In a recent Newsweek article, devout atheist Sam Harris laments religion’s influence in American politics and in shaping public policy. While we might expect such arguments to assert the seperation of church and state, Harris’ main objection is that religions are fundamentally immoral and unethical.1
The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable and incompatible with genuine morality. One of the worst things about religion is that it tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problems – such as gay marriage – where no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.[Emphasis added]
Harris cites the stem-cell research debate as an example where the “morality” of the religious opposition ignores the actual suffering of people who may benefit from medical advancement. This of course is part of a larger problem that religions value their own belief system more than they value human life.
Given the most common interpretation of Biblical prophecy, it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly half the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the world. It should be clear that this faith-based nihilism provides its adherents with absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization – economically, environmentally or geopolitically.
We are living in a world in which millions of Muslims believe that there is nothing better than to be killed in defense of Islam. We are living in a world in which millions of Christians hope to soon be raptured into the stratosphere by Jesus so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history.
Presumably, Harris’ secularism would always produce more ethical and moral opinions than the irrational religions; secularists would naturally value human life more than religious zealots. This is of course, not necessarily the case as Peter Singer has demonstrated that one possible conclusion of secularism is dispelling the sanctity of human life – in the sense that it is not superior to animal life. And of course there is the Holocaust, a genocide perpetuated by an advanced secular society, but one for which Harris still blames religion:
While the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, its roots were undoubtedly religious – and the explicitly religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued throughout the period. Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the killing fields are not examples of what happens when people become too critical of unjustified beliefs; on the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about specific secular ideologies.
In the most abstract sense, morality defines a particular way of living based on one’s assumptions about how the world works. Harris rejects all of religion because it is not based on what he considers to be rational thinking. But should secularism result in immorality, then the fault is not with the concept of secularism, but with its particular implementation. Harris’ own vision of “genuine morality” appears to be a form of utilitarianism with the aim being to “maximize happiness in this world,” but Harris dismisses faith-based happiness as being invalid.
This of course does not mean Harris lacks faith entirely. Rather than outsourcing his beliefs to a metaphysical entity, Harris’ “genuine morality” is to believe that there are objective truths of universal happiness.
…questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being – and why wouldn’t there be? – then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world.
Following Harris’ logic, true secularism can do no wrong and religion can do no right. Secularism is they key to happiness while religion is an anathema to society and must be “destroyed”. Belief in a God is bad, and must be eradicated in favor of the one true morality of secular humanism. In a nutshell, Harris believes that the world would be a much better place if people gave up their irrational faiths and would simply believe like he does.
In which case, I suppose Mr. Harris is a fairly religious person after all.
1. Following many secularists, Harris argues elsewhere that the general problem with religion is that it necessitates the suppression of rational thinking. This article specifically focuses on the apparent and paradoxical disregard for human life.