By Sam Harris
It appears that President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed (for the moment) to bring the U.S. Constitution into greater conformity with Leviticus and the writings of St. Paul—which are, respectively, the sections of the Old and New Testaments that justify Christian concerns about gay marriage. Reading these documents, one discovers that the Creator of the universe does not approve of homosexuality. In fact, his instructions on the subject go far beyond a mere prohibition of gay marriage. According to God, homosexuals must be put to death. God himself says so in Leviticus (20:13), and St. Paul says it in Romans (1: 24-32). God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents. Congress might also want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because the biblical God clearly expects us to keep slaves. He merely admonishes us not to beat them too severely (Exodus 21). God’s wisdom on this subject can be distilled to a single precept: don’t injure their eyes or their teeth, because then you have to set them free.
There is clearly a problem with using scripture to decide social policy in the 21st century. The Bible, it seems certain, was written by men and women who thought the earth was flat and who would have considered a wheelbarrow a breathtaking example of emerging technology. Are its teachings applicable to the challenges we now face as a global civilization? Consider the subject of stem-cell research. Many people of faith believe that three-day-old embryos – which are collections of 150 cells—are fully endowed with human souls and, therefore, must be protected as persons. But if we know anything at all about the neurology of sensory perception, we know that there is no reason to believe that embryos at this stage of development have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life in any way at all (there are, for comparison’s sake, 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly). These facts notwithstanding, our President and our leaders in Congress have decided to put the rights of undifferentiated cells before those of men and women suffering from spinal cord injuries, full-body burns, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.
Of course, the Bible is not the only ancient text that casts a shadow over the present. The social policy that can be derived from the Koran currently poses even greater dangers. According to this text, it is the duty of every Muslim man to make war on unbelievers (Koran 9:73 and 9:123), and such men are promised eternal happiness after death. It is true that many Muslims seem inclined to ignore the Koran’s solicitations to martyrdom and jihad, but we cannot overlook the fact that many are not so inclined, and they now regularly murder innocent noncombatants for religious reasons. The phrase “the war on terrorism” is a dangerous euphemism that obscures the true cause of our troubles in the world, because we are currently at war with precisely the vision of life prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. Anyone who reads this text will find non-Muslims vilified on nearly every page. How can we possibly expect devout Muslims to happily share power with “the friends of Satan”? How can we expect the faithful to feel about people who God himself is in the process of “mocking,” “cursing,” “shaming,” “punishing,” “scourging,” “judging,” “burning,” “annihilating,” “not forgiving,” and “not reprieving”? While there are many charges that can be fairly leveled at men like Osama bin Laden, perverting the teachings of the Koran is not among them. Why did nineteen well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to Paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so fully and satisfactorily explained. And yet, many of us are reluctant to accept this explanation.
Religious faith is always, and everywhere, exonerated. It is now taboo in every corner of our culture to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. Consequently, we are unable to even name, much less oppose, one of the most pervasive causes of human conflict. And the fact that there are very real and consequential differences between our religious traditions is simply never discussed. Anyone who thinks that terrestrial concerns are the principal source of Muslim violence must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They, too, suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against the Chinese? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam.
There are now more people in our country who believe that the universe was created in six solar days than there were in Europe in the 14th century. In the eyes of most of the civilized world, the United States is now a rogue power—imperialist, inarticulate, and retrograde in its religiosity. Our erstwhile allies are right not to trust our judgment. We elect leaders who squander time and money on issues like gay marriage, Janet-Jackson’s anatomy, Howard Stern’s obscenities, marijuana use, and a dozen other trifles lying at the heart of the Christian social agenda, while potentially catastrophic problems like nuclear proliferation and climate change go unresolved. We have elected a president who believes that “the jury is still out on evolution” and who rejects sound, scientific judgments on the environment, on medical research, on family planning, and on AIDS prevention in the developing world. The consequence, as we saw in the recent elections in Spain, is that people who feel misled and entrapped by our dogmatic and peremptory approach to foreign policy will be unable to recognize a common enemy, even when that enemy massacres hundreds of people in their nation’s capitol.
It is time we realize that belief is not a private matter. As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are a member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels—and flying a plane into a building is only a matter of being asked to do it. Believe that “life starts at the moment of conception,” and you will happily stand in the way of medical research that could alleviate the suffering of millions of your fellow human beings. Believe that there is a God who sees and knows all things, and yet remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual acts between consenting adults, and you will think it ethical to punish people for engaging in private behavior that harms no one.
Now that our elected leaders have grown entranced by pseudo-problems like gay marriage, even while the genuine enemies of civilization hurl themselves at our gates, perhaps it is time we subjected our religious beliefs to the same standards of evidence we require in every other sphere of our lives. Perhaps it is time for us to realize, at the dawn of this perilous century, that we are paying too high a price to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.
August 15th, 2004