How Not to Believe in God: Sam Harris

By Sam Harris

I’d like to thank Annie Laurie and Dan for the invitation to speak, and for organizing this. It’s great to see you all here.

After The End of Faith was published, I received a torrent of correspondence, mostly e-mails. Because I had the good fortune to publish this book in a country where 83% of the people believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, much of this correspondence was negative, although not most of it. I think many of you would assume that most of my e-mail is angry. It’s not that at all. But much of it communicated a level of righteous anger that one doesn’t often associate with the state of ideals of Christianity.

I started to respond to these e-mails, and developed several form letters for this purpose. I have a Muslim form letter–which will be no surprise to you who have read The End of Faith. But I went to school on the responses that I got to the Christian form letter, and I realized one day that I could write the mother of all form letters, a very short book, and that became my second book, Letter to a Christian Nation.

I’m going to speak tonight about some of the arguments that religious people, and Christians in particular, put forward in defense of their religious beliefs. It turns out there are not a thousand ways to defend God, there are rather few, and these are arguments I take up in my Letter to a Christian Nation.

First I want to describe how I view our current situation in the world. Eighty-seven percent of Americans claim to have no doubt whatsoever in the existence of a personal god. Fifty-three percent believe the universe is 6,000 years old and that we have no genetic precursors in the natural world, apart from Adam and Eve. Intelligent Design, which we’ve all heard a lot about, is a bit of a red herring, in fact, because according to the last Gallup poll, 53% of Americans are creationists. In 2005, a survey was done in 34 countries, trying to assess the level of belief in evolution, and the United States came in 33rd place, just above Turkey.

This is embarrassing. But when you add to this comedy of false certainties the fact that 44% of us think that Jesus is going to come back in our lifetime–22% claim to be certain of this, another 22% think he probably will–you see there’s a really terrible liability with this kind of belief. These beliefs are knit together with a variety of beliefs about the end of the world, and about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. What I would argue to you is that they are really incompatible with preparing a durable future for our civilization.

It really is not an exaggeration to say that 44% of Americans are eagerly anticipating the end of the world. It’s very difficult for us to accept that our neighbors actually believe this stuff, and I’m going to talk about that in a second, but this has been polled ad nauseam. Consider an institution like Patrick Henry College. This is a little school that was started six years ago. It’s got 240-250 students. It is a kind of feeder school for home-schooled Christian kids to get into government. All the kids who matriculate at Patrick Henry sign a declaration of faith, which reads: “Anyone who dies outside of Christ will be confined in conscious torment for eternity.” This apparently is the most important thing to have in your brain if you’re going to run the U.S. government in the 21st century. Patrick Henry places more interns in the White House than any other university in the United States. More than Harvard, more than Princeton, more than Yale.

In 2004, the Christian Coalition gave 42 of the 100 U.S. senators perfect scores, which meant they implemented the Christian right’s position on every question of importance. So one does not have to be paranoid to see the makings of a stealth theocracy in this country.

Yes, and it’s not so stealthy, is it?


The lines were long as FFRFers waited to get their copies of Sam Harris books signed.
Photo by Brent Nicastro

We have to realize that people really hold these beliefs. Perhaps you noticed in the recent conflict between Israel and her neighbors, we were inundated with earnest speculation in the press about whether this was a portent that the end of days are upon us. CNN ran three separate hours about this in the span of a week. Nowhere in these broadcasts did a journalist point out the obvious, or what should have been obvious–that this viewing of current events through the lens of biblical prophecy is completely illegitimate, dangerous, and potentially self-fulfilling.

We are not talking about the lunatic fringe. Many of these people are lunatics, of course, but they are not on the fringe of our society. We’re talking about megachurch pastors who have congregations in the tens of thousands. We’re talking about organizations that have operating budgets in the tens of millions of dollars a year, and some of them in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

We’re talking about organizations like Christians United for Israel, which is lobbying the administration at this moment to take a very hard line with Iran, for biblical reasons. We may want to take a very hard line with Iran, of course, but it’s not going to help to have the religious maniacs on our own side pushing us there.

