Apples and Oranges

Studying for a master’s degree in comparative religions at Harvard Divinity School, you get equipped with various tools for revealing the core insights of the core teachings of the world’s major religions. Then you can spend the rest of your life being gobsmacked by the maddening nature of the nearly obscene differences and their attendant effects on history and human flourishing:

Exhibit A:

An insight which is central to all of the Buddhist traditions, and to cosmology, quantum physics and string theory, as well, in addition to mathematics, etc., and verified by anyone’s direct experience were they to just sit down long enough and look (or take psylocibin, or DMT, or LSD, etc.) — a statement of truth (not “belief”) about the nature of the universe itself, from atoms to black holes, about the very nature of “mind” and “reality”, as uttered by a meditator in the 5th-6th c. CE:

Exhibit B:

The paramount story that is totemically central to all three of the monotheistic traditions, celebrated and praised among these traditions’ highest scriptural tropes, a human ideal so worthy of emulation that the figure holding the dagger names the identity of all three traditions by the stamp of his willingness to kill, in the name of faith (Abrahamic), and which would lead to the killings of countless hundreds of millions along this very same theme, :

It is stunning in the extreme that the same species could come up with such absolutely opposite and completely incompatible insights into possible paths for human well-being. It boggles the mind utterly to realize what vastly different outcomes are produced by the claims made by just these two phrases, because they are not outliers. It is the very soul of meditation — as it is the soul of any branch of physics, or cosmology, or mathematics, et al. — to arrive at the realization that “reality” has no “inner” or “outer” or “middle”, no reducible “pure” or “impure” state. Yet the better share of humanity is taught to valorize the ideal of having such faith in things unseen — despite whatever rational, observable contradiction to the contrary — that one would even murder one’s own guiltless son to prove one’s fidelity to this complete and total ignorance. How many millions and millions have been similarly sacrificed on the altar of this pernicious myth, which is an offense to any rational mind? Some moldy-ass myths held over long past their sell-by date simply through the force of habit, fear, superstition, intellectual/spiritual laziness, and clinging to empty tradition. It blows my mind.

Because his excellent expressive powers are so rewarding to experience, it is worth quoting here, in full, the Afterword to Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation:

Humanity has had a long fascination with blood sacrifice. In fact, it has been by no means uncommon for a child to be born into this world only to be patiently and lovingly reared by religious maniacs, who believe that the best way to keep the sun on its course or to ensure a rich harvest is to lead him by tender hand into a field or to a mountaintop and bury, butcher, or burn him alive as offering to an invisible God. Countless children have been unlucky enough to be born in so dark an age, when ignorance and fantasy were indistinguishable from knowledge and where the drumbeat of religious fanaticism kept perfect time with every human heart.

In fact, almost no culture has been exempt from this evil: the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Aztecs, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesians, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and innumerable other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

In many societies, whenever a new building was constructed, it was thought only prudent to pacify the local deities by burying children alive beneath its foundations (this is how faith sometimes operates in a world without structural engineers). Many societies regularly sacrificed virgins to ward off floods. Others killed their first-born children, and even ate them, as a way of ensuring a mother’s ongoing fertility. In India, living infants were ritually fed to sharks at the mouth of the Ganges for the same purpose. Indians also burned widows alive so that they could follow their husbands into the next world. Leaving nothing to chance, Indians also sowed their fields with the flesh of a certain caste of men, raised especially for this purpose and dismembered while alive, to ensure that every crop of turmeric would be appropriately crimson. The British were actually hard pressed to put an end to these pious atrocities.

In some cultures whenever a nobleman died, other men and women allowed themselves to be buried alive so as to serve as his retainers in the next world. In ancient Rome, children were occasionally slaughtered so that the future could be read in their entrails. Some Fijian prodigy devised a powerful sacrament called “Vakatoga” which required that a victim’s limbs be cut off and eaten while he watched. Among the Iroquois, prisoners taken captive in war were often permitted to live among the tribe for many years, and even to marry, all the while being doomed to be flayed alive as an oblation to the God of War; whatever children they produced while in captivity were disposed of in the same ritual. Certain African tribes have a long history of murdering people to send as couriers in a one-way dialogue with their ancestors or to convert their body parts into magical charms. Ritual murders of this sort continue in many African societies to this day.

Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.

It is essential to realize that such obscene misuses of human life have always been explicitly religious. They are the product of what people think they know about invisible gods and goddesses, and of what they manifestly do not know about biology, meteorology, medicine, physics, and a dozen other specific sciences that have more than a little to say about the events in the world that concern them. And it is astride this contemptible history of religious atrocity and scientific ignorance that Christianity now stands as an absurdly unselfconscious apotheosis. The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a “loving” God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the superstitious bloodletting that has plagued bewildered people throughout history.

Of course, the God of Abraham was no stranger to ritual murder. Occasionally, He condemns the practice (Deuteronomy 12:31; Jeremiah 19:4-5; Ezekial 16:20-21); at other points, He requires or rewards it (Exodus 22:29-30; Judges 11:29-40; 1 Kings 13:1-2; 2 Kings 3:27; 2 Kings 23:20-25; Numbers 31:40, Deuteronomy 13:13-19). In the case of Abraham, God demands that he sacrifice his son Isaac but then stays his hand at the last moment (Genesis 22:1-18), without ever suggesting that the act of slaughtering one’s own child is immoral. Elsewhere, God confesses to inspiring human sacrifice soas to defile its practitioners (Ezekiel 20:26), while getting into the act Himself by slaying the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 11:5). The rite of circumcision emerges as a surrogate for child sacrifice (Exodus 4:24-26), and God seems to generally encourage the substitution of animals for people. Indeed, His thirst for the blood of animals, as well as His attentiveness to the niceties of their slaughter and holocaust, is almost impossible to exaggerate.

Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is rumored to have said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For most Christians, this bizarre opinion still stands, and it remains the core of their faith. Christianity is more or less synonymous with the proposition that the crucifixion of Jesus represents a final, sufficient offering of blood to a God who absolutely requires it (Hebrews 9:22-28). Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.

Let the good news go forth: we live in a cosmos, the vastness of which we can scarcely even indicate in our thoughts, on a planet teeming with creatures we have only begun to understand, but the whole project was actually brought to a glorious fulfillment over twenty centuries ago, after one species of primate (our own) climbed down out of the trees, invented agriculture and iron tools, glimpsed (as through a glass, darkly) the possibility of keeping its excrement out of its food, and then singled out one among its number to be viciously flogged and nailed to a cross.

Add to this abject mythology surrounding one man’s death by torture—Christ’s passion—the symbolic cannibalism of the Eucharist. Did I say “symbolic”? Sorry, according to the Vatican it is most assuredly not symbolic. In fact, the judgment of the Council of Trent remains in effect:

I likewise profess that in the Mass a true, proper and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead, and that the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and that there is a change of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into blood; and this change the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation. I also profess that the whole and entire Christ and a true sacrament is received under each separate species.

Of course, Catholics have done some very strenuous and unconvincing theology in this area, in an effort to make sense of how they can really eat the body of Jesus, not mere crackers enrobed in metaphor, and really drink his blood without, in fact, being a cult of crazy cannibals. Suffice it to say, however, that a world view in which “propitiatory sacrifices on behalf of the living and the dead” figure prominently is rather difficult to defend in the year 2007. But this has not stopped otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people from defending it.

And now we learn that even Mother Teresa, the most celebrated exponent of this dogmatism in a century, had her doubts all the while—about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, about heaven, and even about the existence of God:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated

Mother Teresa’s recently published letters reveal a mind riven by doubt (and well it should have been). They also reveal a woman who was surely suffering from run-of-the-mill depression, though even secular commentators have begun to politely dress this fact in the colors of the saints and martyrs. Mother Teresa’s response to her own bewilderment and hypocrisy (her term) reveals just how like quicksand religious faith can be. Her doubts about God’s existence were interpreted by her confessor as a sign that she was now sharing Christ’s torment upon the cross; this exaltation of her wavering faith allowed her “to love the darkness” she experienced in God’s apparent absence. Such is the genius of the unfalsifiable. We can see the same principle at work among her fellow Catholics: Mother Teresa’s doubts have only enhanced her stature in the eyes of the Church, being interpreted as a further confirmation of God’s grace. Ask yourself, when even the doubts of experts are taken to confirm a doctrine, what could possibly disconfirm it?

