Ode to Reason by Sam Harris

Ode to reason. (Letter to the editor) Sam Harris.

Robert Hambourger's unfavorable review of my book, The End of Faith ("Ode to Intolerance," Winter 2006) alleges that I do not understand religion, at least as it is practiced by most people, most of the time. While he sought to illustrate this contention by stringing together many disconnected quotations from my book, he showed no sign of actually having understood my argument against religious faith. The fact that Hambourger has spent some of his considerable academic energies expounding upon "the reasonableness of belief in miracles" is telling.

In The End of Faith I argue that religion is quickly becoming incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society. Despite the ecumenical efforts of many well-intentioned people, irreconcilable religious doctrines still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict. Religious faith--faith that there is a God who cares what name He is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc.--is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. Given the degree to which our world has been fragmented by competing religious commitments, I argue that we must now find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the maintenance of divisive religious dogmas. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity--birth, marriage, death--without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. To this end, scientists and other rational people need to begin talking about ethics and spiritual experience in ways that are compatible with reason. In the last chapter of my book, I argue that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world but rather a matter of our being honest about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis.

Hambourger writes as if the fact of God's existence was well established among the readership of the Harvard International Review. Yet even pious readers of this journal and perhaps even Hambourger himself must know what it is like not to believe in Zeus. Why do we find it so easy, so painless--indeed, so necessary--to be atheists with respect to Zeus? One reason might be this: there is no good evidence to suggest that Zeus exists. Given this situation, we can all immediately appreciate how grotesque it would be if our public discourse in the twenty-first century were conducted, at every turn, in obeisance to the contents of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Imagine if our debates about public policy--about the ethics of medical research, about the rights of adults to marry, about the value of certain international alliances--were constrained by the imaginary dictates of an imaginary god. Swap Zeus for the God of Abraham, and you will discover that this is precisely the situation we are in.

Hambourger announced in these pages that my book is "an open appeal for religious intolerance." Not quite. I am, however, appealing for the same "religious intolerance" that currently makes a belief in Zeus impossible to maintain, even in Greece. This is not the sort of intolerance that produced the gulag. We have not passed any laws against neopaganism--and yet, fanciers of Zeus do not become presidents of our universities, or presidents of the United States. Holocaust deniers don't either. Neither do people who believe that Elvis is still alive or that astrology is an exact science. What sort of "intolerance" has achieved this winnowing of bad ideas? Perhaps Hambourger will permit me to call it by its true name: reason.

This letter was originally sent by Sam to the Harvard International Review in 2006.

SAM HARRIS is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He is currently completing a doctorate in neuroscience. You can hear the RRS interview with Sam Harris right here.