So we’re quite literally talking about grown men and women who are expecting to be raptured into the sky by Jesus. And yet, if you can believe it, the picture is actually bleaker in the Muslim world. In the Muslim world, we are meandering into a conflict on a hundred fronts, with 1.4 billion people, a significant percentage of whom view every question of political or moral significance through the lens of Islam. Which is to say they are going to side with other Muslims in their conflicts with nonMuslims, no matter how sociopathic their behavior, simply because they’re Muslims.

Many people in our own society, many people who should know better, such as our fellow secularists, are inclined to apologize for this situation, imagining that all of the conflict in the Muslim world are born of our misadventures and our incompetence and our greed. We have a lot to apologize for, but as those of you who’ve read The End of Faith know, I think this is a very dangerous misunderstanding of our circumstance. It is a dangerous misunderstanding even if you admit that Iraq has been a catastrophe, as I think it has been. There’s no question that there are enemies we have made in Iraq. But there are enemies there whom we have not made. And many of the enemies we have made, we have made on the basis of their theology.

I see faith playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game. The greatest problem with the rest of us, the secularists and the moderates, is that it’s very difficult for us to believe that people actually believe this stuff. We are very bad at appreciating just how far gone religious literalists are. Religious moderates simply declare that fundamentalism is a perversion of the faith, that it is faith gone awry, that the problem is not faith, the problem is fundamentalism. This provides cover for religious extremism. Moderates will not allow us to criticize faith itself, the willingness to believe things strongly on bad evidence.

I’d like to talk about why I think we are in this situation, why people believe what they believe, and why Christians, specifically, believe what they believe, and how people rise to the defense of God. There are really only two ways to do this. People either argue that the religious doctrines are true, or they argue they’re useful, and they generally do both of these things without distinguishing between them. It’s useful to separate these arguments, however.

First, let’s consider this claim that any religious doctrine is true, specifically the doctrine of Christianity. If you’re a Christian, you’re going to argue there are good reasons to believe Jesus was born of a virgin, that the bible is the word of God, and many Christians do argue this. They’ll say, “The tomb was empty on the third day. How do you explain that?” Or, “Many of the disciples saw Jesus walking around after the crucifixion. That is a miracle, that is proof positive that he was the son of God.” Or in another mode, also very common, they will invoke this notion of prophecy and its confirmation. The idea is that events in the New Testament confirm Old Testament prophecy. Of course, these are bad arguments. For instance, in the book of Micah, chapter 5, it says that the Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem, and then–lo and behold!–in Matthew, chapter 2, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. This is rather like events in the first volume of The Lord of the Rings being confirmed by events in the third volume.

But what I want you to recognize is that this reliance on prophecy is an argument. It is an attempt to argue for the validity of these beliefs. It is an effort to say these beliefs are true within some rational framework. In this sense, religious people really are functioning like bad scientists. They have beliefs which they think map on to the world. They think their religious beliefs are true. This is why specific religious doctrines have to be argued against. If we have good reason to believe it’s raining outside, we are not free suddenly to believe it’s not raining. Some intrusion of evidence or argument is necessary.

It’s this first mode of arguing in defense of God–the notion that religious beliefs are true–that inevitably puts religion on a collision course with science. These are beliefs held on bad evidence. They purport to describe the world the way every scientific description does, but they’re not rising to the standard of evidence that we require of science or rationality generally. If you believe, for instance, that the American Civil War was a hoax, or you believe it happened in 1920, you have to have good reason or you’re going to be thought a lunatic. We change the rules of the game once we talk about the divine origin of certain books. We have a fundamental double standard here. We never respect stupidity in our society unless it is religious stupidity.

