Religion Reason Debate

Good evening. Good evening and welcome to ALOUD at Central Library. I’m Louise Steinman, curator of the series and I’m thrilled to present this evening with Reza Aslan, Sam Harris, and Jonathan Kirsch in a discussion titled “Can Religion and Reason Be Reconciled?” There are many issues rolled up in this great blintz of a title. Though, I can guarantee that tonight’s debate will be very spirited, I can’t guarantee we will come to any definitive conclusions.

Is rationality the right standard to invoke in the context of matters of faith? Can faith and reason be reconciled? Should they be? What is more important perhaps than coming to conclusions, at least to me, is that tonight’s speakers and you the audience feel welcome and encouraged to engage in a free and open debate on this topic.

I was very honored — it’s been almost a year when Reza proposed doing this for ALOUD and I really thought what better place to have this discussion than the Los Angeles Public Library, an institution dedicated to free access for all to ideas and information. So it is in that spirit that we will proceed tonight.

Before we begin, would you please turn off your cell phones and pagers? I think I did as well so we can all be present in the room. For the format tonight, after our conversation, after the debate with Jonathan moderating, our panelists will be delighted to take some of your questions. We will have a microphone circulating in the room. C-SPAN is filming tonight and we also record for possible podcast. So we ask that you wait until the microphone comes to you so that we can all hear the questions. C-SPAN will be broadcasting over the next couple of months. They’ll probably do it several times.

Sam, Reza, and Jonathan will be signing books in the lobby after the program, and books are for sale tonight courtesy of the library store. So, after the program, you can meet us in the lobby for the book signing.

All three participants tonight are accomplished authors and speakers, so I am not going to give you their long versions of their bios. They all have web sites. So, here are just some highlights of who these three participants are.

Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religion. He is the Middle East commentator for NPR’s Marketplace and Muslim affairs analyst for CBS News. He’s currently a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. His first book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam has been translated into to half a dozen languages and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. He’s a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions along with a variety of contemplative disciplines for 20 years. He’s now completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His book The End of Faith won the 2005 Pen Award for First Nonfiction and several foreign editions are in press.

Jonathan Kirsch — actually Sam joked that Jonathan had written more books than he and Reza combined — which is true — is the author of the best-selling The History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization. And, nine other books, including the national bestseller the Harlot by the Side of the Road, Forbidden Tales of the Bible, and the best-selling God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. Jonathan is also a longtime book reviewer for Los Angeles Times. He broadcasts on NPR affiliates KCRW FM and KPCC and he’s an adjunct professor on the faculty on NYU. And, just as his day job, he’s an attorney specializing in publishing law and intellectual property in Los Angeles.

Before we begin tonight, Jonathan, Reza, Sam, and I would like to dedicate this program to the memory of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. So we will offer this in his memory. Please welcome Reza Aslan, Sam Harris, and Jonathan Kirsch.


Good evening, everyone. Thank you, Louise. It’s really my honor to be here tonight with Sam and Reza. It’s the only event I’ve ever attended for which tickets sold out in 90 minutes and people began to implore me if I could get them in the door. It’s like a Rolling Stones concert. [laughter] I would like to elaborate on the dedication tonight. Hrant Dink was famously convicted under Section 301 of the Turkish penal code which criminalizes conduct insulting so-called “Turkishness.” It reminds us that religion is only one of the markers by which human beings distinguish each other from one another, declare each other to be enemies and sometimes kill each other. The Turkish and Armenian conflict is religious in part but it’s also ethnic and national. And as we have our conversation tonight, I think you’ll see that theme come up again and again.

I’d also to like say just in the interests of kind of leveling the playing field, that we might also dedicate the evening to other victims of hatred, small-mindedness, and violence. Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by Yigal Amir, a Jewish religious fanatic; Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician and gynecologist, murdered by James Charles Kopp, a Christian religious fanatic; and the worshipers at the mosque of the Cave of Patriarchs who were machine-gunned while worshiping by a Jewish religious fanatic and a medical doctor named Baruch Goldstein.

A friend of mine — I understand a friend of Reza’s — a wonderful writer named Karen Armstrong has pointed out that one of the identifying characteristics of the human race, which used to be thought of as our capacity to make tools, that’s what distinguished us from the lower orders and then it was discovered that some animals could make tools, that we had language and then it was discovered of course that animals have language. She’s pointed out that what truly distinguishes the human race from the other orders of animals is our religious imagination, our capacity to imagine a higher power at work in the world. So far anyway we don’t think the animals have that capacity.

