Sam Harris and Christian Pastor Rick Warren discuss religion

April 1, 2007 | By | 16 Replies More

You’ll find this in the current edition of Newsweek.  Here’s an excerpt regarding the source of morality in the absence of religion:

WARREN:  Sam, what are the secular sources of an acceptable moral code? 

HARRIS: Well, I don’t think that the religious books are the source. We go to the Bible and we are the judge of what is good. We see the golden rule as the great distillation of ethical impulses, but the golden rule is not unique to the Bible or to Jesus; you see it in many, many cultures—and you see some form of it among nonhuman primates. I’m not at all a moral relativist. I think it’s quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism. I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing, for example, is unambiguously wrong—you can use the word evil. A society that kills women and girls for sexual indiscretion, even the indiscretion of being raped, is a society that has killed compassion, that has failed to teach men to value women and has eradicated empathy. Empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses, and we can even teach the golden rule without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people.

Rick, Christianity has conducted itself in an abjectly evil manner from time to time. How do you square that with the Christian Gospel of love?

WARREN: I don’t feel duty-bound to defend stuff that’s done in the name of God which I don’t think God approved or advocated. Have things been done wrong in the name of Christianity? Yes. Sam makes the statement in his book that religion is bad for the world, but far more people have been killed through atheists than through all the religious wars put together. Thousands died in the Inquisition; millions died under Mao, and under Stalin and Pol Pot. There is a home for atheists in the world today—it’s called North Korea. I don’t know any atheists who want to go there. I’d much rather live under Tony Blair, or even George Bush. The bottom line is that atheists, who accuse Christians of being intolerant, are as intolerant—

HARRIS: How am I being intolerant? I’m not advocating that we lock people up for their religious beliefs. You can get locked up in Western Europe for denying the Holocaust. I think that’s a terrible way of addressing the problem. This really is one of the great canards of religious discourse, the idea that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were perpetrated because of atheism. The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism. There’s nationalism, there’s tribalism, there’s racism, there’s chauvinism. And there’s religion. Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith.

The bottom line for Warren:

“I’m betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he’s right, I’ve lost nothing. If I’m right, he’s lost everything. I’m not willing to make that gamble.”


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Category: Good and Evil, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Ben says:

    "There is a home for atheists in the world today—it’s called North Korea"

    What a pleasant sentiment. I guess that means God does not approve of atheism, even though we are all His flesh and Blood. In the case of Pastor Rick, God seems to have acquired a bit of xenophobia (fear of aliens/North Koreans). This brings up one thing which I have noticed. This "God" that everybody invokes, seems to embody uniques attributes, depending who's perception of God we are indeed referring. However, (I observe that) certain themes seem to dominate most people's "perceptions of God". The common themes include: limited evidence of scientific training, lack of empathy toward the "other" or "them", He is all-knowing, He is all-loving, judment-bearing, and looking over us. Some of these themes actually contradict eachother, which is probably why we see so much hypocrisy from God fearing folks. Just a thought, not a sermon.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    “I’m betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he’s right, I’ve lost nothing. If I’m right, he’s lost everything. I’m not willing to make that gamble.”

    Pascal's Wager is still alive and well…and as gutless as ever. If "god" is omniscient, doesn't this doofus think he'll know about this hedge fund approach to the afterlife?

    The snarky remark about North Korea is a reminder of the old canard that the Soviet Union tried atheism and found it didn't work. The problem with that is twofold–there were far more reasons the Soviet Union and North Korea do not work than merely their religious policies. And every one who makes that claim doesn't realize that Soviet Russia was NEVER a atheist country–not functionally. Stalin put himself in place of god and the apparatus of party worship was every bit as ritualized and dogmatic as any church ever was. Belief in the party replaced belief in god and it was precisely the same psychology. In my opinion, state atheism has never been tried–but it wouldn't matter if so much else is dysfunctional in a state. To blame all that is wrong with those two examples on that is to be profoundly myopic.

