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Sam Harris: "Bad Reasons to be Good" (BG/IHT)

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* * *
TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck

Transmitted below is an opinion article which should strike a chord with
those who believe (as I do) that a major (and increasing) proportion of
human suffering is attributable to organized religions -- and provide
some useful food for thought for those who do not.

In his notorious Regensberg speech last month, the Pope quoted a
Byzantine emperor as asserting, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that
was new, and there you will find only things evil and inhuman." Although
likely to be too polite and considerate to do so, a rational person with
ethical values might well be tempted to ask today, "Show me just what
organized religions have brought that was in addition to the Golden
Rule, and there you will find only things unnecessary, irrational and

You do not need to believe in a god or gods to believe that seeking to
do unto others what you would have others do unto you is the essence of
being a decent human being -- for its own sake, not for any reward or
personal benefit in another world, because you only live once and
because there are no rituals you can attend or perform (or indulgences
you can purchase) to clean your slate if you have lived your life badly.
Indeed, history has repeatedly and bloodily demonstrated that organized
religions, even those encompassing a variant of the Golden Rule in their
teachings, tend to produce "us vs. them" worldviews which make it more
difficult for their adherents, however well-meaning they may be, to live
their lives consistently in conformity with this fundamental ethical
guideline and admonition.

International Herald Tribune <http://www.iht.com>
Bad reasons to be good
Sam Harris The Boston Globe

America's midterm elections are fast approaching, and their outcome
could well be determined by the "moral values" of conservative Christians.

While this possibility is regularly bemoaned by liberals, the link
between religion and morality in our public life is almost never questioned.

One of the most common justifications one hears for religious faith,
from all points on the political spectrum, is that it provides a
necessary framework for moral behavior. Most Americans appear to believe
that without faith in God, we would have no durable reasons to treat one
another well. The political version of this morality claim is that the
country was founded on "Judeo-Christian principles," the implication
being that without these principles we would have no way to write just laws.

It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person's religious beliefs. The
problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of
religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with
genuine morality.

The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for
the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings.

This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we
don't have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why
(generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals,
and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more
sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of
crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and
complexity of a creature's brain and its experience of the world.

Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the
living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious
people often devote immense energy to so- called "moral" questions -
such as gay marriage - where no real suffering is at issue, and they
will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.

Consider the suffering of the millions of unfortunate people who happen
to live in sub-Saharan Africa. The wars in this part of the world are
interminable. AIDS is epidemic there, killing around 3 million people
each year. It is almost impossible to exaggerate how bad your luck is if
you are born today in a country like Sudan. The question is, how does
religion affect this problem?

Many pious Christians go to countries like Sudan to help alleviate human
suffering, and such behavior is regularly put forward as a defense of
Christianity. But in this case, religion gives people bad reasons for
acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don't have
to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born
of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. In those same desperate
places, one finds secular volunteers working with organizations like
Doctors Without Borders and helping people for secular reasons.

Helping people purely out of concern for their happiness and suffering
seems rather more noble than helping them because you think the creator
of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it, or
will punish you for not doing it.

But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes
good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the
suffering of others.

In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in
villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about
condoms comes from the ministry. They also preach the necessity of
believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ in places where religious
conflict between Christians and Muslims has led to the deaths of millions.

Secular volunteers don't spread ignorance and death in this way. A
person need not be evil to preach against condom use in a village
decimated by AIDS; he or she need only believe a specific faith-based
moral dogma. In such cases we can see that religion can cause good
people to do fewer good deeds than they might otherwise.

We have to realize that we decide what is good in our religious doctrines.

We read the Golden Rule, for instance, and judge it to be a brilliant
distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across
another of God's teachings on morality: If a man discovers that his
bride is not a virgin on their wedding night, he must stone her to death
on her father's doorstep (Deuteronomy 22: 13-21). If we are civilized,
we will reject this as utter lunacy. Doing so requires that we exercise
our own moral intuitions, keeping the real issue of human happiness in
view. The belief that the Bible is the word of God is of no help to us

As we consider how to run our own society and how to help people in
need, the choice before us is simple: Either we can have a 21st-century
conversation about morality and human happiness - availing ourselves of
all the scientific insights and philosophical arguments that have
accumulated in the last 2,000 years of human discourse - or we can
confine ourselves to an Iron Age conversation as it is preserved in our
holy books.

Wherever the issue of "moral values" surfaces, ask yourself which
approach to morality is operating. Are we talking about how to best
alleviate human suffering? Or are we talking about the whims of an
invisible God?

/Sam Harris is the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of
Faith. He can be reached through his Web site, samharris.org. This
article first appeared in The Boston Globe./