For the opening interview on Friday’s Real Time, leftist talk show host Bill Maher interviewed fellow secularist Sam Harris, noted author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Harris was on to promote his new 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation The Reason Project, of which Maher is a member of the advisory board.
I was delighted by this opening interview. In the summer of 2007 I wrote a three-part series on the “New Atheists” for WTHR. I interviewed secularists, believers, and those who find themselves falling somewhere between the two. I end up in the third category, thus I usually find myself agreeing with somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of what Harris and his New Atheist comrades have to say.
Maher began by questioning Harris about his background. He wondered how Harris had stumbled into becoming an advocate of secularism. Harris explained that he was raised in a secular househould where his parents never talked about God.
Maher: As a child you were an atheist?
Harris: Atheism has no content. Being an atheist is like being a non-astrologer. No one gets taught to be a non-astrologer. You just don’t get convinced by astrology.
Maher: In your book The End of Faith – which I love — you don’t really use that word [atheism.] So what would you say to people who say… ‘Then what do you believe?’
Harris: The irony is that I never use the word ‘atheist’ in this book which supposedly touched off this movement of so-called ‘New Atheism.’ … The point is that atheism is not a belief system. It is the rejection of a certain style of dogma. And it’s the dogmas of religion. And so every Christian is an atheist with respect to Islam. They’re not convinced by the claim that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. They’re not losing any sleep over whether or not they convert to Islam. And an atheist is just someone who goes one god further and just not accept any of these unsupported claims.
Harris is about half-way there. His explanation that Christians are atheists of Islam is useful. Often in discussions with traditional Christians about why I no longer embrace a literalist view of the Bible, I explain how all I’m doing is approaching the Bible and Christianity in a similar fashion to how they approach the Koran and Islam. (Except that I still draw value from the spiritual wisdom and mythology of the Bible, whereas few Christians see much worth in the Koran.)
Where Harris is off base is trying to suggest that atheism isn’t a belief system or a religion in and of itself. It is. Belief in the non-God and the supremacy of science is still a belief. Even I’ve come to gradually accept that my agnostic approach is a “belief system.” We all ultimately have to have belief systems. They’re like the software installed on our computer brains. The only way to transcend the belief system is to just install very flexible, skeptical, agnostic belief systems that allow for frequent software upgrades as new information comes to light. We must have beliefs, but we also must be skeptical about them and recognize them as maps and not the territory itself.
Further, this skeptical attitude must be extended to our political belief systems as well — something “secularists” like Maher seem to refuse to do toward their own leftist faith. We must recognize when political ideas become dogmatic beliefs and push against this tendency. This translates into challenging the Left by identifying its religious nature and working to ensure that conservatism resists the temptation of dogmatism which threatens every intellectual tradition.
See Part II of my commentary on this interview. I discuss Harris’s admission of religion’s “core of truth.”