  3. gatomjp says:

    "“I’m betting my life that Jesus was not a liar."

    I don't think Jesus was a liar either…however, the men who wrote about him and attributed things to him that he never said or did, could have been.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Atheism isn't the source of all evil. Theism isn't the source of all evil.

    However, setting up straw men so as to later batter them down (especially when one of them is a knucklehead) doesn't prove anything except an advanced understanding of the decisiveness of context.

    Bad choices make evil possible. If we choose to leave empathy and compassion for others, then we create fertile grounds for evil to occur and persist. It's our choice, not one dictated by any ism. I choose empathy and compassion.

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    Jason writes "Soviet Russia was NEVER an atheist country–not functionally"

    If you get to say that why can't I say "Fundamentalism is not Christianity – not functionally." It seems like a bit of a double standard if you get to criticize "really existing religion" (to paraphrase Stalin) and state atheism or atheistic culture remains a pure ideal vision that has never been put into practice. The fact remains that the Soviet Union was an officially atheist state, like Democratic Kampuchea, N. Korea, etc.

    It may be true that the main motivation for suppressing religion in those states was to get rid of a power structure that rivaled state power. To my mind that is one of the most useful roles of religion – to balance the power of the state when the state gets out of control. Though the Catholic Church as an institution did not do anywhere near enough to oppose Nazism, church organization and infrastructure was used to hide individual Jews in France and elsewhere. And there are other examples throughout history -the abolition movement in England for one.

    Anyway, Rick Warren and Sam Harris are grown-up people who are arguing within a system that still protects freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. I don't think the Bush admin's efforts to erase that separation will outlive him. The pendulum is about to swing back the other way, as after the Scopes monkey trial and failure of Prohibition.

    What we have to worry about is dealing with a world where half the people live on less than $2 a day and religion still serves the role that Karl Marx described:

    "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium ([painkiller) of the people."

    I haven't seen any evidence that Sam Harris or any of the rest of the "Brights" have a clue as to how to ameloriate this situation one iota or deal with cultures radically different than our own. Increasingly, we are going to have to learn how to talk with these people and not simply bomb them – Bush has seen to it that we've passed peak American power as well as peak oil production.

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    "Jason writes “Soviet Russia was NEVER an atheist country–not functionally”

    If you get to say that why can’t I say “Fundamentalism is not Christianity – not functionally.” "

    You can say that. In fact, I'd tend to agree. The difficulty in making distinctions about fundamentalism and christianity is that they share a common language and a common mythology, so it becomes tricky to tease apart legitimate christianity from frothing-at-the-mouth intolerance.

    Stalin, on the other, didn't share any language with religion, but nevertheless made himself and his state the only thing to be worshipped, and it was a worship any 13th century catholic would have recognized.

    But these are largely semantic distinctions. So by all means, go ahead and say that.

  7. Vicki Baker says:

    2 thoughts – It's been a long time since I took Russian history, but I think the most active period of anti-religious propaganda and persecution was under Lenin – the Commintern era when there was still a lot of revolutionary zeal about. There was almost a rapprochement with the Orthodox Church under Stalin during WWII when nationalism became the uppermost concern.

    It may be "semantics" but the historical record shows that only a handful of attempts have been made to found an explicitly "atheistic" culture, and they haven't been pretty. So it shouldn't be a huge surprise when those examples come up in the discussion.

    And re: Stalin's cult of personality functioning as a state religion – what do you visualize replacing religion in the current state of the world? Celebrity worship? Isn't there something about nature abhorring a vacuum?

    Oh that's three thoughts – sorry.

  8. Jason Rayl says:


    Good observations, good thoughts. Lenin did propagandize extensively against religion, especially after it was revealed that some of the heads were involved in overthrow plots, but it was Stalin who shut the churches down. Minor point, really.

