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A dialogue with a secularist

Tuesday, Aug 24, 2004

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In his just published book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” Sam Harris, who received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is now completing his doctorate in neuroscience, argues that religion is the cause of the world’s evils, while reason is the solution.

I conducted a dialogue/debate with him on my radio show. What follows is one part of that dialogue. The audio of the entire dialogue is available at my Web site www.dennisprager.com, and the entire transcript can also be read there.

Dennis Prager: You believe that in secularism and in reason lie the answers to the moral problems of humanity. Is that a fair summary of your views?

Sam Harris: Yes, up to a point. I’m actually not discounting the range of human experience we might want to call “spiritual” or “mystical.”

DP: I believe that if I took a thousand evangelical ministers — the folks that you have a certain fear of, and I took a thousand professors in the liberal arts, I would bet every penny I have that the moral acuity of the thousand evangelical ministers would dwarf the moral acuity of a thousand liberal arts professors. For which reason Lawrence Summers, for example, the president of Harvard, announced two years ago that the seat — the seat — of anti-Semitism in America had shifted to the university. The university had also been the seat of support for Stalin. The university in Germany was the seat of the place to get Nazi philosophers. That you have such faith in secular reason is to me unbelievable, given the record of the secular rationalists.

SH: Well, first, let me agree with you that liberal, ivory-tower discourse right now is certainly in many sectors bereft of real moral acuity, and the kind of discourse you have about Israel in particular vis a vis the conflict with the Palestinians — all of that is deplorable. But your first question, really, it all turns on what you mean by morality.

DP: Good and evil.

SH: Take something even more precise than that. Our aversion to human cruelty. All of us who are well wired neurologically and do not come into this world with whatever causes sociopathy have a predisposition to recoil at cruelty such as torturing other people certainly, and animals. I would argue that we don’t get that out of our religious books. In fact, our religious books offer rather equivocal testimony on the moral status of cruelty. There’s a lot of cruelty in them.

DP: I will defend the religious books, but you need to defend the alternative. Why is it that religious folks whom you fear turn out to be more morally accurate today than the secular folks at the university?

SH: I didn’t concede that point. I think that when you’re talking about something as fundamental as recoiling from cruelty you would find that healthy people are going to be more or less the same across the board. But I agree with you that about any number of things right now, academia has really become unhitched from morality as you and I know it.

DP: I admire the fact that you, who are in academia, would say that. But don’t you ask what the root cause might be? To me it is clear: secularism.

SH: Well, actually, no, I think the root cause in academia, certainly liberal academia now, is what we call “political correctness.” There are so many taboos in academia and in our culture at large. The one I’m going up against most directly in my book is the taboo around criticizing faith itself.

DP: There’s no taboo on criticizing Judaism or Christianity. There’s only a taboo in the university on criticizing Islam.

SH: Well, I actually find that people are very reluctant to criticize faith itself, even when they don’t have it.

DP: Not Christianity. Everyone who goes to university learns that Christianity is an impediment to progress. It is part of the liberal arts curriculum.

SH: Well, I don’t think this is at the core of either our agreement or our differences. I think that the problem we have to face now is that people are flying planes into our buildings because they believe their book was written by God. And it doesn’t seem to me that our proper response to that predicament is to say, “No, no, you have it wrong; our book was written by God.”

DP: Yet ironically, it is really only very strongly religious Christians, by and large — and I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew — who have been at the forefront of criticizing Islam today. And they are called, by your whole secular liberal world, racists and bigots for doing so.

SH: Right. I agree with you totally. I think it’s profoundly ironic that the most sensible statements about Islam to appear in our culture have come from our own religious dogmatists.

DP: It’s not ironic. That’s where you and I differ. It is their faith that gives them (their values and) the strength to say it. I think the university is a moral failure because it is radically secular. You think it’s a failure because they’re just weak-willed and politically correct.

If I lived 200 years ago in Europe, I would have been tempted by the argument that reason alone, without God, religion and sacred texts, can lead us to goodness. After the depredations of the French Revolution; the horrors of two secular doctrines, Nazism and Communism; the low moral state of American and European universities; and the moral cowardice and appeasement of evil in contemporary secular Europe, one has to be — ironically — a true believer to believe that reason alone will lead us to a more moral world. Of course, we need reason. But we also need God and moral religion.

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