Sam Harris on the Evil of Religion

Sam Harris was one of the famous “four horsemen” of “new atheist” writers (along with Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens). He’s actually not materialist enough for me. Reviewing his Waking Up, about meditation, I was repelled by so much mystical moonshine in it.

He published Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. I wasn’t keen to read it, not expecting to learn anything. But a copy came my way. It’s bracingly straight talk about religion’s malign influence on human life.

So powerful is Harris’s argument that I was struck with the thought that if a religious believer would just read this — really read it, let it sink in, test their beliefs against it — they’d surely be convinced. Yet I know nobody ever does that.

So deeply is the worm of religious belief nested in many brains that it’s not easily extracted. I heard John Compere relate how, as a Baptist preacher, he rehearsed a sermon about all non-Christians burning in Hell. Suddenly he stopped and asked himself, can this possibly be true? That epiphany wound up unraveling the whole thing for him — he related this at a humanist conference. For many people, a little doubt is like a crack in a dam, starting them down a long torturous path before the scales do finally fall from their eyes.

But it can be sped up by reading Harris’s little book. It’s only 91 pages — small ones — with big print and wide margins. It wastes no words and pulls no punches.

One point is glaringly obvious. How can any thoughtful religious believer get past the simple fact that billions of people believe with equal fervor in very different faiths? Like Hindus with their vast pantheon of gods that might seem laughably ridiculous — to non-Hindus. How can you be so certain your faith is true and all the rest are false? It seems intellectual arrogance to an insane degree.

No doubt some will jeer, “Ha ha, you’re just as guilty, believing in atheism against all other faiths.” That common trope is fundamentally wrong. Atheism is not a faith. It’s the absence of any. It doesn’t entail “believing” in anything. (As Steven Pinker has said, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”)

Another false notion smashed by Harris is that great evils have been perpetrated by “atheist” regimes: Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, etc. Hitler actually professed Christianity. But all such regimes were really religions in other guises, worshipping state power as their god, with ideologies mirroring religion in all their messianic pretensions and millennial bombast. This certainly characterizes Putin’s regime, folding Russia’s Orthodox Church into what sounds a lot like a religionistic crusade apotheosizing a cult of Russian culture and power — to justify the deranged horror unleashed upon Ukraine.

So much evil in the world has been connected, in one way or another, with religion. Life would be so much nicer without it.

Says Harris: “The problem with religion — as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology — is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”

At the heart of any debate about religion is morality. This is indeed central to Harris’s book, and he’s crystal clear about it.

A religionist might say morality is embodied in the will of God. But what could that actually mean? Suppose, for sake of argument, that God exists. Why would he create human beings (and other creatures) with capabilities for suffering and other feelings? That would have to imply some meaning to such feelings. And while God may or may not be real, suffering is certainly all too real. Thus suffering is morally consequential regardless of God.

Yet religion divorces morality from realities of suffering and other feelings that sentient beings experience. This is exemplified in the disgraceful Book of Job. His undeserved sufferings are related as though he were an unfeeling object — not to mention the sufferings of his children who were killed, and of people who loved them. God thought he was making it all okay by ultimately compensating Job. What a moral ass.

Religion’s divorcement of morality from realities of human feelings is nowhere more obvious than regarding sex. That divorcement is total. Christianity’s notions about sex are rooted in the Bible, reflecting the preoccupations of an iron-age society where women were literally property, jealously hoarded, for their sole value in procreation. With considerations of their human suffering or joys irrelevant. This so messes up heads about sex that Christians even feel a little dirty doing it in marriage. Harris says you’re “not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex.” (His emphasis.)

Talk about suffering: meantime the Catholic Church is a nest of child molesters, their enablers, and their cover-up masters. Yet congregants nod piously when these frauds preach about “morality.”

In most European nations, belief in God, Heaven and Hell, redemption through Jesus, and all that nonsense, has fallen almost to zero. Simply because people are getting too smart for such fairy tales. And those European societies have not become cesspools of immorality. On most such measures they do a lot better than the God-crazy United States. (Where, moreover, less god-ridden states do better than the Bible belt.)

Harris’s book is too small to cover all the myriad ways religious belief flouts the manifest reality of the cosmos and human existence. But the basic point comes through loud and clear: you cannot live an authentically meaningful and moral life while laboring under fundamental delusions about those realities. We coddle such delusions only because they’re so widespread. If just a few were preaching Christianity’s preposterous doctrines, they’d be considered lunatics.


2 Responses to “Sam Harris on the Evil of Religion”

  1. Lee Says:

    There are people who use religion for evil and those who use it for good. For example, Jimmy Carter is a religious person who works for good. I am somewhat areligious, but I respect anyone who works for good, regardless of whether their motivation is religious or areligious.

  2. David Lettau Says:

    I find Harris’s first two books,—The end of faith and Letter to a Christian nation—to be enjoyable polemics. His later books less so. But these two books are valuable contributions against the pernicious nonsense are culture is rife with. I too like to point out to people who tell me that you can’t be moral without direction and support of imaginary supernatural entities that there are countries in Western Europe that have impressive majorities of non-believers that are far more peaceful and law- abiding than countries where religious belief is central to their culture

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