Karen has written, “there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens [rational or thinking man] is also Homo religiosus [religious man, believing man].” That’s another theme we are going to visit again and again tonight. To get the conversation started, I’d like to ask the audience to indulge me. I’m going to read a quotation from Reza’s most recent book and from Sam’s most recent book, which I think of as kind of matched, paired opposites and then I will invite each of you to see if you can reconcile your points of view.

Reza writes,

Religion is not concerned with genuine history but with sacred history which does not course through time like a river. Rather, sacred history is like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time. Indeed, it is precisely at those moments when sacred and genuine history collide that religions are born.

Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only questions that matter with regard to religion and mythology is, “What do these stories mean?” After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation and, by definition, all interpretations are valid.

And I would pair that with a passage from Sam’s book which will give you a flavor of Sam’s book:

Either the Bible is just an ordinary book written by mortals or it isn’t. Either Christ was divine or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false. And the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing collective delusion. So, let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument and the other side is really going to lose.

Now let me turn it back to you, Reza, to begin. Is it true that all interpretations are valid or can you imagine that someone could win this argument?

Actually, I wish you would’ve read the sentence that followed that sentence because, while it is true that religion is, by definition, interpretation and, by definition, all interpretations are valid, the next sentence in that book says, “but some interpretations are more reasonable than others.” And that I think is very important to note. Because I think in many ways it goes to the heart of this discussion because this notion that somehow reason has no role to play in either religion or in the way that we understand and interpret religion. And, I think that is quite an absurd notion.

I think that by simply saying that various interpretations, the ways in which we experience scripture, the ways in which we experience the divine presence, whatever you want to refer to it, that those experiences are open to a whole host of interpretations and indeed as Sam brings up, I mean the Bible is a perfect example of it. Not all Christians read the Gospels and interpret it as in any way, shape, or form saying that Jesus is God. Not all Christians read the Bible and in any way agree that the Bible itself declares itself to be an inerrant or literal text by any means of the imagination. So, to simply create these false dichotomies that you either believe that the Bible is the word of God or it’s not and therefore the entire 4- or 5,000 year history upon which the Bible rests becomes illegitimate. I don’t think that that’s necessarily the best way to think of the role or function of religion.


Well, it’s interesting — whenever I find myself in this position criticizing religion, if I say, for instance, “Muslims are not justified in their belief in martyrdom,” for instance, or, “Christians are not justified to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, resurrected, will be coming back to Earth to wield his magic powers,” I’m often met by Christians and Muslims of a more moderate persuasion who will say that I have completely caricatured the faith, that I have taken extremists to be representative of the faith. And, there are a few problems with this response, I take your response as a version of that, that not all Christians believe that x, y, and z.

First it discounts the fact that, so many millions and millions of Christians and Muslims do believe these things. I mean we are living in a country where 53% of the population claims to believe that the universe is 6,000 years old. And that we have no precursors in the natural world apart from Adam and Eve. I mean, that we did not evolve out of prior life forms. This is a majority of the American population.

So, it seems to me this is — you can call this extremism. These views are extreme in almost every respect, they are extremely silly. [laughter] They are extremely worthy of our denigration, but they are not extreme in the sense of being rare. So that’s one problem that I think this moderate defense of religion, where you can have this vaporous, very diaphanous set of truth claims that are not really true. It’s hard to know the difference between religious claims to knowledge and mythology. It represents a misrepresentation of so many millions of people whose decision making is really of consequence to us.

The other problem is that it’s playing by a double standard that you would be immediately hostile to in every other area of our lives because these beliefs are claims about the way the world is. I mean, everyone is in the business of trying to understand the situation we are in. Trying to get our behavior to move through this situation in a way that’s compatible with happiness and religion is a strategy for doing it. It just happens to be a strategy that is built to a remarkable degree upon lies and self-deception. And, so I argue it’s the wrong tool for the job. And that’s, I mean, we clearly disagree. I was waiting for my quote to see how I disagrees with Reza, but…. [laughter]

Well, I find this very interesting because I think that there are certainly multiple means through which one can read and understand scripture as there are multiple means through which one can read and understand any piece of literature or indeed any ideology for that matter. The problem that I have with Sam’s reading is that I don’t find it to be all that different than the fundamentalists’ way of reading the Bible. We, in this room, laugh and mock, as frankly we should, those who read the Bible so literally that they believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, that it was created in six 24-hour periods, et cetera, et cetera. And yet if we are going to laugh at that kind of literalist reading then we also have to laugh at the kind of literalist reading that looks at the Bible’s oh, you know, discussions about say, slavery, or discussions about, homosexuality. Things that are so deeply a part of the context in which the Bible arose. And yet those people who I think so often are critics of not just religion but in particular of the Bible or really of any kind of scripture read those passages in the same literalist sense as any fundamentalist reads them.

