestive of God’s attitude toward sex: it is intrinsically sinful, being the mechanism through which original sin was bequeathed to the generations after Adam. It would appear that Western civilization has endured two millennia of consecrated sexual neurosis simply because the authors if Matthew and Luke could not read Hebrew.
This is one of those things whose implications are simply mind-boggling. A fundamental plank of Christianity shattered by an ancient mistranslation? Why aren’t people taught this?
Harris spends some time talking about the Holocaust and, as it is with some frequency in this book, some of his best stuff is in the footnotes.
It has grown fashionable to assert that the true horror of the Holocaust, apart from its scale, was that it was an expression of reason, and that it therefore demonstrates a pathology inherent to the Western Enlightenment tradition. The truth of this assertion is held by many scholars to be self-evident—for no one can deny that technology, bureaucracy, and systematic managerial thinking made the genocidal ambitions of the Third Reich possible. The romantic thesis lurking here is that reason itself has a “shadow side” and is therefore no place to turn for the safeguarding of human happiness. This is a terrible misunderstanding of the situation, however. The Holocaust marked the culmination of German tribalism and two thousand years of Christian fulminating against the Jews. Reason had nothing to do with it. Put a telescope in the hands of a chimpanzee, and if he bashes his neighbor over the head with it, reason’s “shadow side” will have been equally revealed.
As he does above, Harris goes on the make the point that the attempted extermination of the Jews during the Third Reich was fed by and followed a long tradition of anti-Semitism among Christians.
An analysis of prominent anti-Semitic writers and publications from 1861 to 1895 reveals just how murderous the German anti-Semites were inclined to be: fully two-thirds of those that purported to offer “solutions” to the “Jewish problem” openly advocated the physical extermination of the Jews—and this, as [Daniel] Goldhagen points out, was several decades before the rise of Hitler. Indeed, the possibility of exterminating a whole people was considered before “genocide” was even a proper concept, and long before killing on such a massive scale had been shown to be practically feasible in the First and Second World Wars.
And when these crimes against humanity were actually carried out, the dominant Christian religion of the day seemed to have little problem with it.
Goldhagen also reminds us that not a single German Catholic was excommunicated before, during, or after the war, “after committing crimes as great as any in human history.” This is really an extraordinary fact. Throughout this period, the church continued to excommunicate theologians and scholars in droves for holding unorthodox views and to proscribe books by the hundreds, and yet not a single perpetrator of genocide—of whom there were countless examples—succeeded in furrowing Pope Pius XII’s censorious brow.
This seems reprehensible today, but:
When we consider that so few generations had passed since the church left off disemboweling innocent men before the eyes of their families, burning old women alive in public squares, and torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars, it is perhaps little wonder that it failed to think anything had gone terribly amiss in Germany during the war years.
And for those who would defend religion by citing the numerous instances in which European Christians risked their lives to protect the Jews in their midst, Harris has this to say:
The fact that people are sometimes inspired to heroic acts of kindness by the teaching of Christ says nothing about the wisdom or necessity of believing that he, exclusively, was the Son of God. Indeed, we will find that we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to feel compassion for the suffering of others. Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm. Genocidal intolerance, on the other hand, must inevitably find its inspiration elsewhere. Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe? You will find that it is always—always—preposterous.
And here we are back at Harris’ central point, this time made in the proper fashion. Unjustified belief—dogma—not religion per se, is the poison that retards progress and threatens to destroy us all.
Harris also spends a lot of time talking about “The Problem with Islam.” And one of his most cogent points in this regard is essentially that the Islam of today is much like the Christianity of the fourteenth century—and that that comparison cuts both ways. It says not only a lot about how universal intolerance is under whichever dogmatic framework you choose, but also about what Islam can become if it ever decides (or is forced) to modernize and secularize itself.
A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.
Looking at Islam through the lens of the Christian Middle Ages helps explain a lot of what we see in the world today. Such as:
Moderate Islam—really moderate, really critical of Muslim irrationality—scarcely seems to exist. If it does, it is doing as good a job at hiding as moderate Christianity did in the fourteenth century (and for similar reasons).
There is no doubt that our collusion with Muslim tyrants—in Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere—has been despicable. We have done nothing to discourage the mistreatment and outright slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims by their own regimes—regimes that, in many cases, we helped bring to power. Our failure to support the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, which we encouraged, surely ranks among the most unethical and consequential foreign policy blunders of recent decades. But our culpability on this front must be bracketed by the understanding that were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy. There does not seem to be anything within the principles of Islam by which to resist the slide into sharia (Islamic law), while there is everything to encourage it. This is a terrible truth that we have to face: the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect. This situation must be remedied, but we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century.