It has been more than a year since Letter to a Christian Nation was published, and the book has continued to draw steady fire. Much of the criticism leveled at it has been bundled with attacks upon my first book, The End of Faith, and upon other atheist bestsellers: especially Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. In fact, Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and I have been regularly assailed as though we were a single person with four heads. The accusations and arguments against us are always the same, and they always miss the point. Indeed, what is most surprising about debating the faithful is how few surprises there are.

The Problem with Moderate Religion
Whenever nonbelievers like myself criticize Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates declare that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken “extremists” to be representative of these “great” religions, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and that our attacks upon religion are, therefore, “simplistic,” “dogmatic,” or even “fundamentalist.”

But there are several problems with such a defense of religion. First, many moderates (and even some secularists) assume that religious “extremism” is rare and therefore not all that consequential. But religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. America is now a nation of 300 million souls, wielding more influence than any people in human history, and yet 240 million of these souls apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers. This hankering for a denominational, spiritual oblivion is extreme in almost every sense—it is extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration—but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. Of course, moderates may wonder whether as many people believe such things as say they do. In fact, many atheists are confident that our opinion polls are out of register with what people actually think in the privacy of their own minds. But there is no question that most Americans reliably claim to believe the preposterous, and these claims themselves have done genuine harm to our political discourse, to our public policy, and to our reputation in the world.

Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?

Religious moderates also tend to imagine that there is some bright line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Reading scripture more closely, one does not find reasons to be a religious moderate; one finds reasons to be a proper religious lunatic—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, anyone can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love his neighbor and to turn the other cheek. But the more fully a person grants credence to these books, the more he will be convinced that infidels, heretics, and apostates deserve to be smashed to atoms in God’s loving machinery of justice.

Religious moderates invariably claim to be more “sophisticated” than religious fundamentalists (and atheists). But how does one become a sophisticated believer? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights—scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Okay.”), medical (“I should take my daughter to a neurologist and not to an exorcist? Seems reasonable…”), and moral (“I can’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). There is a pattern here, and it is undeniable. Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?

Another problem with religious moderation is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a rational and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. Consequently, it makes no sense at all to have one’s spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient miracles. What we need is a discourse about ethics and spiritual experience that is as unconstrained by ancient ignorance as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as “Japanese” as opposed to “French” science; we don’t speak of “Hindu biology” and “Jewish chemistry.” Imagine a world in which we could have a truly honest and open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our self-understanding, ethical wisdom, and compassion. By living as if some measure of sectarian superstition were essential for human happiness, religious moderates prevent such a conversation from ever taking shape.

Intellectual Honesty
Religion once offered answers to many questions that have now been ceded to the care of science. This process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture has been relentless, one directional, and utterly predictable. As it turns out, real knowledge, being both valid and verifiable across cultures, is the only remedy for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their traditions might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religious superstition (eventually), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science delivers this understanding in torrents; it also offers an honest appraisal of its current limitations. Religion fails on both counts.

Hoping to reconcile their faith with our growing scientific understanding of the world, many believers have taken refuge in Stephen J. Gould’s quisling formulation of “non-overlapping magisteria”—the idea that science and religion, properly construed, cannot be in conflict, because they represent different domains of expertise. Let’s see how this works: while science is the best authority on the workings of physical universe, religion is the best authority on… what exactly? The non-physical universe? Probably not. What about meaning, values, ethics, and the good life? Unfortunately, most people—even most scientists and secularists—have ceded these essential components of human happiness to the care of theologians and religious apologists without argument. This has kept religion in good standing even while its authority has been battered and nullified on every other front.

The sacred literature of the hadith demands the murder of apostates, repeatedly and without equivocation. Is this edict ethical? Is it compatible with civil society? 

