By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006
NEW YORK There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.
This seems obvious whenever Harris opens what he calls "my big mouth," and it is glaringly clear one recent evening at the New York Public Library, where he is debating a former priest before a packed auditorium. In less than an hour, Harris condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it "a manifesto for religious divisiveness."
Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn't target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.
"There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can't attack people's religious sensibility," Harris says in an interview. "That is so wrong and so suicidal."
This is Harris at full throttle, the Evel Knievel of ideas, a daredevil of the mind. You listen to him and think, "Well, that is going to land him in the hospital."
Instead, it has landed him on the bestseller list. His first book, "The End of Faith," won the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and sold more than 270,000 copies, making Harris a very high-profile voice of the godless. Now there is a follow-up, "Letter to a Christian Nation," a 96-page shiv inspired by the reaction to his first book, which apparently included a heap of hate mail.
"Letter," which is No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list, doesn't drill many new theological wells. Harris is the first, though, to retrofit the case against "Old Book" religions in readable form for the post-Sept. 11 world. He is also among the first to indict religious liberals, and he might be the first man to be anointed "Hot Atheist" in Rolling Stone magazine.
The un-gospel according to Sam has found a huge audience, but every bit as striking is the counter-reaction to Harris among religious scholars. Mention his name to academics of just about every religious persuasion and you can almost see their eyes roll. Oh, that guy.
Harris has grossly oversimplified scripture, they say. He has drawn far-reaching conclusions based on the beliefs of radicals. As bad, his stand against organized religion is so unconditional that it's akin to the intolerance he claims he is fighting. If there is such a thing as a secular fundamentalist, they contend, Harris is it. Even some who agree with his conclusions about the dangers of fanaticism find his argument ham-handed.
"I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion," says Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University. "But pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics, that seems like a very crude mistake."
According to Harvey, not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution -- let's all ditch God -- is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives. Others say that he has taken these "Old Books" at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures. Put more simply, he doesn't know what he's talking about.
"Religion doesn't make people bigots," says Reza Aslan, author of "No God but God," a history of Islam. "People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology."
It doesn't help that Harris lacks a marquee academic credential, though he is working on a PhD in neuroscience. But because Harris's work has caught on, his ideas have been debated in symposiums at a number of campuses, and Harris has gone toe-to-toe with some of the best and the brightest of the believers.
He seems to relish the experience, and so do his fans. At the New York Public Library debate, the crowd had obviously come to hear him, and when he was interrupted by his opponent a few times, his supporters were angry enough to hiss a little. ("We love you, Sam!" one attendee shouted early on.) Dressed in a dark suit, Harris never raised his voice. He just laid out the anti-catechism matter-of-factly:
"If the Koran were exactly the same," he said, toward the end of the night, "and there were just one line added to it, and the line said, 'If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her,' I can tell you what kind of world we'd live in. We'd live in a world where red-haired women would be killed often. We'd live in a world where people like yourself" -- and here Harris gestures to his opponent, Oliver McTernan -- "would say, 'That's not the true Islam.' Twenty women in Baghdad would have their heads cut off and someone would come forward and say, 'This has nothing to do with Islam. Some of them were strawberry blond. Some of them were strangled."A Dropout for 11 Years
Over lunch the day before the debate, Harris seems utterly placid, which is a surprise. Reading his book, you envision a firebrand in a hair-pulling panic. To find religion so scary is like being terrified of cellphones -- there is no end to the potential for fright. But Harris speaks methodically, in fully formed paragraphs and without much emotion.
"My writing is angrier than I am," he says, smiling a little and sipping a Coke. "The maniac comes out a bit when I get behind the keyboard."
Harris is 39 and looks uncannily like Ben Stiller. He grew up in Los Angeles, in a home he describes as non-religious. (For the record, his mother is Jewish and his father, now deceased, was a Quaker.) Harris asked that all but the most basic biographical details be omitted from this article, even where he lives and where he studies. Nobody has threatened his life, but he thinks you can't be too careful. Plus, a movie deal is in the works that could make him the focus of a documentary about atheism. He would like to minimize his tracks sooner rather than later.
What he'll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. ("I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.") He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. Harris stood out, she recalls, not just because of his relative youth -- everyone else was a generation older -- but because of his intensity.
"His passion was for deep philosophical questions, and he could talk for hours and hours," Salzberg recalls. "Sometimes you'd want to say to him, 'What about the Yankees?' or 'Look at the leaves, they're changing color!' " At the time, he was supported financially by his mother, though he did work for one memorable three-week stint in the security detail assigned to the Dalai Lama.
"You walk into a room and everyone is beaming good vibes," he recalls, "and I'm looking for dangerous lunatics. I wouldn't recommend it."
During his 11-year dropout phase, Harris read hundreds of books on religion, many of which are listed in the lengthy bibliography of "The End of Faith." His interests eventually turned to philosophy of the mind, which led him to re-enroll at Stanford in 1997, this time to study philosophy. He wrote a lot before and after he got his diploma, but nothing was published.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
"I could have told you what is wrong with religious dogmatism on September 10th," he says. "But after 9/11, I realized the role that religious moderation played in providing cover for fundamentalism."
Harris started writing "The End of Faith" on Sept. 12. Fifteen publishers would reject the book. Norton said yes after a torturous internal debate.
The reluctance of all these publishers hardly seems surprising. There are surely atheists in the ranks of politicians, op-ed writers and TV talk-show hosts, but can you name one? (Fellow religion critic and Oxford luminary Richard Dawkins says that atheists are the new gays -- in the closet and pretty much disqualified from public office.) But to Harris, the Bible would seem just a poorly constructed fable with a few useful metaphors if he didn't consider it so dangerous. Without the Old and New Testaments, he states, there is no way to understand opposition to stem cell research, or the notorious laws in El Salvador that criminalize abortion, even in the event of rape.
