West of Eden,

A Science of Good and Evil,

Experiments in Consciousness,


excerpted from the book

The End of Faith

Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

by Sam Harris

WW Norton, 2004


West of Eden

The degree to which religious ideas still determine government policies specially those of the United States-presents a grave danger to everyone. It has been widely reported, for instance, that Ronald Reagan perceived the paroxysms in the Middle East through the lens of biblical prophecy. He went so far as to include men like Jerry Falwell and Hal Lindsey in his national security briefings.' It should go without saying that theirs are not the sober minds one wants consulted about the deployment of nuclear weaponry. For many years U.S. policy in the Middle East has been shaped, at least in part, by the interests that fundamentalist Christians have in the future of a Jewish state. Christian "support for Israel" is, in fact, an example of religious cynicism so transcendental as to go almost unnoticed in our political discourse. Fundamentalist Christians support Israel because they believe that the final consolidation of Jewish power in the Holy Land-specifically, the rebuilding of Solomon's temple-will usher in both the Second Coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Jews. Such smiling anticipations of genocide seem to have presided over the Jewish state from its first moments: the first international support for the Jewish return to Palestine, Britain's Balfour Declaration of 1917, was inspired, at least in part, by a conscious conformity to biblical prophecy. These intrusions of eschatology into modern politics suggest that the dangers of religious faith can scarcely be overstated. Millions of Christians and Muslims now organize their lives around prophetic traditions that will only find fulfillment once rivers of blood begin flowing from Jerusalem.

The Eternal Legislator

Many members of the U.S. government currently view their professional responsibilities in religious terms. Consider the case of Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Finding himself confronted by the sixth-highest murder rate in the nation, justice Moore thought it expedient to install a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state courthouse in Montgomery. Almost no one disputes that this was a violation of the spirit (if not the letter) of the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When a federal court ordered Justice Moore to remove the monument, he refused. Not wanting to have an obvious hand in actually separating church and state, the U.S. Congress amended an appropriations bill to ensure that federal funds could not be used for the monument's removal. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose sole business is to enforce the nation's laws, maintained a pious silence all the while. This was not surprising, given that when he does speak, he is in the habit of saying things like "We are a nation called to defend freedom-freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God."' According to a Gallup poll, Ashcroft and the Congress were on firm ground as far as the American people were concerned, because 78 percent of those polled objected to the removal of the monument. One wonders whether Moore, Ashcroft, the U.S. Congress, and three-quarters of the American people would like to see the punishments for breaking these hallowed commandments also specified in marble and placed in our nation's courts. What, after all, is the punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain? It happens to be death (Leviticus 24:16). What is the punishment for working on the Sabbath? Also death (Exodus 31:15). What is the punishment for cursing one's father or mother? Death again (Exodus 21:17). What is the punishment for adultery? You're catching on (Leviticus 20:10). While the commandments themselves are difficult to remember (especially since chapters 20 and 34 of Exodus provide us with incompatible lists), the penalty for breaking them is simplicity itself.

... 40 percent of those who eventually voted for Bush were white evangelicals.

... 65 percent of [Americans] are quite certain that Satan exists.

In January of 2002, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Catholic, delivered a speech at the University of Chicago Divinity School on the subject of the death penalty. I quote Scalia at some length, because his remarks reveal just how close we are to living in a theocracy:

This is not the Old Testament, I emphasize, but St. Paul.... [T]he core of his message is that government-however you want to limit that concept-derives its moral authority from God. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral .... I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next? ... For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act! .

The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible. We have done that in this country (and continental Europe has not) by preserving in our public life many visible reminders that-in the words of a Supreme Court opinion from the 1940s-"we are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." . . . All this, as I say, is most unEuropean, and helps explain why our people are more inclined to understand, as St. Paul did, that government carries the sword as "the minister of God," to "execute wrath" upon the evildoer.

All of this should be terrifying to anyone who expects that reason will prevail in the inner sanctums of power in the West. Scalia is right to observe that what a person believes happens after death determines his view of it-and, therefore, his ethics. Although he is a Catholic, Scalia differs from the pope on the subject of capital punishment, but then so do a majority of Americans (74 percent). It is remarkable that we are the last civilized nation to put "evildoers" to death, and Justice Scalia rightly attributes this to our style of religiosity.