The true, I think, test for how one goes about not just reading scripture but understanding scripture is recognizing not just the historical context of it, the social context of it, but also recognizing that what you are reading is as I mentioned a description of a sacred history. A description not of facts and events — indeed, no gospel writer, in fact no evangelist, no writer of any scripture in any way thought or believed himself to be writing what we now in the 21st century refer to as history. They were writing about the numinous experience, the encounter with the divine, however that encounter is understood. We as intelligent, 21st-century, modernist readers have to have, I think, a much more sophisticated understanding of the scriptures and to read them within the sort of poetic and allegorical and cultural and historical context, otherwise we should be laughed at too.

I’m trying. [laughter]

I think our conversation….

I’m doing my best.

…is inevitably torqued by the fact that in our world today there are some very dangerous people, there are some very radical people. That’s true of Christian fundamentalism as well as Islamic fundamentalism and we will get to more of those troubling and unsettling conversations. But there was a question that kept occurring to me as I read Sam’s books. Reza and I have a commonality in our approach to religion in that — I hope I am correctly characterizing your motives — that we’re fascinated by where these texts come from and what these texts mean, what they meant, how what they have come to mean, and there is a richness and even a sense of delight about the study and contemplation of religious traditions and texts. Sam, you didn’t seem to find anything to like about religion or anything even faintly redeeming about the religious project. Am I overstating?

Well, yeah, I think it’s a matter of emphasis. I have not emphasized what I like about the Bible in my writing, [laughter] though, it’s not without its joys. There’s some very good writing in there and there is some rather terrifying barbarism in there that is advocated not as allegory, but as prescriptions for how to live. I think that’s undeniable. Many of these prescriptions have lost their shelf life. The Bible, on balance, tells us to keep slaves. It tells us how to keep slaves. Now, this is an embarrassment — I think a rather fatal embarrassment — to anyone who would then say the Bible is the best book of moral wisdom humanity has ever had. It’s not the best book because it gets the question of slavery wrong. And slavery’s perhaps the easiest and one of the most consequential moral problems we’ve ever had to face as a civilization.

The basic point here is that for me that is so troubling is that there is this claim being made by most religious people, most of the time, that one of their books is not an ordinary book. One of their books is a magic book. It seems to be believed that the contents of the Bible or contents of Quran are so impeccable, so prescient of our needs as a species, that they could not possibly have been written by human beings. This is patently absurd when you read the books.

I mean, just compare for a moment another human project. Isaac Newton went into isolation in the year 1665 to escape the plague. He spent 18 months working in his garret, and at the end of that time, he had invented calculus, he had invented the field of optics, he had discovered the universal law of gravitation and the laws of motion.* And he came out and delivered this and, and scientists in almost any field agree that this is probably the most startling use of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence and yet no one for a moment is tempted to believe that God had to help him with this. This was not under the dictation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, we know that Newton was a thoroughly unpleasant megalomaniacal, neurotic man, and we have superseded his insights to some significant degree, but it took 200 years of continuous ingenuity on the part of some of the smartest people who have ever lived to do this. I say this rather often: we could improve the Bible in five seconds and that’s problematic for the claim that it is the best book really on any subject.

I’m going to stand on a point of personal privilege because I can quote myself on this subject [laughter] because Isaac Newton as I discovered In my research into the Book of Revelation was an ardent student and expositor on the Book of Revelation, one of the great mystical books of the Bible and of that enterprise Voltaire said that Newton’s writings on Revelation were his consolation to mankind for his exceeding superiority in all other fields of endeavor [laughter]. And I offered that merely to say that Newton is the single best example that the scientific mind can coexist with the mystical mind including the mind of a credulous reader of the Bible.

Well, it’s a curious coexistence. We might come back to that topic because I think it’s the coexistence of partition not the coexistence of mutual support.