This is what I think is so dangerous about religion. It actually allows people by the millions–perfectly sane, perfectly intelligent people–to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own, because the mode of discourse is systematically sheltered from criticism. If you wake up tomorrow morning believing that saying a few Latin words over your breakfast cereal is going to change it into the body of Julius Caesar or Elvis, you have lost your mind. There’s no question about that. But if you believe the same thing about a cracker becoming Jesus, very likely there is nothing wrong with you; you simply happen to be Catholic.

There’s a basic truth about us that no double standard can erase. Either you’re being intellectually honest, or you’re not. Either you are disposed to look at the data dispassionately, or you are disposed to ignore it, or passionately force it to conform to some prior ideology you have. In science, we systematically divest ourselves of dogmatism. In science, we strive toward intellectual honesty, and when science is working, which is to say when it’s really science, that is what is achieved.

Religion requires the opposite frame of mind. Religion requires dogmatism. There is no version of Christianity that is in principle open to the proposition, indeed the likelihood, that Jesus was born of an ordinary process of procreation and died like an animal. This is not a version of Christianity that is even thinkable. It completely undercuts the dogma of Christianity. Science grows through challenges like this. This is a difference worth noting.

Many people argue that there’s no conflict between religion and science. How do they do this? Well, here’s how the trick is done. They do two things. First, they argue that atheists cannot prove there is no god. Therefore atheism is a faith: it’s the faith that there is no god, and we appear to be at a standstill. Bertrand Russell annihilated this argument virtually a century ago with his famous teapot analogy: Can you prove that there is not a china teapot in elliptical orbit around the sun at this moment? Well, no. Is it therefore reasonable to believe in such a teapot? No. Is it reasonable to be agnostic with respect to such a teapot? Not quite. End of argument.

The burden is never upon the atheist to prove the absence of celestial teapots. One thing to point out is that every Christian knows this with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. They look at the discourse of Islam. The Muslims claim to have a book which is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. Why do they believe this? Because it says so in the book. No Christian finds this compelling. Yet they refuse to turn this criticism upon their own religious dogmas.

There’s a second trick that people use to render religion and science compatible, and it’s a little more subtle. This was used to great effect by Francis Collins in his recent book, The Language of God. It usually emerges when you see people considering the import of any specific scientific finding. Take a scientific fact, such as that 99% of the species that have ever walked or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. There are two very different questions you can ask of a fact of this sort. You can ask, “Is this fact compatible with the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent and perfectly benevolent god?” Or you can ask, “Does this fact suggest the existence of such a god?” These questions may seem similar, but they’re not. Just think about this. Is the fact that 99% of God’s products have failed compatible with the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly benevolent god? Well, yes, any fact is. You simply have to add the caveat, “Who can understand the will of God? He may have wanted to destroy all these creatures for some reason we can’t fathom.”

But ask the other question: seeing that 99% of all species have ended in extinction, would a reasonable person conclude that there must be a perfectly powerful, perfectly knowing, perfectly compassionate deity pulling the strings? This is probably the last thing you would infer from the data. Of course, the difference between these two questions applies to every other event in human history that people reconcile with faith. Look at the Holocaust. Is the Holocaust compatible with an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly compassionate God? Well, yes, maybe he was just very pissed off at the Jews. Perhaps he couldn’t deny the Nazis such a perfect opportunity to sin. Maybe he has prepared a reward in heaven for everyone who died in the gas chambers. You can always put forward caveats like that. That version of God is perfectly unfalsifiable. But looking at the Holocaust, would you for a moment think that an invisible and perfectly loving and perfectly powerful deity must be taking an interest in human affairs? Not even remotely.

Let’s leave aside this question of truth for a moment. Let’s talk about this notion that religion is useful, because that argument really does the heavy lifting for religious people, in this country in particular.

The argument is that religion is so useful that it is necessary. The mode in which it is imagined to be most useful is in providing a foundation for moral behavior. The claim is that religion makes people good. The fear is that without faith, our society would just be plunged into the purest antagonism. We’d be riven by malice and selfishness, and none of us could form any durable intention to be good to one another without believing that one of our books was dictated by the creator of the universe.

