Oh, no…I have to defend Sam Harris a little bit even while disagreeing with him! There was a strange flare-up, a revival of an old interview with Harris from 6 years ago, in which he said something controversial:
If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.
This is one of those fraught philosophical scenarios loaded with emotional biases against an unrealistic, overly simplified moral dilemma that can never occur in the real world, and all I can say is…I hate those things. And there it was, all over twitter, and people were emailing me about it, and I just wanted the stupid story to go away, but now David Futrelle has highlighted it and John Wilkins has storified it.
So first, let’s put it in context. It’s not a pro-rape comment, or one that dismisses rape as unimportant.
Saltman: Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?
Harris: It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.
Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.
Saltman: Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?
Harris: I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.
To rephrase it in a more general way: if you could get rid of a chronic, pervasive, causal malignity that afflicted all of humanity, would that be a wiser choice than getting rid of an acute, specific affliction that caused direct harm to a large subset of humanity? In those terms, it’s actually an interesting question (in that philosophical conundrum kind of interesting, which I hate), and the next question ought to be about the magnitude of the chronic malignity vs. the acute affliction. So it’s not an utterly idiotic scenario, but one that might expose legitimate and thoughtful differences in opinion.
And that’s where Harris and I begin to differ.
First, rape is pretty damn horrific, a toxic violence that isn’t just acute, but truly dire, that directly harms or threatens to harm over half the population of the planet, and indirectly causes suffering for the other half. It is an explicit crime against human beings. I am confident that Harris would agree with me, and that he’s not trying to diminish the magnitude of the harm done by rape and violence against women. So, boom, he and I would both throw a great horking weight, dense as osmium, on that side of the harm scale.
But then we go to the other side, carrying world religions in hand. Harris and I would agree that religion is universally malignant (John Wilkins disagrees, but he’s wrong: an idea that is not only incorrect, but encourages disinterest in the truth of ideas, is universally dangerous, and I’m going to come right out and say that all religion is bad), but we’re going to disagree with the magnitude of that harm.
Harris clearly believes that religion is a tremendous source of death and destruction, and while not as acutely damaging to an individual as rape, given the immensity of that problem, he thinks that it outweighs rape overall as a source of harm. In that case, he is making a rational choice with his hypothetical magic wand, and maximizing human happiness by eliminating religion.
I don’t agree. For one thing, the comparison is inappropriate and can’t be made: religion is not a primary causal element of rape. If you thought getting rid of religion would reduce rape and a host of other problems, there would be some relevance, but it wouldn’t. If we magically eliminated religion right now, Israel would still be bombing Palestinians, misogynist assholes would still be misogynist assholes, poverty would still be driving people to desperate crimes, and violent thugs would still be attacking women. If there’s one thing we’ve learned recently, it’s that atheism does not equal benevolent enlightenment.
Another problem is that while we can easily point to pathological extremes of religiosity as causes of great harm (say, the Taliban, or the American Republican party), the overwhelming majority of religious people are harmless and even benign (sorry, Wilkins, their religious beliefs are not benign at all, but the people themselves are mostly decent. There’s a difference). Getting rid of religion would not maximize human happiness, and might in fact decrease overall human happiness while increasing human rationality, and definitely would not ease the pain and suffering of human beings anywhere near as much as eliminating the threat of rape.
I can see where Harris is coming from, but I wouldn’t make the same choice he would, because I don’t see religion as quite so intensely damaging as he does. And for the majority of people, I don’t think it’s possible to make any kind of objective case that their religion is even close to being as harmful as a rape in their family.
Also, there’s this irony further into the interview.
Saltman: Are you a Buddhist practitioner?
Harris: I’m a practitioner, but I don’t really think of myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism can be distinguished from other religions because it’s nontheistic. But I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like, what the potential for human happiness is, and what are some reasonable approaches to seeking happiness in this world.
Oh. So my religion isn’t as bad as those other religions, therefore it’s exempt from my condemnations. That doesn’t work for me.
The point about it being “nontheistic” is also a non sequitur. My complaint with religion isn’t over one specific point of the doctrine of certain religions, it’s about the whole gigantic problem of gullibility, unfounded beliefs, and rejection of evidence. If being nontheistic is a loophole to avoid criticism, then there’s nothing wrong with astrology, homeopathy, racism, sexism, and nationalism, either.
By the way, I looked up the rules on magic wands. They have 50 charges! So I’m going to simplify this problem by getting rid of rape AND religion (including Buddhism), and also war, poverty, racism, sexism, patriotism, and disease, and then I’m going to give everyone universal literacy and competence in math and fluency in language.
Then, a personal palace on a remote part of the Pacific Northwest coast with an army of cleaning robots to maintain the place. I’ll think about what to do with the rest of my charges later. Go away, don’t bother me with requests, I just gave you a peaceful utopia!