Let’s definitely get back to that later on. I like that. I don’t know, I find something intellectually dishonest about talking about the morality of the Bible — of a text written 3,000 years ago that seems to endorse slavery, an idea that had absolutely no moral quality to it whatsoever 3,000 years ago. There’s a problem I think by, you know, citing something like that and therefore rejecting the entire text or any aspect of morality that it may or may not prescribe that does or does not coincide with our 21st-century conception of what morality may be.

By that argument, well, the Quran actually forbids slavery so therefore the Quran is a more moral text than the Bible? Of course not. And certainly the New Testament as our own abolitionists in this country argued for decades and decades, the New Testament seems to go against the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament about it’s views on slavery and the uses of slavery. But nevertheless, I think that to again, to read scripture in this way is to fundamentally misunderstand the very point of scripture.

The easiest thing in the world to do is to go through the history of scriptures, regardless of what religion you are talking about, and find offensive, despicable aspects in there, but I don’t think that it takes a sophisticated leap of logic to then use those examples to then decry the history of religions altogether. I don’t really understand this jump at all. And again to essentially reject the whole of the Bible — all 60-some-odd books of it, based on —

Well, I don’t — I mean, if I could just respond to that. I actually don’t. First of all, you’re mistaken in terms of New Testament’s treatment of slavery. Paul comes forward and says that slaves should serve their masters well and serve their Christians masters especially well so as to partake of their holiness. And, while the abolitionists could cherry pick their favorite lines of the Bible that seemed to proscribe slavery, there’s no question that the slaveholders of the South knew they were on the the winning side of the theological argument and they made much of it and, in fact, the Muslims helped them along with their interpretation of the curse of Ham which seemed to justify black African slavery per se for 1,000 years. So the religious record, and it’s effect on slavery is not a noble one.

But, I don’t reject the good parts in the Bible. The point is we have a human conversation which has evolved over thousands of years of recorded history. And we can either locate ourselves in the 21st century, availing ourselves of all of the tools that we have acquired, all of the brilliant insights, some of which come from our religious traditions — I think the golden rule is almost as good as we have as a moral algorithm. It’s not original to Jesus but it’s perhaps, it’s best expressed in the Bible. It captures our intuitions of what it is to be ethical in so many respects. And so we can — one thing to point out is that, how is it that we find wisdom in scripture? We find it based on our own ethical intuitions. You go to the Bible, read in Deuteronomy, “If your bride is not a virgin on your wedding night, you should stone her on her father’s door step.” You recognize, oh, that’s at the very least it’s impractical. Probably wrong. [laughter] Doesn’t feel good. So you flip the page and then you find something like the Beatitudes and that strikes you as, ah, this is the wisdom of Christianity, say. That is, that is something — you are the guarantor of the morality you are finding in scripture.

But Sam, wouldn’t you concede, putting aside the radical fringe, that most people read scripture in precisely the way you prescribe? They pick and choose, they respond to those things which are exalting and elevating, and they reject those things which are antique or archaic or, or dangerous? Most people.

Not nearly enough, and I think especially not enough in the Muslim tradition. I think we have in Christianity and Judaism. First of all, it must be conceded, there are no books in scripture more heinous than the books in the Hebrew Bible like Deuteronomy and Second Samuel. These are books where it is spelled out ad nauseam when you should kill people for theological offenses and, if you follow those prescriptions, you would have very much a world like we witnessed under the Taliban in Afghanistan with people having their heads cut off at halftime at a soccer match for adultery.

So, even fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews can’t read their scripture altogether literally now. That’s because of hundreds of years of colliding with modernity and secular progress and scientific progress and we’re not burning witches on street corners anymore and that’s a good thing, but we did it for five long centuries.

And, as Reza knows, in the Muslim world, you have taken your life in your hands if you declare yourself an apostate. Even in Afghanistan where we invaded and gave them a constitution, apostasy is still punishable by death and we still have to smuggle out that one guy who became a Christian on CNN and had to be spirited away to Italy.

This again goes to a fundamental problem with this whole line of argument. Of course, Afghanistan is one of the least socially, politically, economically developed countries on the planet and there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world — the vast, vast majority of whom do not live in the traditional Arab and Muslim world in the Middle East and, indeed, there are more Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa than there are in the entire Arab world. So, those kinds of generalities, particularly generalities based on anecdotal evidence are things that I would assume that a scientific mind should not dwell upon.