Let me tell you what I think is wrong with this idea. First of all, it seems to me that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the suffering of other conscious creatures–for our purposes, humans and animals. And if we ever built computers that we thought were conscious, we would have moral obligations to them, too. This is why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks, because we don’t think there’s anything we can do to make rocks suffer. This makes sense of the gradations of our moral concern: the fact that we’re more concerned about the suffering of chimpanzees, for instance, than the suffering of crickets. The difference, if this is justifiable, is that we think chimpanzees can suffer more, based on their underlying neurology, based on a lawful relationship between physical complexity and the possibilities of happiness and suffering.

The problem with religious conceptions of morality is that they systematically separate moral questions from the living reality of human and animal suffering. This is why we have a country in which Christians debate gay marriage as the greatest moral question of our time, as though the greatest swing in human suffering was dependent upon resolving that question.

So a religious conception of morality has the perverse effect of allowing religious people–who, by and large, are as good as the rest of us–to actually inflict immense suffering on other human beings out of deference to their religious dogmas.

A case in point that illustrates most of these features: consider Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa is often thought to have been a great force for compassion in this world, and to some significant degree, she was. There is no doubt that she alerted people to the reality of a certain kind of suffering. I remember finding her quite inspiring, in fact. But when she gave her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she declared that abortion was the greatest instance of suffering she had ever encountered. She lost more sleep over abortion than over famine and genocide and political torture and mental illness and all the other forms of human suffering she had witnessed.

This doesn’t make any sense. If your moral intuitions are going to track suffering in this world, abortion should rank rather low on your list of concerns. Maybe aborted fetuses suffer their destruction, maybe they don’t. One cannot reasonably wonder this about the millions and millions of people who suffer every day of their lives, often through human cruelty and human stupidity. Yet anyone who agrees with Mother Teresa’s conception of morality will be quite gratified to learn that in the country of El Salvador at this moment, abortion is now perfectly illegal, no exceptions for rape or incest. There are women serving 30-year prison sentences for having had illegal abortions. When a girl shows up at a hospital with a perforated uterus, attesting to the fact that she has had an illegal abortion, she is at once shackled to her hospital bed and her womb and cervix are treated as a crime scene. Imagine this in a country that also stigmatizes contraception as a sin against God. This is evil. And yet it does not require the collaboration of evil people. It only requires people like Mother Teresa.

The bishop of El Salvador, incidentally, was the one who got this law written, and this whole movement to criminalize abortion was initiated by Pope John Paul when he gave a speech in Mexico City in 1999, announcing that Latin America should be abortion-free. This really is the vision of how life should be if you hew narrowly to Catholic dogma.

But the truth is that we can find good reasons to treat other human beings well without believing anything preposterous. We can become sensitive to the suffering of other human beings and realize that our own happiness is in some sense dependent upon acting upon that sensitivity. One problem with religion is that it actually gives people bad reasons to be good, when good reasons are actually available. It’s worth pointing out that it’s rather more noble to go to Africa to help people merely out of concern for their suffering than to go because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, or will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it.

There are other problems with this linkage between religion and morality. This idea that we get our goodness out of faith should suggest that atheists would be profoundly misbehaved. Take an organization like this, or one like the National Academy of Sciences, 93% of whom reject this idea of a personal god. We all should be raping and killing and stealing with abandon. Now, I don’t know of anyone who’s done a study on our behavior, but I think we can be skeptical that we are now in a room filled with distinguished criminals.

What are the chances that our Nobel Laureates in Chemistry and Physiology are raping kids with the frequency of Catholic priests?

So I submit to you that when our scientists and our atheist organizations start practicing suicide bombing and honor killing, when we start massing by the tens of thousands calling for the death of newspaper editors in response to cartoons, then let’s talk about how atheism erodes the basis of morality.