Harris presents so many things like this when talking about Islam, things that seem counterintuitive but which seem to make sense in the case he is presenting. Here’s another, commenting on how many terrorists are well-educated and middle class:
These facts suggest that even if every Muslim enjoyed a standard of living comparable to that of the average middle-class American, the West might still be in profound danger of colliding with Islam. I suspect that Muslim prosperity might even make matters worse, because the only thing that seems likely to persuade most Muslims that their worldview of problematic is the demonstrable failure of their societies. If Muslim orthodoxy were as economically and technologically viable as Western liberalism, we would probably be doomed to witness the Islamification of the earth.
Another point that Harris makes regarding Islam is how handicapped we are in the West when dealing with it because of our own liberal traditions of moral equivalence. In this regard he states that one of the reasons we blame our own government for the excesses of Muslim terrorists is because we assume that people everywhere are animated by the same desires and fears. In this regard, we are not dissimilar from the French Socialists of the 1930s who blamed their own government and defense industry for warmongering as the Nazis were crusading across Europe. In response to this style of hand-wringing, Harris argues:
It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. We might even conceive of our moral differences in just these terms: not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth.
And, I’ll add, what retards the growth of moral wealth? Dogma. What advances it? Freethought. Indeed, Harris later in this chapter says:
What constitutes a civil society? At minimum, it is a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without the risk of physical violence. If you live in a land where certain things cannot be said about the king, or about an imaginary being, or about certain books, because such utterances carry the penalty of death, torture, or imprisonment, you do not live in a civil society.
To me, this should be the new test for membership in the United Nations. I’ve always considered it a joke that we use the same word—“nation” or “country”—to describe political entities as different as the United States of America and North Korea. But let’s get back to this myth of moral equivalence.
Wherever there are facts of any kind to be known, one thing is certain: not all people will discover them at the same time or understand them equally well. Conceding this leaves but a short step to hierarchical thinking of a sort that is at present inadmissible in most liberal discourse. Wherever there are right and wrong answers to important questions, there will be better or worse ways to get those answers, and better or worse ways to put them to use. Take child rearing as an example: How can we keep children free from disease? How can we raise them to be happy and responsible members of society? There are undoubtedly both good and bad answers to questions of this sort, and not all belief systems and cultural practices will be equally suited to bringing the good ones to light. This is not to say that there will always be only one right answer to every question, or a single, best way to reach every specific goal. But given the inescapable specificity of our world, the range of optimal solutions to any problem will generally be quite limited. While there might not be one best food to eat, we cannot eat stones—and any culture that would make stone eating a virtue, or a religious precept, will suffer mightily for want of nourishment (and teeth). It is inevitable, therefore, that some approaches to politics, economics, science, and even spirituality and ethics will be objectively better than their competitors (by any measure of “better” we might wish to adopt), and gradations here will translate into very real differences in human happiness.
So, in other words, Practice A based on Belief B may not be equivalent to Practice C based on Belief D. That seems obvious, but that’s clearly not the way many of us think or conduct our lives.
In response to the fight over Ten Commandment monuments in many areas of the country:
One wonders whether [Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy] Moore, [Attorney General John] Ashcroft, the U.S. Congress, and three-quarters of the American people would like to see the punishments for breaking these hallowed commandments also specified in marble and placed in our nation’s courts. What, after all, is the punishment for taking the Lord’s name in vain? It happens to be death (Leviticus 24:16). What is the punishment for working on the Sabbath? Also death (Exodus 31:15). What is the punishment for cursing one’s father or mother? Death again (Exodus 21:17). What is the punishment for adultery? You’re catching on (Leviticus 20:10). While the commandments themselves are difficult to remember (especially since chapters 20 and 34 of Exodus provide us with incompatible lists), the penalty for breaking them is simplicity itself.
Another major section of the book addresses the idiocy, as Harris sees it, of “The War on Sin,” or the laws we have on the books against experiencing certain kinds of pleasure. One of his essential points in this section is as follows:
To see that our laws against “vice” have actually nothing to do with keeping people from coming to physical or psychological harm, and everything to do with not angering God, we need only consider that oral and anal sex between consenting adults remains a criminal offense in thirteen states.
And that leads directly into Harris’ rather lengthy attack on anti-marijuana laws.
