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Sam Harris

Sam Harris

Posted: November 29, 2006 04:09 PM

Jewcy's Big Question: Why Are Atheists So Angry?


Earlier this year, Newsweek religion columnist Marc Gellman confessed that atheists had lately befuddled him: "What I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry," Gellman lamented. "I just don't get it."

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.

Below is an excerpt of the first installment, Sam Harris' email to Dennis Prager. The entire exchange can be read at Jewcy.

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 the year 2006 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.

The entire exchange can be read at Jewcy.