... men who believe that we already have God's eternal decrees on paper-have been inoculated against doubts on this subject or, indeed, against the nuances of a scientific worldview. It is not surprising that Scalia is the kind of judge that President Bush has sought to appoint to the federal courts. 18 Scalia supports the use of capital punishment even in cases where the defendant is acknowledged to be mentally retarded. He also upholds state sodomy laws (in this case, even when they are applied in an exclusive and discriminating way to homosexuals) 20 Needless to say, Scalia has found legal reasons to insist that the Supreme Court not leaven the religious dogmatism of the states, but he leaves little doubt that he looks to Saint Paul, and perhaps to the barbarous author of Leviticus, for guidance on these matters.


The War on Sin

It is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others. This impulse has less to do with the history of religion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God. If God sees and knows all things, and remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual behaviors or states of the brain, then what people do in the privacy of their own homes, though it may not have the slightest implication for their behavior in public, will still be a matter of public concern for people of faith.

A variety of religious notions of wrongdoing can be seen converging here-concerns over nonprocreative sexuality and idolatry especially-and these seem to have given many of us the sense that it is ethical to punish people, often severely, for engaging in private behavior that harms no one. Like most costly examples of irrationality, in which human happiness has been blindly subverted for generations, the role of religion here is both explicit and foundational. To see that our laws against "vice" have actually nothing to do with keeping people from coming to physical or psychological harm, and everything to do with not angering God, we need only consider that oral or anal sex between consenting adults remains a criminal offense in thirteen states. Four of the states (Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri) prohibit these acts between same-sex couples and, therefore, effectively prohibit homosexuality. The other nine ban consensual sodomy for everyone (these places of equity are Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia).23 One does not have to be a demographer to grasp that the impulse to prosecute consenting adults for nonprocreative sexual behavior will correlate rather strongly with religious faith.

The influence of faith on our criminal laws comes at a remarkable price. Consider the case of drugs. As it happens, there are many substances-many of them naturally occurring-the consumption of which leads to transient states of inordinate pleasure. Occasionally, it is true, they lead to transient states of misery as well, but there is no doubt that pleasure is the norm, otherwise human beings would not have felt the continual desire to take such substances for millennia. Of course, pleasure is precisely the problem with these substances, since pleasure and piety have always had an uneasy relationship.

When one looks at our drug laws-indeed, at our vice laws altogether-the only organizing principle that appears to make sense of them is that anything which might radically eclipse prayer or procreative sexuality as a source of pleasure has been outlawed. In particular, any drug (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, marijuana, etc.) to which spiritual or religious significance has been ascribed by its users has been prohibited. Concerns about the health of our citizens, or about their productivity, are red herrings in this debate, as the legality of alcohol and cigarettes attests.

The fact that people are being prosecuted and imprisoned for using marijuana, while alcohol remains a staple commodity, is surely the reductio ad absurdum of any notion that our drug laws are designed to keep people from harming themselves or others. Alcohol is by any measure the more dangerous substance.

Our prohibition of certain substances has led thousands of otherwise productive and law-abiding men and women to be locked away for decades at a stretch, sometimes for life. Their children have become wards of the state. As if such cascading horror were not disturbing enough, violent criminals-murders, rapists, and child molesters-are regularly paroled to make room for them. Here we appear to have overstepped the banality of evil and plunged to the absurdity at its depths.

The consequences of our irrationality on this front are so egregious that they bear closer examination. Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arrested in the United States because of our drug laws. At this moment, somewhere on the order of 400,000 men and women languish in U.S. prisons for nonviolent drug offenses. One million others are currently on probation. More people are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses in the United States than are incarcerated, for any reason, in all of Western Europe (which has a larger population).

The problem with the prohibition of any desirable commodity is / money. The United Nations values the drug trade at $400 billion a year. This exceeds the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Defense. If this figure is correct, the trade in illegal drugs constitutes 8 percent of all international commerce (while the sale of textiles makes up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent).35 And yet, prohibition itself is what makes the manufacture and sale of drugs so extraordinarily profitable. Those who earn their living in this way enjoy a 5,000 to 20,000 percent return on their investment, tax-free. Every relevant indicator of the drug trade rates of drug use and interdiction, estimates of production, the purity of drugs on the street, etc.-shows that the government can do nothing to stop it as long as such profits exist (indeed, these profits are highly corrupting of law enforcement in any case). The crimes of the addict, to finance the stratospheric cost of his lifestyle, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his territory and his goods, are likewise the results of prohibition. A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for terrorist organizations ...

Anyone who believes that God is watching us from beyond the stars will feel that punishing peaceful men and women for their private pleasure is perfectly reasonable. We are now in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we should have better reasons for depriving our neighbors of their liberty at gunpoint. Given the magnitude of the real problems that confront us-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the spread of infectious disease, failing infrastructure, lack of adequate funds for education and health care, etc.--our war on sin is so outrageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment.

