I’m simply saying that believing propositions on bad evidence is
never a good idea. If there were sufficient reasons to believe Jesus will be
returning to earth like a superhero, this belief would form part of our
rational, scientific worldview. Of course, there are no good reasons to believe
this, but this hasn’t kept a majority of Americans from watching the skies in
the hopes that the savior the world will soon arrive. In fact, 44% of Americans
believe that Jesus will return sometime in the next fifty years.
Apocalyptic beliefs of this sort actually have political, economic, and
environmental consequences. And yet they are based purely on religious
dogma. Dogmatism is dangerous because it is intrinsically
divisive—these ideas aren’t rationally held, so they can’t be
rationally discussed—and it uncouples people from the events in the
world that should actually inform their beliefs. Religious dogmatism
impedes medical research, starts wars, diverts scarce material and
intellectual resources—in short, it gets people killed. What most
people call “faith” (in the religious sense of the word) is nothing but
a willingness to accept religious dogma uncritically. I am definitely
arguing that we have to transcend this impulse.
But the truth is, I’m either right or wrong about Christianity, and about faith
generally. If I’m wrong, someone should be able to demonstrate this. If I’m
right, anyone who is attached to Christianity will feel uncomfortable reading my
book. There is really not much room to finesse these issues. I am hardest on
fundamentalists, but there is no question that religious liberals and moderates
are guilty of a terrific amount of wishful thinking—about God, about the world,
and even about religious fundamentalists.
There isn’t any public discourse about religion as far as I can tell. There is
only a pervasive unwillingness to offend anyone’s religious convictions. It
seems to me, however, that the stakes are now so high that we really must be
rigorously honest with ourselves. Competing religious certainties have shattered
our world, unnecessarily. And these divisions have become a perennial source of
human conflict. Religious beliefs also cause people to think badly—or not to
think at all—about questions of immense social importance.
I’ve always been an atheist in the sense that I never acquired a belief in a
personal God. But it wasn’t until September 11th, 2001—when people started
flying planes into our buildings thinking they would get to paradise, and our
own society began to further anesthetize itself with religious myths—that I
realized that I had to speak about the problem of religious faith.
There is no way around the fact that I’m advocating a certain kind of
intolerance, but it is not political intolerance. I’m not saying that people
should be jailed for their religious beliefs. I am saying, however, that certain
beliefs are so lacking in merit that there should be no question of our
“respecting” them. People who claim to be certain about things they cannot be
certain about should meet resistance in our discourse. This happens quite
naturally on every subject but religion. For instance, a person who believes
that Elvis is still alive is very unlikely to get promoted to a position of
great power and responsibility in our society. Neither will a person who
believes that the holocaust was a hoax. But people who believe equally
irrational things about God and the bible are now running our country. This is
genuinely terrifying. We must find a way of criticizing and marginalizing bad
ideas, even when they come under the cloak of religion.
Most of the people in my immediate circle already had their doubts
about God. But many did not recognize the role that religion still
plays as a source of conflict in our world. It is quite amazing to
read the newspaper keeping in mind the question, “Does religion have
anything to do with this…?” There are days where literally half of the
news, all of it bad, is the direct product of what people believe about
God. Many of my friends and readers seem to have grown increasingly
amazed by the mad work that religion is doing in our world.
Sam Harris, regarding his new book.