I will say one quick thing. I think you are misrepresenting Paul’s comments, what he said about Timothy was, and this is why the abolitionists use it, is that masters should be kind to their slaves. Slaves should obey their masters, but the ideal is for masters to free their slaves. Now, again, we can sort of, with our sense of morality, look back upon that and say, “Well that’s still a heinous idea,” but we don’t reject Huckleberry Finn because it uses the word “nigger,” do we? And yet we can reject the Gospels based on the morality of 2000 years ago? I just — I really don’t see —

Nobody’s rejecting them as literature. I am not recommending you reject them as literature.

Certainly not as literature but I do have a problem with I think this notion that you know I think there’s something disingenious about this idea that you’re presenting that your view of the scripture is such that you have respect for those sections that fit your sense of morality but you reject those sections that not.

Again, I think as Jonathan mentioned, that’s what the vast majority of religious people feel the same way about scriptures. And, there are certainly examples that we can look at of people who do have this very fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of scripture and we certainly have examples, plenty of them, of people who believe their their scripture is correct and other scriptures are not.

As you said, this fundamental belief that one of these scriptures in the history of religions is correct and the rest are wrong but again I don’t understand why this notion that there are — there’s some kind of, that dogma’s can be irreconcilable has anything to do with the existence of god or the question of the existence of god. That, that’s I think where I’m fundamentally sort of confused by that argument.

I want to say that I am really delighted that a panel consisting of a Muslim, a Jew, and an atheist can construe Paul’s letter to Timothy and I am going to weigh in as well. [laughter] Paul, like all the first Christians including Jesus was utterly convinced that we did not have to worry about the problem of slavery or any other human problem because it was all going to come to an end in his lifetime and Paul famously said, “You must look to your spiritual rebirth in Christ Jesus where there will be neither man nor woman, Greek nor Jew, bond nor free.” He felt that the institution of slavery would solve itself because the whole world would be destroyed. I was fascinated to read Reza’s comments on precisely this issue and, if you’ll permit me, I would like to read a bit from Reza’s book and then from Sam’s and Reza I hope I have gone — it’s a longish quote — I hope I have gone long enough [laughter] you know to pick up the crucial sentence.


I’ll let you know.


And I must say, I found this passage absolutely mind opening. This from Reza’s book: “Muslim men and women, first worlders and third worlders, gay and straight, extremists and moderates, militants and pacifists, clerics and lay people, are actively reinterpreting Islam according to their own changing needs.” That sentence alone is something to ponder.

By doing so, they are not only redefining Islam by taking its interpretation out of the iron grip of clerical institutions, they are shaping the future of this rapidly expanding and deeply fractured face. Jihadists like Osama Bin Laden must be understood as products of — not counters to — the Islamic reformation. Indeed, Bin Laden joins a long and unsavory list of militant puritans, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Hindu, who consider themselves and their individual followers to be the only true believers and all others to be hypocrites, impostors, and apostates who must be convinced of their folly or abandoned to their horrible fates. It may be too early to know who will write the next chapter of Islam’s story, but it is not too early to recognize who will ultimately win the war between reform and counter-reform. The cleansing is inevitable. And the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic reformation is already here. We are all living in it.

And I will pair that with passage from Sam’s book, and this, this is where I am afraid the sparks will fly. [laughter]

The idea that Islam is a peaceful religion hijacked by extremists is a fantasy. And it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside, but it is important to recognize why this is so. It is so because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. Muslims tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with Islam and Muslims who don’t view the world in these terms risk being branded as apostates and killed by other Muslims.

These are two very different, diametrically opposed, perceptions of the Muslim world and I wonder if there is any way we can reconcile this.

Well, I think Sam’s view is perfectly legitimate if your research tools are Fox News. [laughter] I think it indicates — no, I mean that seriously. I think it indicates a profoundly unsophisticated view. Not just of Islamic history and the social and cultural issues that are taking place within Islam. But, I think it indicates a profoundly unosophisticated view of what religion is period. It is very easy, again, I mean, the easiest thing in the world is to write a book called The Problem with Religion. All you have to do is turn your television on. It’s not, it’s not interesting. It’s not a unique argument.

But I think that to truly understand the role that religion is playing in the sociopolitical conflicts that are taking place in the world and what religion provides to those conflicts requires a, a far more sophisticated look. Let me just say this, I found it very gratifying that we began this discussion, this evening in fact, by talking about Hrant Dink — who, of course, was murdered by an ultra-nationalist. Had Hrant Dink been murdered by an Islamist, of course, we would’ve begun by saying “Aha! Yet another example of the problem with Islam.” Indeed, the problem with religion as Sam’s book and The End of Faith talks about: if religion is causing people roblem is religion. Well, by that logic, then, the murder of Hrant Dink should be blamed on nationalism.