President Bush recent decided to cut off funding to any overseas family-planning group that provides information on abortion. According to the New York Times, this "has effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it in 13 others, including some with the world's highest rates of AIDS infection." Under the influence of Christian notions of the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage, the U.S. government has required that one-third of its AIDS prevention funds allocated to Africa be squandered on teaching abstinence rather than condom use. It is no exaggeration to say that millions could die as a direct result of this single efflorescence of religious dogmatism.

Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc). This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics. It is time we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong.

We ... do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives. Once we begin thinking seriously about happiness and suffering, we find that our religious traditions are no more reliable on questions of ethics than they have been on scientific questions generally.

The perverse wonder of evolution is this: the very mechanisms that create the incredible beauty and diversity of the living world guarantee monstrosity and death. The child born without limbs, the sightless fly, the vanished species-these are nothing less than Mother Nature caught in the act of throwing her clay. No perfect God could maintain such incongruities. It is worth remembering that if God created the world and all things in it, he created smallpox, plague, and filariasis.

Christopher Hitchens
"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

How is it ... that a Nazi guard could return each day from his labors at the crematoria and be a loving father to his children? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: the Jews he spent the day torturing and killing were not objects of his moral concern. Not only were they outside his moral community; they were antithetical to it. His beliefs about Jews inured him to the natural human sympathies that might have otherwise prevented such behavior.

Unfortunately, religion casts more shadows than light on this terrain. Rather than find real reasons for human solidarity, faith offers us a solidarity born of tribal and tribalizing fictions. As we have seen, religion is one of the great limiters of moral identity, since most believers differentiate themselves, in moral terms, from those who do not share their faith. No other ideology is so eloquent on the subject of what divides one moral community from another. Once a person accepts the premises upon which most religious identities are built, the withdrawal of his moral concern from those who do not share these premises follows quite naturally. Needless to say, the suffering of those who are destined for hell can never be as problematic as the suffering of the righteous. If certain people can't see the unique wisdom and sanctity of my religion, if their hearts are so beclouded by sin, what concern is it of mine if others mistreat them? They have been cursed by the very God who made the world and all things in it. Their search for happiness was simply doomed from the start.

For ethics to matter to us, the happiness and suffering of others must matter to us.

To treat others ethically is to act out of concern for their happiness and suffering. It is, as Kant observed, to treat them as ends in themselves rather than as a means to some further end. Many ethical injunctions converge here-Kant's categorical imperative, Jesus' golden rule-but the basic facts are these: we experience happiness and suffering ourselves; we encounter others in the world and recognize that they experience happiness and suffering as well; we soon discover that "love" is largely a matter of wishing that others experience happiness rather than suffering ...

Consider the practice of "honor killing" that persists throughout] much of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. We live in a world in which women and girls are regularly murdered by their male relatives for perceived sexual indiscretions-ranging from merely speaking to a man without permission to falling victim of rape. Coverage of these atrocities in the Western media generally refers to them as a "tribal" practice, although they almost invariably occur in a Muslim context. Whether we call the beliefs that inspire this behavior "tribal" or "religious" is immaterial; the problem is clearly a product of what men in these societies believe about shame and honor, about the role of women, and about female sexuality.

One consequence of these beliefs has been to promote rape as a weapon of war. No doubt there are more creaturely, and less calculating, motives for soldiers to commit rape on a massive scale, but it cannot be denied that male beliefs about "honor" have made it a brilliant instrument of psychological and cultural oppression. Rape has become a means through which the taboos of a community can be used to rend it from within. Consider the Bosnian women systematically raped by Serbs: one might have thought that since many of their male relatives could not escape getting killed, it would be only reasonable to concede that the women themselves could not escape getting raped. But such flights of ethical intelligence cannot be made with a sufficient payload of unjustified belief-in this case, belief in the intrinsic sinfulness of women, in the importance of virginity prior to marriage, and in the shamefulness of being raped. Needless to say, similar failures of compassion have a venerable pedigree in the Christian West. Augustine, for instance, when considering the moral stature of virgins who had been raped by the Goths, wondered whether they had not been "unduly puffed up by [their] integrity, continence and chastity." Perhaps they suffered "some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them. " Perhaps, in other words, they deserved it.

