April 9, 2006

Where's the Evidence?

by Sam Harris

Religion loomed large last week, whether in the continued violence in Iraq, or in the world's fascinated response to the unveiling of the 1,700-year-old Judas Gospel. But humanity must, ultimately, abandon faith for reason, argues Sam Harris in "Imagine There's No Heaven: An Atheist Manifesto," on the Web site TruthDig (www.truthdig.com). Harris is the author of "The End of Faith," which won the PEN Award for nonfiction in 2005.

Religion is the one endeavor in which us-them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If a person really believes that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. It may even be reasonable to kill them. If a person thinks there is something that another person can say to his children that could put their souls in jeopardy for all eternity, then the heretic next door is actually far more dangerous than the child molester.

Religion is only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and - all too often - what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. Only a fundamental willingness to be reasonable - to have our beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments - can guarantee that we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.

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