By Sam Harris
For better or worse, I am partly responsible for the recent emergence of "atheism" as a topic of conversation. This is somewhat ironic, as I do not like the term and rarely use it. I did not, for instance, refer to myself as an "atheist" when I wrote The End of Faith—and yet this book is my most substantial contribution to the discourse of atheism.
As I pointed out in my subsequent book, Letter to a Christian Nation, we do not have a term for a person who rejects astrology, nor do we need one. If legions of astrologers sought to bend our public policy to their pseudo-science, we wouldn't need to dub ourselves "non-astrologers" to put them in their place. Words like "reason," "evidence," and "commonsense" would suffice. So it should be with religion. Still, one can only spend so much time quibbling over words, and there are far more consequential matters for believers and nonbelievers to discuss. Despite my misgivings about answering to the name "atheist," I consider the stigma now associated with the term to be entirely unwarranted. This stigma is, of course, the continuous product of the inane and unctuous declarations that still pass for argument among the faithful. One need look no further than the responses to this week's question to find some mesmerizing examples.
As to whether atheists and believers can have "a productive conversation," I am quite sure that the answer is "yes." But I am uncertain whether this conversation can bear fruit quickly enough to keep civilization from becoming fully engorged by Iron Age stupidity and horror. Our capacity for self-destruction is now spreading with 21st century efficiency, and yet our beliefs about how we should pass our days and nights on this earth still spring from ancient literature. This marriage of modern technology and preliterate superstition is a bad one, for reasons that I should not have to specify, much less argue for—and yet, arguing for them has taken up most of my time since September 11th, 2001, the day that nineteen pious men showed our pious nation just how beneficial religious certainty can be.
As someone who has spent the last few years publicly criticizing religion, I have become quite familiar with how people of faith rise to the defense of God. As it turns out, there aren't a hundred ways of doing this. There appear to be just three: either a person argues that a specific religion is true, or he argues that religion is useful, or he simply attacks atheism as intolerant, elitist, irrational, or otherwise worthy of contempt. Any conversation between atheists and believers is liable to fall into one or more of these ruts, or lurch back and forth between them:
1. Religion is true: There are two problems with arguing that any one of the world's religions is true. First, as Bertrand Russell pointed out a century ago, the major religions make incompatible claims about God and about what human beings must believe in order to escape the fires of hell. Given the sheer diversity of these claims, every believer should expect damnation on mere, probabilistic grounds. The second problem with arguing for the truth of religion is that the evidence for the most common religious doctrines is terrible or nonexistent—and this subsumes all claims about the existence of a personal God, the divine origin of certain books, the virgin birth of certain people, the veracity of ancient miracles, etc. For thousands of years, religion has been a haven for dogmatism and false certainty, and it remains so. There is not a person on this earth who has sufficient reason to be certain that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in his cave. And yet, billions of people profess such certainty. This is embarrassing. It is also dangerous—and we should stop making apologies for it.
2. Religion is useful: The argument that religion is useful is also problematic—and many of its problems are annunciated daily by bomb-blasts. Can anyone seriously argue that it is a good thing that millions of Muslims currently believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom? Is it really useful that so many Jews imagine that the Creator of the universe gave them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? How psychologically beneficial has Christianity's anxiety about sex been these last seventy generations?
The worst problem with arguing for religion's usefulness, however, is that it is utterly irrelevant to the question at hand: the fact that a belief might be useful is no argument that it is true. While there are many ways to illustrate this, here is how I recently made the point in an online debate:
The fact that certain religious beliefs might be useful in no way suggests their legitimacy. I can guarantee, for instance, that the following religion, invented by me in the last ten seconds, would be extraordinarily useful. It is called "Scientismo." Here is its creed: Be kind to others; do not lie, steal, or murder; and oblige your children to master mathematics and science to the best of their abilities or 17 demons will torture you with hot tongs for eternity after death. If I could spread this faith to billions, I have little doubt that we would live in a better world than we do at present. Would this suggest that the 17 demons of Scientismo exist? Useful delusions are not the same thing as true beliefs.
3. Atheism is bad: Rather than argue for the truth of their religious beliefs, or produce evidence that religion is useful, apologists for God often attack atheism as though it were another religion. We are told that atheism is dogmatic, intolerant, irrational, etc. This homily has the virtue of being easy to remember and reproduce—and it now reverberates ceaselessly within the echo-chamber of American religious discourse. It relies, however, on a many false ideas about atheism. On Christmas eve of this year, I published an essay in the Los Angeles Times entitled "10 Myths – and 10 Truths – about Atheism" in which I attempted to set the record straight. I won't repeat these points here. Those interested can find this article on my website.