Interview: Five Questions with Sam Harris

© John C. Snider 2007

[This interview originally appeared in 2005 in The Eudaimonist, the official newsletter of the Atlanta-based Fellowship of Reason.  Harris published his Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006.]

Sam Harris is a Stanford-based philosopher, doctoral candidate in neuroscience, and author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (W.W. Norton, 2004, ISBN 0393035158), a frank, uncompromising, sometimes politically incorrect, and often blatantly angry book in which he argues that religious faith is incompatible with the goals of human happiness and societal stability. Although Harris reserves his most scathing comments for “fundamentalist” Islam, he is also critical of the West; Harris maintains that in the process of domesticating Christianity, the largely secular West has also created a mindset that makes challenging a person’s “faith” – however irrational – virtually taboo. Critics suggest that Harris oversells his case, exaggerates his arguments, and conveniently ignores data that might tend to disprove his claims. For example, Harris readily blames a number of historical ills (like war) on religion, yet waves aside religion’s humanitarian achievements, asserting that people can find plenty of reasons to do good without the catalyst of faith. He even makes such provocative statements as “Some propositions are so dangerous it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” (Readers are advised to consider this in the book’s greater context.)

Nearly as controversial as his stark assessment of faith’s effect on the 21st century is Harris’s prescription for a better future – in addition to the usual call to put all belief systems to the same rational litmus test, he advocates further exploration of Eastern “mystical” traditions, pointing to their potential introspective benefits and traditions of peaceful coexistence. Unfortunately, Harris doesn’t spend enough time on this topic to explain to the satisfaction of most rationally-minded Westerners how Eastern mysticism can be reconciled with the the rigors of science – but surely open minds will not reject off-hand this novel suggestion without further inquiry.

Love him or hate him, Harris is a man confident in his conclusions and crystal clear in making his case. Learn more about Sam Harris and The End of Faith on his official website.

Q: What got you interested in neuroscience, and how has your study of it affected your philosophical outlook?

Sam Harris: I actually came to my interest in neuroscience through philosophy. During my study of philosophy at Stanford, I found that most philosophers of mind were waiting for the neuroscientists to tell them what was really going on in the brain. I decided that I wanted to get a handle on the details myself. Clearly, any full description of what we are as human beings — including our spiritual possibilities — must now include a description of how the brain works.

Q: Although you don’t mention it explicitly in The End of Faith, it seems fairly clear that you’re no fan of “non-overlapping magisteria”, the phrase coined by the late Stephen Jay Gould to describe the idea that religion and science need not be in conflict. Do you see any way in which these two human endeavors can co-exist productively?

Sam Harris: No. There is only one magisteria. Whatever is true, ultimately, is what should guide our behavior and our thinking about the world. If there really is a God who hates homosexuals, we should want to know this. Needless to say, if such a God exists, we would not want to anger Him, and we should not tolerate gay marriage. If such a God is a figment of our Iron Age imagination, however, we should not accommodate the irrational concerns of those who persist in believing in Him without evidence. One can’t have it both ways. The facts really matter. All we can do is proceed on the basis of the most rational and non-dogmatic appraisal of the evidence. Such an appraisal suggests, of course, that the books like the Bible and Koran were written by men and women like ourselves.

Q: Fundamentalist Islam seems irreversibly entrenched in a huge swath of the world, with new generations of children being indoctrinated every year. Given this reality, how on earth will it be possible to reverse that trend and create a “reason friendly” culture in any practical timeframe?

Sam Harris: I am not hopeful about this, but I agree that it is necessary. It seems that moderate Muslims (wherever they are) must win a war of ideas (or a war) with their coreligionists. How such a process of reformation will get underway when we are mired in our own pietistic ignorance is anybody’s guess. (Twenty-two percent of Americans claim to be certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years; another 22 percent think he probably will.)

Q: You make an amazing statement in The End of Faith: “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Faith is not.” Can you explain this for a non-religious audience?

Sam Harris: Mysticism, as I define it, is simply a rigorous method of introspection – one which aims at the deliberate transformation of a person’s perception of the world. There is nothing irrational about such a practice. One does not have to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to run such an experiment on oneself. One can practice meditation, for instance, without believing anything preposterous about the world. Religion, on the other hand, is little more than the unabashed embrace of the preposterous.

Q: If you were to outline a successful reason-based lifestyle, what would its four or five main attributes be?

Sam Harris: I think one attribute will suffice: intellectual honesty. One should not claim to be certain about things no one cannot be certain about. One’s convictions should scale with the evidence. This precept alone would level all of our faiths, along with the faith-based identities that have Balkanized our world into separate moral communities: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc. It is time we started talking sense to one another – because only rational conversation, only a willingness to have our beliefs modified by new evidence and new arguments, guarantees open-ended collaboration among us. The respect we accord to religious dogma is antithetical to such open-ended collaboration. Faith is a conversation stopper. Now that people are flying planes into our buildings over theological grievances, it is time we realized this.

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