Why are atheists so angry? Sam Harris and Dennis Prager inaugurate Jewcy’s “Big Question” series by arguing this very question. In the Big Question, passionate thinkers will debate the weightiest, most contentious issues of the day via e-mail.
Author of the thundering anti-theist polemics The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris may just be the Thomas Paine of an emerging movement to wrench religion out of American life. Prager is a nationally syndicated talk radio host who trumpets the virtues of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For the next four days, each of them will send us one e-mail per day.
From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: Yahweh Belongs on the Scrapheap of Mythology
I’d like to begin this exchange by making the observation that “atheist” is a term that should not even exist. We do not, after all, have a name for a person who does not believe in Zeus or Thor. In fact, we are all “atheists” with respect to Zeus and Thor and the thousands of other dead gods that now lie upon the scrapheap of mythology.
A politician who seriously invokes Poseidon in a campaign speech will have thereby announced the end of his political career. Why is this so? Did someone around the time of Constantine discover that the pagan gods do not actually exist, while the biblical God does? Of course not. There are thousands of gods that were once worshipped with absolute conviction by men and women like ourselves, and yet we all now agree that they are rightly dead. An “atheist” is simply someone who thinks that the God of Abraham should be buried with the rest of these imaginary friends. I am quite sure that we need only use words like “reason,” “common sense,” “evidence,” and “intellectual honesty” to do the job.
So many gods have passed into oblivion, and yet the sky-god of Abraham demands fresh sacrifices. Wars are still waged, crimes committed, and science undone out of deference to an invisible being who is believed to have created the entire cosmos, fine-tuned the constants of nature, blanketed the earth with 20,000 distinct species of grasshopper, and yet still remains so provincial a creature as to concern himself with what consenting adults do for pleasure in the privacy of their bedrooms. Incompatible beliefs about this God long ago shattered our world into separate moral communities—Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc.—and these divisions remain a continuous source of human violence.
And yet, while the religious divisions in our world are self-evident, many people still imagine that religious conflict is always caused by a lack of education, by poverty, or by politics. Yet the September 11th hijackers were college-educated, middle-class, and had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosques talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise.
How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in this day and age a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: They don’t know what it is like to really believe in God.
The United States now stands alone in the developed world as a country that conducts its national discourse under the shadow of religious literalism. Eighty-three percent of the U.S. population believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead; 53% believe that the universe is 6,000 years old. This is embarrassing. Add to this comedy of false certainties the fact that 44% of Americans are confident that Jesus will return to Earth sometime in the next 50 years and you will glimpse the terrible liability of this sort of thinking.
Nearly half of the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the world. This dewy-eyed nihilism provides absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization. Many of these people are lunatics, but they are not the lunatic fringe. Some of them can actually get Karl Rove on the phone whenever they want.
While Muslim extremists now fly planes into our buildings, saw the heads off journalists and aid-workers, and riot by the tens of thousands over cartoons, several recent polls reveal that atheists are now the most reviled minority in the United States. A majority of Americans say they would refuse to vote for an atheist even if he were a “well-qualified candidate” from their own political party. Atheism, therefore, is a perfect impediment to holding elected office in this country (while being a woman, black, Muslim, Jewish, or gay is not). Most Americans also say that of all the unsavory alternatives on offer, they would be least likely to allow their child to marry an atheist. These declarations of prejudice might be enough to make some atheists angry. But they are not what makes me angry.
As an atheist, I am angry that we live in a society in which the plain truth cannot be spoken without offending 90% of the population. The plain truth is this: There is no good reason to believe in a personal God; there is no good reason to believe that the Bible, the Koran, or any other book was dictated by an omniscient being; we do not, in any important sense, get our morality from religion; the Bible and the Koran are not, even remotely, the best sources of guidance we have for living in the 21st century; and the belief in God and in the divine provenance of scripture is getting a lot of people killed unnecessarily.
Against these plain truths religious people have erected a grotesque edifice of myths, obfuscations, half-truths, and wishful thinking. Perhaps you, Dennis, would now like to bring some of that edifice into view.