At the level of society at large, this connection between religiosity and good behavior is also difficult to make out. When you look at the most atheistic societies, like Norway and Sweden and Denmark and Holland and Canada and Australia, you’ll see that they’re the healthiest, as measured by the UN Development Index, which takes into account violent crime, infant mortality, gender equality, per capita income. This is a loose surrogate for studying moral behavior, but these are, by and large, the best places to live. The same distinction is true within the United States. In the red states–they got so red largely because of the religious convictions of the population there–they have much higher levels of violent crime, and even teen pregnancy and STD infection. American teens are 70 times more likely to have gonorrhea than their French counterparts in atheistic France. This is ironic, given the sexual infatuations of the religious right in this country. You can’t draw too many conclusions from this data.

You can’t say that high levels of religiosity undermine public morality. It could be that when a society gets stressed, people become more religious. But what you can say is that there’s nothing about high levels of religiosity that guarantee good behavior at the public level. In viewing these countries in western Europe that have low levels of crime and actually are more generous in terms of giving aid to the developing world than we are per capita, you can also say that atheism is compatible with the goals of a civil society.

What is strange is that while Muslim extremists now fly planes into our buildings, atheists are the most reviled minority in this country. Atheism is the one variable around which you can gather that is a perfect impediment to holding political office in the United States. A majority of Americans–many of you I’m sure have seen this poll–say they would not vote for an atheist even if he or she were a well-qualified member of their own political party. This is not true of Muslims, this is not even true of homosexuals. Atheism is the only deal-breaker. I’m convinced that this imaginary link between religion and morality is the key to this animosity.

Briefly, let’s return to this notion of truth. It is important to point out that even if religion were a reliable incubator of morality, even if religion made people good and even if atheists were evil, this would not be an argument for the truth of any specific religious doctrine. Religion could function like a placebo. Religious beliefs could be perfectly useful, but completely vacant of real content.

This is actually hard to see even for atheists. But it is so easy to see when you change the subject from God to some ordinary phenomenon. Let’s say I believe I’m six feet tall. I’m not six feet tall, incidentally, but let’s say I maintain that I am, even in the company of people who actually are six feet tall and can see the top of my head. Imagine that when someone asks why I believe this about myself, I said things like, “Well, I’m just happier being taller, more confident. Being taller has made me a better person.” What if I said, “Many studies have shown that men who are six feet or taller are generally thought more attractive and get better wages. Are you suggesting I should forego some of those benefits?”

It’s clear that there is something wrong with these responses. My argument to you is that someone who believes in God should not be free to say that he believes this because it has made him a better person, because it gives his life meaning, or because he likes going to church on Sundays. Those are not adequate responses. Those are arguments for the truth of any religious doctrine.

In conclusion, I just want to say what is motivating these noises that I increasingly find myself making. I am quite worried about our situation in the world. I think that it is possible for us to lose everything we have, and I don’t mean just personally, I mean as a civilization. I’m talking about ceasing to live in a society that is run most of the time by the principles of basic human sanity. You may think we haven’t quite achieved that here, and maybe not quite, but look at how so much of the world lives. Look at what life is like in Afghanistan or Iraq. Look at how much of the world is consumed by violence, and how much of this violence is born of the fact that the human community has been shattered by competing religious orthodoxies.

We’re living in a world where millions of people at this moment can rationalize the violent deaths of their children by recourse to fairy tales. We’re living in a world where millions of Muslims think there is nothing better than to die in defense of their faith. We’re living in a world where millions of American Christians really expect to be raptured into the sky in their lifetime so that they can witness a sacred genocide that is going to inaugurate the end of human history.

It seems to me that the barbarians really are at the gates. They’re not merely at the gates–many of them are inside the gates. Many of them are manning the gates. The history of our civilization just is not written. There’s no guarantee that it won’t be written by the religious maniacs of the future. It’s for us to change the terms of discourse. My basic argument is quite simple: that the best in us does not require the worst in us. And yet we are told by everyone that delusion is sacred, delusion is all we have, delusion is what must nurture our civilization. It’s not true.

Thank you very much.

[standing ovation]

What can we do to stop the barbarians at the gate?