    Of course such states would be nasty because by and large they have never been voluntary, and anytime you try to shove a new ideology down people's throats–even if there might be something worthwhile in said ideology–you get resistence which leads to suppression which leads to, well, nastiness. What we try to do here is a tightrope walk based on the Leave It Alone principle. It works better than other things, I think, but not as well as a lot of people think it should. Go please the world.

    As for replacing religion…

    My own opinion is, you never can. Religion and religious expression seem wired into the species. Stamp one out, another grows up in the rubble, automatically. People, as a collective, will have their religion.

    Which means you can see crap like Scientology moving into the vacuum. That's why I doubt we'll ever be "free" of it. I'm not even sure if it's something we ought to be free of.

    But. Look at religion as a phenomenon and tell me it isn't, in almost every instance, a cult of personality. The ideas of a religion, no matter what they are, have less sway with followers than the divinity of the founder. All the movements I can think of have had a central figure who draws more followers than all the theology in print.

  9. Vicki Baker says:

    Sounds like we are in agreement, Jason. My point was: Hey looks like you folks are trying to create a new brand identity for the label "atheist". Any good re-branding campaign starts with an honest survey of the current associations the public has with that brand. So if the brand is "atheism" it shouldn't be too surprising that those associations will include regimes that have conspicuously used that label to define themselves.

  10. Ben says:

    Here is PZ Myers on "shattering the frame" of religion…

    "We are living in a country that has gone horribly wrong; more than 50% of the public reject basic biology, we see citizens denied civil liberties because of their sexual preference, and we're mired in an unjust war, to name just a few problems. Nisbet and Mooney acknowledge that we're seeing a hardening of anti-science attitudes along partisan lines. What they propose, though, is a strategy of taking on the problems indirectly, cozening up to people and winning them over on shared values, but basically avoiding contention on other angles that would cause people to shut down and ignore your message. I disagree. We are a culture afflicted with bad ideas, and it is irresponsible to ignore them. One of our jobs must be to speak out plainly in opposition to bad ideas; sure, we should inform people that evolutionary biology is essential for basic research in medicine, and we should try to avoid boring them with technical details, but at least some of us have to confront deep-rooted social ills that have long damaged the effectiveness of scientific advancement. Asking that we always bow respectfully towards established societal norms is nothing but a demand for conformity, for the maintenance of the status quo, and sometimes we need change…The major failure of Nisbet's and Mooney's vision is that they seem unable to consider that scientists are capable of or should even try to work for major changes in our culture; we are always to be the ones who must conform to the majority's views, no matter how wrong they are, and we have to be the supplicants who are very careful not to offend and who always beg for scraps in the terms they dictate. Their suggestions are all about tactical poses and completely neglect any long-term strategy or consideration of greater goals than getting by for the day."

  11. Ben says:

    The framing debate continues… See here.

  12. Ben says:

    PZ has officially taken the gloves off…

    "So when I read your WaPo article that started in just that alienating way, I had two possible interpretations. One is that you are a tin-eared incompetent at this framing business, which means I ought not to pay attention to what you say. The other is that you seem to be a smart guy and you've studied these rhetorical strategies for years, and that you've actually made a cunning, conscious decision to stick the knife in a subset of the people who fight creationism in order to curry favor for your ideas in the public eye."

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Sam Harris has recently published an opinion piece in the LA Times: "Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics — and are every bit as delusional." Here's a sample:

    There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith — but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.

  14. Ben says:

    Thank you, great to see Harris is still at it. This is one of his best articles. I wish I had written it.

  15. Ben says:

    "If you really could denounce your faith because you didn't like its visible results, then I'd say you were one of those people Daniel Dennett says are people who believe in belief, not in the dogmas of their religion. Dennett says some people believe that civilization needs myths to live by, so we mustn't examine religious ones too closely. Belief in belief is the compromise formation of those who can't bring themselves to evince a naive belief in a supernatural being but think religion is a useful construct that ought not to be toppled." -N.D.

  16. jack stock says:

    What about an obverse Golden Rule as a Second Golden Rule ? Most of us seem to judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others with just as many shortcomings as we ourselves do ?

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