Given the danger that religious faith poses to all of us in this era of suitcase nukes and FedExed contagions, Harris demands to know why it’s so often given a free pass in our discourse. Why is “criticizing a person’s ideas about God and the afterlife impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics and history is not?” Why is the role that faith plays in, say, a suicide bombing discounted in favour of political or economic reasons? As he argues, a religious belief “is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life.”
Ultimately, Harris decides that faith is a mode of insanity that escapes such a designation because of its ubiquity. If a lone individual believed that Jesus Christ can be eaten in the form of a cracker for salutary metaphysical effect, or “that God will reward him with seventy-two virgins if he kills a score of Jewish teenagers,” his treatment would almost certainly include routine sedation, a monochromatic wardrobe, and scheduled walks in guarded courtyards. Harris strives to understand the curious partitioning that takes place in the human mind, where otherwise reasonable people require no corroboration for their theological convictions.
I haven’t read it yet, but it’s piqued my interest.
From what I’ve read, Harris doesn’t appear to be a fanatical, pessimistic critic out to make a buck from an obvious controversial subject; his intentions seem honourable. His educational background:
He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years. Mr. Harris is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Yeah, he could still be a nut, but at least he’s an educated nut.
Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview is an interesting read:
The thing to reiterate is that every Christian knows exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims, for instance. Muslims have the same reasons for being Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. They have a book they’re sure was written or dictated by the creator of the universe–because the book says that it was written or dictated by the creator of the universe. Christians look at Muslim discourse and find it fundamentally unpersuasive. Christians aren’t lying awake at night worrying about whether they should convert to Islam. Why not? Because Muslims can’t really back up their claims. They are clearly engaged in a style of discourse that is just not intellectually honest. It’s not purposed to genuine inquiry into the nature of the world. It is a reiteration of dogma, and they are clearly committed to a massive program of self-deception. Every Christian recognizes this about every religion other than Christianity. So every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist. They just don’t turn the same candor and intellectual honesty on to their own faith.