I have now thoroughly depressed you all, and what can we do? I think we’re doing it. I’m very short on programmatic advice. I really don’t think it’s a matter of new laws and sweeping changes at the level of society. What is required is incremental changes at the level of discourse. I think it will come from religious dogmatists being made to look stupid and feel stupid from a hundred sides, and at a certain point it will be unseemly for someone to stand up while running for political office and assert his absolute certainty that God is on his side. How did we get rid of racism to the degree that we have? There’s no question racism is still a problem, but it is not the problem it was 80 years ago. On one level we had the civil rights movement and some important legislation, but on another level you have comedians like Chris Rock just being the funniest people on the planet and changing people’s perceptions. I think there’s a role for entertainment to play, there’s a role for criticism of the sort I try to launch in my writing, and who knows? We just simply have to change the terms of discourse.

What do you think of Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisterial, that science has its place and religion has another?

I’m told he really didn’t believe this argument, but he’s no longer alive, so we can’t ask him. This idea that religion and science aren’t really in competition with each other, because each has its own purview of expertise, is just not true. People are claiming that their beliefs map onto reality. Religious people are making claims about things that happened in the past, things that are true of the present, and things that will happen in the future. This is science, but it’s bad science. I happen to be one of those atheists who writes essays with titles like “Science Must Destroy Religion.” And Richard Dawkins has obviously been quite a champion of this view for decades now. There is a debate among atheistic scientists about whether this is the right approach. But I’m convinced that it is. I think we need more people like Richard Dawkins in the world.

How can we as a freethought community be energized and active over a long time horizon that makes it a real movement, and makes us at some level able to win a war of ideas?

Organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation are absolutely vital, and meetings like this are very useful. Just the fact that there are people to prepare lawsuits in times of critical need. There are a hundred battles to fight here. I don’t happen to be one who is focusing on the Pledge of Allegiance, for instance, although I think that was totally reasonable to make noise about. It’s like asking the question, “How did religion lose its ability to diagnose medical illnesses? Why aren’t people reliably being diagnosed with demonic possession the way they were 300 years ago?” What happened was science won the argument about medicine. We developed a branch of medicine called neurology, and we now know what epilepsy is, so unless you are really mired in a religious cult somewhere, and you haven’t been intruded upon by modern thinking about medicine, you’re not finding people casting out demons the way they used to.

I think we have to find rational answers to questions about morality, about positive human emotions, and about how to build strong communities. We also have to be candid about the liabilities of faith, and about the fact that we are seeing so much violence at this point that would not occur but for what people believe about God. So again, I’m sorry to say I don’t have sweeping recommendations. I just think we all really have to start making sense very quickly in any context in which we’re called on to discuss these matters.

How do you get time to work on your doctoral thesis?

My thesis committee is probably wondering the same thing! There’s not enough time. I’ll be getting back to that eventually. I think that ultimately we will understand belief at the level of the brain. I don’t think we need to wait for the data from the lab to realize the illegitimacy and the liabilities of most religious beliefs. You can see the problem without providing a completed neuroscience of human morality and spiritual experience and all the rest. Ultimately we’ll have that completed science or virtually completed science, and we’ll talk about the basis for human experience, positive and negative, in ways that (1) will rule out certain other spooky ideas, and (2) will give us the ability to intervene in human experience in a very targeted way that we don’t currently have. Whether that’s pharmacological or electromagnetic, I don’t know, but ultimately if we crack the neural code, we’ll be able to change our experience in ways that we’re not able to now.

How can we get the media to create documentaries on your book and these topics?

I am confident that it’s going to happen. There are other people working on that, as well. I’ve been interviewed for a bunch of documentaries. I’m convinced we will eventually have a wide-release Farenheit 911-scale documentary that will tackle these questions. I think that’s a document we really need.

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions for 20 years. Harris is completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His work has been discussed in major newspapers, radio and TV. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Harris’ second book, entitled Letter to a Christian Nation, was recently published by Knopf.

Freedom From Religion Foundation