Given the requisite beliefs about "honor," a man will be desperate to kill his daughter upon learning that she was raped. The same angel of compassion can be expected to visit her brothers as well. Such killings are not at all uncommon in places like Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. In these parts of the world, a girl of any age who gets raped has brought shame upon her family. Luckily, this shame is not indelible and can be readily expunged with her blood. The subsequent ritual is inevitably a low-tech affair, as none of these societies have devised a system for administering lethal injections for the crime of bringing shame upon one's family. The girl either has her throat cut, or she is dowsed with gasoline and set on fire, or she is shot. The jail sentences for these men, if they are prosecuted at all, are invariably short. Many are considered heroes in their communities.

What can we say about this behavior? Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? Of course, we can. And what is truly incredible about the state of our discourse is that such a claim is not only controversial but actually unutterable in most contexts.

Where's the proof that these men are less capable of love than the rest of us? Well, where would the proof be if a person behaved this way in our own society? Where's the proof that the person who shot JFK didn't really love him? All the proof we need came from the book depository. We know how the word "love" functions in our discourse. We have all felt love, have failed to feel it, and have occasionally felt its antithesis. Even if we don't harbor the slightest sympathy for their notion of "honor," we know what these honor killers are up to-and it is not a matter of expressing their love for the women in their lives. Of course, honor killing is merely one facet in that terrible kaleidoscope that is the untutored, male imagination: dowry deaths and bride burnings, female infanticide, acid attacks, female genital mutilation, sexual slavery-these and other joys await unlucky women throughout much of the world. There is no doubt that certain beliefs are incompatible with love, and this notion of "honor" is among them.

Any culture that raises men and boys to kill unlucky girls, rather I than comfort them, is a culture that has managed to retard the growth of love. Such societies, of course, regularly fail to teach their inhabitants many other things-like how to read. Not learning how to read is not another style of literacy, and not learning to see others as ends in themselves is not another style of ethics. It is a failure ethics.

What, after all, is "collateral damage" but the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women, and children? Whenever we consent to drop bombs, we do so with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them. It is curious that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the unintended (though perfectly foreseeable, and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.

So we can now ask, if we are willing to act in a way that guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children, why spare the rod with suspected terrorists? What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent men, women, and children? Rather, it seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers. Torture need not even impose a significant risk of death or permanent injury on its victims; while the collaterally damaged are, almost by definition, crippled or killed. The ethical divide that seems to be opening up here suggests that those who are willing to drop bombs might want to abduct the nearest and dearest of suspected terrorists-their wives, mothers, and daughters-and torture them as well, assuming anything profitable to our side might come of it. Admittedly, this would be a ghastly result to have reached by logical argument, and we will want to find some way of escaping it.

In this context, we should note that many variables influence our feelings about an act of physical violence, as well as our intuitions about its ethical status. As Clover points out, "in modern war, what is most shocking is a poor guide to what is most harmful." To learn that one's grandfather flew a bombing mission over Dresden in the Second World War is one thing; to hear that he killed five little girls and their mother with a shovel is another. We can be sure that he would have killed more women and girls by dropping bombs from pristine heights, and they are likely to have died equally horrible deaths, but his culpability would not appear the same. Indeed, we seem to know, intuitively, that it would take a different kind of person to perpetrate violence of the latter sort. And, as we might expect, the psychological effects of participating in these types of violence are generally distinct. Consider the following account of a Soviet soldier in Afghanistan: "It's frightening and unpleasant to have to kill, you think, but you soon realize that what you really find objectionable is shooting someone point-blank. Killing en masse, in a group, is exciting, even-and I've seen this myself-fun. This is not to say that no one has ever enjoyed killing people up close; it is just that we all recognize that such enjoyment requires an unusual degree of callousness to the suffering of others.

It is possible that we are simply unequipped to rectify this disparity-to be, in Glover's terms, most shocked by what is most harmful. A biological rationale is not hard to find, as millions of years on the African veldt could not possibly have selected for an ability to make emotional sense of twenty-first-century horror. That our Paleolithic genes now have chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons at their disposal is, from the point of view of our evolution, little different from our having delivered this technology into the hands of chimps. The difference between killing one man and killing a thousand just doesn't seem as salient to us as it should. And, as Clover observes, in many cases we will find the former far more disturbing. Three million souls can be starved and murdered in the Congo, and our Argus-eyed media scarcely blink. When a princess dies in a car accident, however, a quarter of the earth's population falls prostrate with grief. Perhaps we are unable to feel what we must feel in order to change the world.