But what special competence does a priest, rabbi, or imam have to judge the ethical implications of embryonic stem-cell research, family planning, or preventative war? The truth is that a person’s knowledge of a scriptural tradition is no more relevant to ethics than it is to astronomy. Representatives of the world’s religions can tell us what their congregations believe on wide variety of issues (and believe, generally, on bad evidence); they can tell us what their holy books say one ought to believe to escape the fires of hell; but what they cannot do—or cannot do better than butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers—is offer an account of why these orthodox positions are ethical. Is it ethical to kill a person for changing his religion? I’d stake my life that the answer is “no.” But, according to a recent poll, thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) disagree with me. As it turns out, they are on firm ground theologically: for while the Qur’an does not explicitly demand the murder of apostates, the sacred literature of the hadith does, repeatedly and without equivocation. Is this edict ethical? Is it compatible with civil society? Is the reliance upon authority that has delivered this barbarism down through the generations even remotely compatible with science?

It is, of course, trivially true to say that religion and science are compatible because some scientists are (or claim to be) religious. But this is like saying that science and ignorance are compatible because many scientists freely admit their ignorance on a wide range of topics. To clarify these issues, it is helpful to remind ourselves that both religion and science are constituted by beliefs and their justification, or lack thereof. Is there a conflict between justified and unjustified belief? Of course, and it is zero-sum. Given that faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence, a conflict between science and religion is unavoidable.

Religion and science are also in conflict because there is no way of disentangling religious and scientific truth-claims: the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin may be central to the doctrine of Christianity, but it is also an explicit claim about biology; the belief that Jesus will physically return to earth in the future entails a variety of claims about history, the human survival of death, and, apparently, the mechanics of human flight without the aid of technology. It is time that all rational people acknowledged that where claims about the nature of reality are concerned, there is only one magisterium.

The Empty Wager 
The fundamental problem with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies.  I refer not merely to twenty-megaton displays of hypocrisy, as when Evangelical preachers get caught with male prostitutes or methamphetamine (or both). Rather, I refer to the daily and ubiquitous failure of most religious people to admit that the basic claims of the their faith are profoundly suspect. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn’t actually know this. The truth is that Mommy is lying—either to herself or to her children—and most of us have agreed to view this behavior as perfectly normal. Rather than teach our children to grieve, and to be happy despite the reality of death, we nourish their powers of self-deception.

How likely is it that Jesus was really born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and will bodily return to earth at some future date? How reasonable is it to believe in such a concatenation of miracles on the basis of the Gospel account? How much support do these doctrines receive from the average Christian’s experience in church? Honest answers to these questions should raise a tsunami of doubt. I’m not sure what will be “Christian” about any Christians left standing.

Faith is like a pickpocket who loans a person his own money on generous terms. The victim’s gratitude is perfectly understandable, but absolutely misplaced.

Many readers of Letter to a Christian Nation have taken inspiration from Blaise Pascal and argued that evidence is beside the point and that religious believers have simply taken the wiser of two bets: if a believer is wrong about God, there is not much harm to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins eternal happiness; if an atheist is wrong, however, he is destined to spend eternity in hell. On this view, atheism is the very picture of reckless stupidity.

While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. A moment’s thought reveals that if the wager were valid, it could justify almost any belief system, no matter how ludicrous or antithetical to Christianity. Another problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe it, he must believe that it is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.

The reasons to doubt the existence of God are in plain view for everyone to see: everyone can see that the Bible is not the perfect word of an omniscient deity; everyone can see that there is no evidence for a God who answers prayers and that any God who would grant prayers for football championships, while doling out cancer and car accidents to little boys and girls, is unworthy of our devotion. Everyone who has eyes to see can see that if the God of Abraham exists, He is an utter psychopath—and the God of Nature is too. If you can’t see these things just by looking, you have simply closed your eyes to the realities of our world.

I have no doubt that many Christians find great consolation in their faith. But faith is not the best source of consolation. Faith is like a pickpocket who loans a person his own money on generous terms. The victim’s gratitude is perfectly understandable, but absolutely misplaced. Weare the source of the love that our priests and pastors attribute to God (how else can we feel it?). Your own consciousness is the cause and substance of any experience you might want to deem “spiritual” or “mystical.” Realizing this, what possible need is there to pretend to be certain about ancient miracles?

Sam Harris
September 2007
New York