The fact that people are being prosecuted and imprisoned for using marijuana, while alcohol remains a staple commodity, is surely the reductio ad absurdum of any notion that our drug laws are designed to keep people from harming themselves or others. Alcohol is by any measure the more dangerous substance. It has no approved medical use, and its lethal dose is rather easily achieved. Its role in causing automobile accidents is beyond dispute. The manner in which alcohol relieves people of their inhibitions contributes to human violence, personal injury, unplanned pregnancy, and the spread of sexual disease. Alcohol is also well known to be addictive. When consumed in large quantities over many years, it can lead to devastating neurological impairments, to cirrhosis of the liver, and to death. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people annually die from its use. It is also more toxic to a developing fetus than any other drug of abuse. (Indeed, “crack babies” appear to have been really suffering from fetal-alcohol syndrome.) None of these charges can be leveled at marijuana. As a drug, marijuana is nearly unique in having several medical applications and no known lethal dosage. While adverse reactions to drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen account for an estimated 7,600 deaths (and 76,000 hospitalizations) each year in the United States alone, marijuana kills no one. Its role as a “gateway drug” now seems less plausible than ever (and it was never plausible). In fact, nearly everything human beings do—driving cars, flying planes, hitting golf balls—is more dangerous than smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home. Anyone who would seriously attempt to argue that marijuana is worthy of prohibition because of the risk it poses to human beings will find that the powers of the human brain are simply insufficient for the job.
That’s some powerful stuff. Direct assertions with the footnotes to back them up (although I didn’t choose to show them for sake of brevity). And a point of view I suppose I had access to but never really explored before. And it’s not as though Harris is arguing for the repeal of anti-marijuana laws (although I’m sure he would be perfectly happy if that ever happened). No, Harris’ larger point is that marijuana and other drugs are criminalized because our society’s fear of angering some non-existent god. As he says:
Under our current laws, it is safe to say, if a drug were invented that posed no risk of physical harm or addiction to its users but produced a brief feeling of spiritual bliss and epiphany in 100 percent of those who tried it, this drug would be illegal, and people would be punished mercilessly for its use. Only anxiety about the biblical crime of idolatry would appear to make sense of this retributive impulse. Because we are a people of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power.
As I've said once before, some of the richest parts of Harris’ book come in the footnotes. Here’s one:
In many states, a person who has been merely accused of a drug crime can have his property seized, and those who informed against him can be rewarded with up to 25 percent of its value. The rest of these spoils go to police departments, which now rely upon such property seizures to meet their budgets. This is precisely the arrangement of incentives that led to this sort of corruption during the Inquisition (if one can even speak of such a process as being “corrupted”). Like the heretic, the accused drug offender has no hope but to trade information for a reduced sentence. The person who can’t (or won’t) implicate others inevitably faces punishments of fantastical severity.
I love this comparison—drug agents as inquisitors. It has affected my thinking on drug use in this country, and I’m not sure I’ll ever look at the subject the same way again.
And Harris doesn’t stop there. He is scalpel-sharp with another attack on the War on Drugs. It actually aids terrorists.
A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Shining Path, and others.
Their money is drug money, but Harris’ point goes deeper than that.
Even is we acknowledge that stopping drug use is a justifiable social goal, how does the financial cost of our war on drugs appear in light of the other challenges we face? Consider that it would require only a onetime expenditure of $2 billion to secure our commercial seaports against smuggled nuclear weapons. At present we have allocated a mere $93 million for this purpose. How will our prohibition of marijuana use look (this comes at a cost of $4 billion annually) if a new sun ever dawns over the port of Los Angeles?
If these numbers are true, they are absolutely shocking. I, for one, would rather spend money to secure our ports than to criminalize marijuana. It is astonishing to contemplate the havoc wracked in our society purely out of a desire to stop someone else from getting high. What kind of world would we live in if we were all free to get stoned everyday if we chose to? How many of us would do so? Would the world be a better or worse place as a result? Are you sure?
Another of Harris’ key points is well summarized by the following two paragraphs, referring to the Islamic practice of a man killing his daughter if she is raped as a way of protecting his honor.
What can we say about this behavior? Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? Of course, we can. And what is truly incredible about the state of our discourse is that such a claim is not only controversial but actually unutterable in most contexts.
Any culture that raises men and boys to kill unlucky girls, rather than comfort them, is a culture that has managed to retard the growth of love. Such societies, of course, regularly fail to teach their inhabitants many other things—like how to read. Not learning how to read is not another style of literacy, and not learning to see others as ends in themselves is not another style of ethics. It is a failure of ethics.