The worst part, Harris says, is this: Because Christians and Jews cling to their "delusions," they are in no position to criticize Muslims for theirs. And, as he italicizes it in his new book for maximum effect, " most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. "
Which gets us to another problem with Harris's work often cited by critics: He can preach only to those who have left the choir. As a critique of faith, "You people are nuts" isn't likely to change a lot of minds. There is the broader question, too, of whether religious moderates really are enablers for extremists. Maybe moderates are a bulwark against fanatics. If this is really a war of ideas, it is probably not a war between no religion (which is what Harris would like) and extremism. It's a war between moderation and extremism, which is a war one needs moderates to fight.
"You're not going to convert everyone to atheism," says Harvey, the retired Stanford professor. "Secular humanists like Harris ought to be concerned with allies, to win fights on questions like the separation of church and state. But Harris isn't concerned about the political implications of his arguments, because he thinks that anything supernatural is evil."
Harris isn't against all religion. He endorses Jainism, a religion-philosophy from India that finds God in the unchanging traits of the human soul. But everyone who organizes his or her life around an ancient text that purports to convey the words and sentiments of God -- Harris would like you to surrender your prayers, history and traditions. You are welcome to check out Jainism, but Harris recommends that you accept his conclusion, which is that we live in a universe without God. Deal with it.
How exactly the faithful will transition to a godless, Good Book-less cosmology is not exactly clear. Harris isn't sure it will ever happen. But he is heartened by countries such as Sweden, where he claims 80 percent of the populace do not believe in God.
"Massive social change is clearly possible," he says in an interview. "Look at the way we have transformed our attitudes about race. There's still racism in this country, but it's profoundly disreputable."'A Failed Science'
"The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation" contain plenty to outrage just about everyone. Harris assails political correctness, evangelicals, liberals, right-wingers and even Judaism, which often gets a pass in such debates. (Harris charges that Jews have been complicit in their centuries-long persecution because they have insisted on setting themselves apart from the rest of the world.) The one constant in these books is Harris's absolutism about reason. If an idea can't survive rigorous testing and scrutiny, he thinks it ought to be tossed.
To Miroslav Volf, a Yale professor of theology, that is Harris's first mistake.
"All of reason is informed by some faith, and there is no mature faith that hasn't been coupled with and enlightened by some reason," he says. It's also wrong for Harris to assume that Christians consider the Bible the direct word of God, Volf says. Most don't, so combing the scriptures for the fingerprints of fallible authors, and then declaring victory once you find them, is silly.
"Most Christians believe that while the Bible was inspired by God, it is not free-floating, megaphone pronouncements out of nowhere by God. It was given through the medium of a culturally situated people, with the limitations of their knowledge at the time. And it's our task to ask, 'What does this mean to me today?' "
Islamic scholars say that Harris has committed an equally egregious blunder with the Koran. He fails to understand the book in its historical context, and he cherry-picks the text for its most merciless verses.
"He couldn't be more wrong about the Koran," says Reza Aslan, the "No God but God" author. "In the history of the prophetic biblical canon that starts with Genesis, the Koran is by far the most tolerant of the views of other religions."
It is true, Aslan says, that the Koran is brutal on polytheists, but there aren't a lot of those around these days. Harris, he claims, is making the same mistake that Muslims in Arab countries make when they locate the soul of Christianity with evangelicals who speak in tongues.
He has confused the outermost for the core. And ironically, Aslan notes, Harris is making the same mistake as fundamentalists, by taking the scripture at its literal word.
Harris says that even if everyone decided that none of these texts is divine, it would still make sense to ditch them, since it would only be a matter of time before someone picked one up and said, "Hey, the creator of the universe hates homosexuals."
"We have to start seeing religion for what it is," he says, "a failed science, a failed description of the world, a holdover of discourse by our ancestors, who had no basis to demand good evidence and good argument."
Of course, if religion were merely failed science, it would have been supplanted by real science centuries ago. But it has survived and thrived through a revolution in our understanding of the solar system as well as our bodies and our minds, which suggests that it offers something that deduction, data points and reason do not.
"Religion is never going to go away," says Aslan, "and anyone who thinks it will doesn't understand what religion is. It is a language to describe the experience of human nature, so for as long as people struggle to describe what it means to be alive, it will be a ready-made language to express those feelings."Praise and Pans
After the debate at the New York Public Library there is a question-and-answer session, then Harris heads to a table, sits down and starts signing books. A line forms. You get the sense that many here feel like they are about to meet a celebrity. One of them is Michael Galinsky, who has a copy of "Letter" in his hand.
He sounds thoroughly unimpressed.
"I'm an agnostic," he says, after getting an autograph, "but I found what Harris said kind of juvenile. By discounting all religion the way he does, that's basically like saying, 'All of you are idiots.' I feel like he ought to extend some kind of olive branch. Otherwise there is nothing to talk about."
Behind him is Louis Perry, a 61-year-old with a Southern drawl. As he hands Harris a copy of "Letter to a Christian Nation," Perry gushes about how the book changed his life. In a brief chat on his way out the door, Perry explains why.
Thanks to Sam Harris, he had a religious epiphany in reverse. He was raised a Southern Baptist but never really connected to any of the doctrine. Everyone around felt a deep spiritual nourishment from church services, and Perry always left feeling as though he'd missed the point.
"For years, I thought there was something wrong with me," he says. "I was always asking 'Why don't I get this? Why don't I get this?' And then last year I read 'The End of Faith,' and Sam basically explained it to me -- there is nothing to get."