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The Rediff Interview/Sam Harris, Writer
'Religion gives good people bad reasons to be good'
December 12, 2006
Sam Harris, the author of one of the most controversial bestsellers in recent years, Letter to a Christian Nation, had also written another bombshell book, The End of Faith.
Letter to a Christian Nation has been on The New York Times bestseller list for more than four weeks now.
Harris, who spent several months in India more than a decade ago to learn meditation and yoga, has been an atheist for more than 20 years.
In his new book, he addresses the concerns of non-Judaic religions in America about the Ten Commandments being taken more seriously than before. He also argues eloquently why Jainism offers a better moral framework than Christianity.
Harris, a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University, has for 20 years studied Eastern and Western religious traditions and a variety of contemplative disciplines. He is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience.
He spoke to Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Arthur J Pais on why he objects to organised religion.
Why are you extremely critical of the first four of the Ten Commandments of the Christian faith?
It is because the first four injunctions -- 'You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not make for yourself a graven image; You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God in vain; Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy -- have nothing whatsoever to do with morality.
They forbid the practice of any non-Judeo-Christian faith -- like Hinduism, most religious art, utterances like 'Goddamn it!' and all ordinary work on the Sabbath.
And placing those commandments in government institutions like the courts, as some people demand, could hurt the feelings of non-Christians?
It is difficult to imagine what kind of practical effect it would have, but the First Commandment, if taken literally, makes a religion like Hinduism an abomination. And because Islam also forbids graven images and since many people take the injunction seriously, we run into trouble, say, when there is a caricature of the Prophet published in a newspaper.
Why are you also critical of Christians who believe that Martin Luther King Jr is the best exemplar of their religion?
I am convinced that Jainism is a better guide than the Bible to become a nonviolent activist, like King Jr was. The Christian claim over King Jr as a moral, socially engaged Christian is ironic because he was directly influenced by Gandhi, who was strongly influenced by Jainism.
Christians are convinced that the Ten Commandments are the absolute statement of morality but they should look at Jainism. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, surpassed the morality, of the Bible in one, in just one sentence: Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being.
Christians who swear by the Bible have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of their scriptures for centuries. Had the Bible contained the teachings of Mahavira as its central precept, perhaps we would be living in a different world.
You are an atheist but if you were to choose a religion would it be Jainism?
I believe one can be a moral being without belonging to any religion. Besides, Jainism has other consequences. I am not a pacifist. I don't want Gandhi or Mahavira to decide our response to someone like Hitler. If we had listened to these two men, we would have continued to be ruled by the Nazis for another millennium.
You are also critical of Christian missionaries, aren't you?
But I also recognise that there are good people among the missionaries, who go to help others in foreign countries, and they have fought against social ills, including bonded labour in India. For these missionaries service goes deeper than their religion.
Religion gives good people bad reasons to be good, while I believe there are good reasons available (to be good). It is possible to work for others because of sheer humanistic, humane impulses.
Take, for example, organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and its members, who do not go around telling people that Jesus was born of a virgin. Nor do they tell people, especially in such regions as sub-Saharan Africa where over four million people die from AIDS every year, that using condoms is a sin. Most Christian missionaries do that.
I have said, repeatedly, that this kind of piety is genocidal.
And that leads us to your comments on Mother Teresa in the book. What do you object to most in her?
She is a classic example of an extraordinarily good person having her moral intuitions clouded by her religion. I had found her at one point to be very inspiring. Even today, I have some respect for her.
There is no denying that she was a great force for compassion, and she did much to awaken others to the reality of suffering. But what she was doing was constrained by her Catholicism.
Her ideas of the nobility of poverty were counterproductive, and her views on abortions were terrible.
She often said, and especially when she accepted the Nobel Prize, that of all evils she had seen in her lifetime, none was more terrible than abortion. She also said that the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.
I cannot believe that the killing of first-trimester foetuses disturbed her more than all the sufferings she witnessed over six or seven decades.
I think if one is really worried about human sufferings, abortion should rank very low on their list of concerns.
And what would the lawmakers in this country (the US) who proclaim their Christian roots have to say to the fact that God is the most prolific abortionist?
How can you say that God is an abortionist?
Since (people like) Mother Teresa, the Catholic Church and other Christians believe that God takes care of all human beings, they should think of the millions of people who have involuntary miscarriages every day across the world. Their God does not seem to be interested in doing anything about it.
You have also written critically about the harm done by religious moderates in any society, particularly in America. Could you revisit the subject?
Most people think that while religious extremism is problematic and polarising, religious tolerance is the remedy. But I strongly believe religious moderates are giving cover to fundamentalists because of the respect that moderates demand of faith-based talk.
In principle, religious moderation doesn't allow us to be critical of other faiths. Thus, fundamentalism is kept alive, and fundamentalists make very cynical and artful use of the cover they're getting by their political correctness.
You have said your previous book The End of Faith, while being critical of religion itself, was more concerned with Muslim militancy across the world.
I started writing it soon after 9/11 and even while I was working on it, I was worried that it might have a Salman Rushdie kind of effect, but I also knew I had to write the book.
I argued in the book that the last thing we were going to admit was that people were flying planes into our buildings because of what they believed about God.
We came up with euphemisms about this being a war on terror, and Islam being a religion of peace. Worse, we were pushed even further into our own religiosity as a nation.
We began to talk about Osama bin Laden and the extremists of the Muslim world as being the exceptions. Many people compared Osama bin Laden to the Reverend Jim Jones, David Koresh, or some other marginal figure, but I could not be convinced.
I deeply felt that Osama bin Laden's version of Islam is a much more central, plausible version of Islam than people tend to acknowledge.
I argued that the so-called moderates can no longer afford the luxury of political correctness.
As I asserted in the book we must finally recognise the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.
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