How refreshing is this? To hear someone talk about moral absolutism—the idea that some things are just plain right and other things just plain wrong (or, in Harris’ preferred idiom, some things are actually more right than others)—and to have the basis of that absolutism not be God but rationality and scientific revelation? Seems to me that there are better ways of living than others, better ways of treating one another than others, and using observation and the scientific method may very well be the best idea anyone has ever had.
And Harris continues to explore this idea of scientifically-defined moral absolutism. He spends a lot of time talking about the morality of torture, and whether injury to an individual can ever be justified in order to prevent injury to another individual or a larger group. Two points to be made here, one building on the other to an almost fantastical conclusion. The first:
The difference between killing one man and killing a thousand just doesn’t seem as salient to us as it should. And, as [Jonathan] Glover observes, in many cases we will find the former far more disturbing. Three million souls can be starved and murdered in the Congo, and our Argus-eyed media scarcely blink. When a princess dies in a car accident, however, a quarter of the earth’s population falls prostrate with grief. Perhaps we are unable to feel what we must feel in order to change our world.
Harris is right. Killing one person often seems more disturbing to us than the killing of millions. But he goes on to explore the reasons why this is, and as a result comes to one on his most startling conclusions. Harris says:
Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust, for most readers.
He has discovered what he calls an “ethical illusion,” and compares it to the “optical illusion” of how the full moon looks bigger on the horizon that it does high in the sky.
Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances would seem to be not only permissible but necessary. Still, it does not seem any more acceptable, in ethical terms, than it did before. The reasons for this are, I trust, every bit as neurological as those that give rise to the moon illusion. In fact, there is already some scientific evidence that our ethical intuitions are driven by considerations of proximity and emotional salience of the sort I addressed above. Cleary, these intuitions are fallible. In the present case, many innocent lives could well be lost as a result of our inability to feel a moral equivalence where a moral equivalence seems to exist.
In other words, what we think is moral and what actually is moral are two different things, and Sam Harris can prove it scientifically and without injecting God into the equation. If that doesn’t blow your mind I don’t know what will.
Harris concludes his book with a chapter called “Experiments in Consciousness,” which, I have to admit, was all but indecipherable to me. But here’s one of the few passages that struck me.
The experience of countless contemplatives suggests that consciousness—being merely the condition in which thought, emotion, and even our sense of self arises—is never actually changed by what it knows. That which is aware of joy does not become joyful; that which is aware of sadness does not become sad. From the point of view of consciousness, we are merely aware of sights, sounds, sensations, moods, and thoughts. Many spiritual teachings allege that of we can recognize our identity as consciousness itself, as the mere witness of appearances, we will realize that we stand perpetually free of the vicissitudes of experience.
Perhaps this will help me sleep at night whenever I’m feeling anxious. After all, I’m not really anxious. I’m just the thing that’s aware of the anxiousness. And, I suppose, if I don’t eat for a week I won’t really be hungry. I’ll just be the thing that is aware of the hunger. I wonder how much that separation will matter when I die of starvation?
The rest of the chapter tries to weave an argument for some kind of mysticism based on rationalism. And it’s not so much that I feel the need to argue with Harris’ conjecture here as I feel the need for a glossary to help understand some of the terminology he uses in making his points. At the very end of the chapter he says this:
A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.
And I guess I can agree with that.
Finally, here are some random bits from Harris which are just too good not to jot down:
We can also say that every human achievement prior to the twentieth century was accomplished by men and women who were perfectly ignorant of the molecular basis of life. Does this suggest that a nineteenth-century view of biology would have been worth maintaining?
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It is time we recognized that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us, and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself.
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There will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain. Just as defects in color vision can result from genetic and developmental disorders, problems can undoubtedly arise in our ethical and emotional circuitry as well. To say that a person is “color-blind” or “achromatopsic” is now a straightforward statement about the state of the visual pathways in his brain, while to say that he is “an evil sociopath” or “lacking in moral fiber” seems hopelessly unscientific. This will almost certainly change.
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Credit goes to Christopher Hitchens for distilling, in a single phrase, a principle of discourse that could well arrest our slide toward the abyss: “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Let us pray that billions of us soon agree with him.
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As we have seen, religion is one of the great limiters of moral identity, since most believers differentiate themselves, in moral terms, from those who do not share their faith. No other ideology is so eloquent on the subject of what divides one moral community from another. Once a person accepts the premises upon which most religious identities are built, the withdrawal of his moral concern from those who do not share these premises follows quite naturally.
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Religious violence is still with us because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests are restraining the most lethal improprieties of faith. It is time we acknowledged that no real foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity.
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People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.