The False Choice of Pacifism

Pacifism is generally considered to be a morally unassailable position to take with respect to human violence. The worst that is said of it, generally, is that it is a difficult position to maintain in practice. It is almost never branded as flagrantly immoral, which I believe it is. While it can seem noble enough when the stakes are low, pacifism is ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world's thugs. It should be enough to note that a single sociopath, armed with nothing more than a knife, could exterminate a city full of pacifists j There is no doubt that such sociopaths exist, and they are generally better armed. Fearing that the above reflections on torture may offer a potent argument for pacifism, I would like to briefly state why I believe we must accept the fact that violence (or its threat) is often an ethical necessity.

Gandhi was undoubtedly the twentieth century's most influential pacifist. The success he enjoyed in forcing the British Empire to withdraw from the Indian subcontinent brought pacifism down from the ethers of religious precept and gave it new political relevance. Pacifism in this form no doubt required considerable bravery from its practitioners and constituted a direct confrontation with injustice. As such, it had far more moral integrity than did my stratagem above. It is clear, however, that Gandhi's nonviolence can be applied to only a limited range of human conflict. We would do well to reflect on Gandhi's remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide, because this "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." We might wonder what a world full of pacifists would have done once it had grown "aroused"-commit suicide as well?

Gandhi was a religious dogmatist, of course, but his remedy for the Holocaust seems ethically suspect even if one accepts the metaphysical premises upon which it was based. If we grant the law of karma and rebirth to which Gandhi subscribed, his pacifism still seems highly immoral. Why should it be thought ethical to safeguard one's own happiness (or even the happiness of others) in the next life at the expense of the manifest agony of children in this one? Gandhi's was a world in which millions more would have died in the hopes that the Nazis would have one day doubted the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich. Ours is a world in which bombs must occasionally fall where such doubts are in short supply. Here we come upon a terrible facet of ethically asymmetric warfare: when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.

It is, as yet, unclear what it will mean to win our war on "terrorism"-or whether the religious barbarism that animates our enemies can ever be finally purged from our world-but it is all too obvious what it would mean to lose it. Life under the Taliban is, to a first approximation, what millions of Muslims around the world want to impose on the rest of us. They long to establish a society in which-when times are good-women will remain vanquished and invisible, and anyone given to spiritual, intellectual, or sexual freedom will be slaughtered before crowds of sullen, uneducated men. This, needless to say, is a vision of life worth resisting. We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.


The Wisdom of the East
... when the great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical aft] theological traditions, the difference is unmistakable: Buddha, Shankara, Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Longchenpa, and countless others down to the present have no equivalents in the West. In spiritual terms, we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. It is little wonder, therefore, that many Western scholars have found the view within rather unremarkable."

Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial-at once full of hope and full of fear-of the vastitude of human ignorance.

A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.


While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. Forsaking all valid sources of information about this world (both spiritual and mundane), our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance. Books that embrace the narrowest spectrum of political, moral, scientific, and spiritual understanding, books that, by their antiquity alone, offer us the most dilute wisdom with respect to the present-are still dogmatically thrust upon us as the final word on matters of the greatest significance. In the best case, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence. Even now, many of us are motivated not by what we know but by what we are content merely to imagine. Many are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion, and justice in this world, for a fantasy of a world to come. These and other degradations await us along the well-worn path o piety. Whatever our religious differences may mean for the next life, they have only one terminus in this one-a future of ignorance and slaughter.

We live in societies that are still constrained by religious laws and threatened by religious violence. What is it about us, and specifically about our discourse with one another, that keeps these astonishing bits of evil loose in our world? We have seen that education and wealth are insufficient guarantors of rationality. Indeed, even in the West, educated men and women still cling to the blood-soaked heirlooms of a previous age. Mitigating this problem is not merely a matter of reining in a minority of religious extremists; it is a matter of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that make no appeal to faith, and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone.

This world is simply ablaze with bad ideas. There are still places where people are put to death for imaginary crimes-like blasphemy-and where the totality of a child's education consists of his learning to recite from an ancient book of religious fiction. There are countries where women are denied almost every human liberty, except the liberty to breed. And yet, these same societies are quickly acquiring terrifying arsenals of advanced weaponry. If we cannot inspire the developing world, and the Muslim world in particular, to pursue ends that are compatible with a global civilization, then a dark future awaits all of us.

The contest between our religions is zero-sum. Religious violence is still with us because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests are restraining the most lethal improprieties of faith. It is time we acknowledged that no foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity.

We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically-with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings-without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant.

Sam Harris page

Index of Website

Home Page