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.
Saltman: I’ve interviewed a lot of born-again Christians. Many of them said they were praying for me because they were convinced I’m going to hell, since I’m not a “believer.” Sometimes this irritated me, but I never felt that I was in real danger.
Harris: Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. They’re not, presumably, eager to see people burned alive for heresy. A few centuries of science, modernity, and secular politics have moderated even the religious extremists among us. But there are a few exceptions to this. There are the Dominionist Christians, for example, who actually do think homosexuals and adulterers should be put to death. But the people going to a megachurch in Orange County, California, are not calling for this.
They are, however, quite sanguine about human suffering. Their opposition to stem-cell research, for instance, is prolonging the misery of tens of millions of people at this moment. Michael Specter wrote an article in the New Yorker titled “Political Science” about how the Christian Right is distorting the government’s relationship to science. One example is that we now have a vaccine for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, of which five thousand women die every year in the United States. The vaccine, which can be given to girls at age eleven or twelve, is safe and effective. Yet evangelical Christians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — political appointees — have argued that we should not use this vaccine, because it will remove one of the natural deterrents to premarital sex. Reginald Finger, who’s on the immunization advisory committee of the CDC, has said that even if we had a vaccine against HIV, he would have to think long and hard about whether to use it, because it might encourage premarital sex.
Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.
Saltman: If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?
Harris: Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable.
I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.
Saltman: You mentioned Canada. I have good friends in Canada who are practicing Buddhists and have lived for several years in a monastery. They have a difficult time, because Canadians are extremely suspicious of any religious activity. Everybody thinks they’re fundamentalists.
Harris: To some degree your friends are casualties of the fact that we have not learned to talk about the contemplative life in terms that do not endorse a particular religious ideology. If you go into a cave for a year to meditate, you are, by definition, a religious extremist. You have to be able to explain how you are different from Osama bin Laden in his cave.
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.
Saltman: How did you come to Buddhist practice?
Harris: I came to it initially through a few drug experiences. I had a brief psychedelic phase around twenty years ago that convinced me, if nothing else, that it was possible to have a very different experience of the world. I began reading about mysticism and contemplative experience, and it led me to Buddhist practice — Dzogchen practice, in particular.
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