Harris – “The End of Faith” – Humanist Society – 11/20/2004
Published in the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara “Secular Circular” December 2004 Issue
by Robert Bernstein
Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”, opened his talk at Santa Barbara City College with some interesting statistics:
· 80% of Americans believe that Jesus rose literally to heaven.
· 22% are sure that he will return within the next 50 years.
· Another 22% think he probably will return in the next 50 years.
This is in contrast to:
· 28% of Americans who believe in evolution.
Harris gave examples of the use of religious and faith language by our elected officials and how it is taken for granted and never challenged. When Mr Bush says that “freedom is a gift from God,” Harris asks how this is different from saying “freedom is a gift from Poseidon”.
Harris’ main thesis is the irrationality and damage done by religious moderates. He argues that their views are inaccurate and logically inconsistent and, worse, that they provide the safe cover for the truly destructive beliefs of religions.
Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father, but through Me." Tolerance is logically impossible for a Christian who truly believes what Jesus says.
Furthermore, their religion teaches that sinners are punished with eternal damnation. Hence, it is rational to believe that a heretic is worse than a child molester since he is spreading ideas that will lead to the worst possible consequences. It was rational to have burned heretics and that is why Augustine’s teachings directly led to the Inquisition.
Tolerance of peoples’ personal religious beliefs has real world consequences. People with fundamentalist views vote and get elected. The personal and private becomes public policy for the most powerful country on Earth. Fundamentalists truly believe that a mushroom cloud over Israel signals a wonderful time ahead.
He reminds us that Reagan was the one to bring the Armageddon people like Hal Lindsey and Jerry Falwell into the core of government. (Walter Mondale pointed out in the 1984 debates that Reagan spent more time each week with the Armageddon people than with his own cabinet members. Reagan’s only response was that it was his right to do so.)
Religious moderates claim that all religions are the same at the core and preach love and unity. This is a dangerous lie, Harris says. Jainists in India believe that all killing is wrong and sweep the ground in front of them to avoid stepping on insects. Fundamentalist Jainists are not going to do global terror.
“Bad people will do bad things anyway due to poverty and ignorance” is another moderate myth. Suicide bombers tend to be well educated and not the poorest of their peers. Look at Bin Laden.
Moderation is not a part of religious traditions. The God of the Old Testament never rescinds barbarism. Slavery is not condemned and Jesus simply advises how to treat slaves properly.
It was secular politics and discussion that ended slavery. Following the Bible never would have. Religions don’t edit themselves, though moderates do provide space for secular ideas to enter the religions.
As a result, we no longer accept prayer as accepted treatment for a sick child and parents can be prosecuted if they withhold proper treatment.
Regarding moral values in the election, “suffering” is the only issue for Harris. Gay marriage causes no suffering but banning it does. There are real issues like the unsecured nuclear weapons in the former USSR that are lost in the “moral” debate.
“The soul enters the body at conception” is taken as fact. Stem cells come from 3-day-old blastocysts of 150 cells. A housefly’s brain has 100,000 cells. Yet blocking this research causes real suffering.
The First Amendment cannot wall off such illogic. If there is a god who is unhappy with gay marriage, this is a fact that should be determined!
The war on drugs occupies 50% of the courts. Drug abuse is a medical matter not a moral one.
People do want to know the truth and it always replaces faith when available. He compares to someone’s belief in a refrigerator-sized diamond in his yard digging for it every Sunday.
He closed his talk claiming that some religions really are worse than others. He claims that the black box of a terrorist-downed airplane is almost certain to have the words “Allah is great” shouted out. He says for all of the mistreatment of Palestinians, there are not Christian suicide bombers. For all of the mistreatment of Tibetans by the Chinese, the worst fear of the Tibetan monks was that they might come to hate their torturer. We don’t have to “respect the beliefs of others” when those beliefs cause harm.
He then took a number of questions.
He was asked whether people say they have beliefs rather than actually having them. He said that moderates don’t accept that people really do believe the crazy things that are in their religions. People who crash planes into buildings really do believe.
The Koran prescribes horrible treatment for infidels and says tolerant things in a few places. If you become a Muslim and decide five minutes later to leave Islam, the penalty is death.
Faith has survival value for itself. So does rape, but it is not good.
When asked about the Founding Fathers he said they did not know biology (or modern cosmology) so their beliefs should not be taken as sacred either.
When asked if the murder of Theo Van Gogh scared him, he said he would fear for his safety in Europe but feels reasonably safe in the US. Europe is becoming Muslim and France will soon have a Muslim majority.
He pointed out that the Arab world has translated as much literature since the 9th century as Spain translates every year. Intellectual isolation breeds war rather than a war of ideas.
When asked about the harm done by secular tyrants like Pol Pot or Stalin, he said their beliefs are a form of religion as well and are subject to the same warnings he makes about other religions.
Harris may not have said anything new for many of us, but he had the courage to speak it in public and that may make all the difference! Perhaps it will give us to give courage to do the same!