Indeed, the great, the sort of the most wicked acts of the 20th century are all a result not of religious ideologies but essentially secular ideologies. We would have to blame nationalism for the fascist regimes of the 20th century. We would have to blame socialism for, for the Nazis. We would have to blame secularism for, for Mao’s Cultural Revolution which of course exterminated almost every last Buddhist monk and nun. We would have to blame communism for Stalinism. And, for that matter, we would have to blame science for whatever horrors were created in its names, for Hitler’s eugenics experiments.

Now, of course, Sam will say, “But, that’s not true. Those are bastardizations of science. They’re a betrayal of the ideals of science. It’s what happens when science becomes ideologized or dogmatized.” Well, fine. I totally agree with that. But if you are going to excuse these other ideologies, if you are going to not blame them for the horrors committed in their names when its very easy to understand how nationalism can result in the murder of someone like a Turkish-Armenian in Turkey, then you have to be a little bit more sophisticated about a knee-jerk blame of religion for whatever acts of violence are caused in the name of religion.

We have a tendency in these kind of comparisons to essentially compare the best ideals of one thing, say science, with the worst ideals of another thing, religion. You know, bad science is still science. Just as bad religion is still religion. So, I think that those kinds of sort of false connections, the comparison of sort of the legacy of one ideology with the legacy of another one. I think there has to be a little bit more sophistication in the ways that we make that kind of comparison.

Let me see if I can clarify my view here because I actually don’t think you and I are so far apart on this particular issue as it seems. I think what is interesting about my criticism of religion is not that you can turn on the television on really any channel, not just Fox, and see that some significant subset of the Muslim world is motivated on the basis of their theology to behave in ways that would otherwise be unthinkable.

I mean, there, you know, it takes some ideas to get someone who has economic opportunity, who has the benefit of an education, who has not been molested by occupying powers and get him to think that the best use of his time is to hijack a plane and hit the wall at 400 miles an hour. If this were coming, if this kind of violence were coming by and large from the poorest of the poor, the most desperate, the most abused, then those variables would be far more salient. But it’s not. And there are a variety of, of studies that, that bear this out.

But, what is interesting to me is the way in which your sophistication, your willingness to have a conception of religion and a conception of faith that is, that is almost infinitely elastic that is compatible with any mode of discourse, a conception which never alows us to call a spade a spade is giving shelter to this kind of religious literalism. I have never for a moment believed, and I have never argued that all bad things, all conflict comes out of religion. I don’t even know if most does. I think probably most wars have been fought for reasons other than religious ideology.

But the larger issue is dogmatism, the larger issue is belief without sufficient evidence, belief that is intrinsically divisive because it is immune to criticism, it is immune to the normal tests of conversation, tests of reasonableness and these beliefs that divide us into separate moral communities where we have Christians against Muslims against Jews or blacks against whites or one nation against another nation based on nationalism.

I think nationalism can be incredibly corrosive of everything we want to encourage in civilization. Dogmatism and ideology immune to criticism is a problem. The problem however is that only in religion do we put a veneer of sanctity over dogmatism and call it faith, and once called faith it becomes an apparently necessary and redeeming and precious part of the human experience. I don’t think it is. And I think we can have our ethics and have our spiritual experience. Indeed, even become mystics without ever presupposing anything on insufficient evidence and without ever lying to ourselves and other human beings about what we know to be true.

Sam, I want to hold you to a close scrutiny of this phrase which I think is a real shocker. And, and you must’ve intended it to be a shocker. Most Muslims are “utterly,” “utterly deranged” by their religious faith. I’ve even heard you back off a little bit now. You went from most to some significant subset.

Well, no. Let me just make it clear. I’m not backing off of that. Utterly deranged by their religion. I set the bar rather low for utter derangement. [laughter] I mean — by my, by lights thinking that the Quran is the best book ever written on any subject really is getting you pretty close to derangement. Thinking that it is — that someone should be killed for criticizing it or that it’s a real problem that cartoonists caricature the Prophet Muhammad and they should be kidnapped, that treading upon the sanctities of the religion is a real social problem that demands more energy in its criticism than suicide bombing, that I think is a kind of derangement that is immensely widespread and we shouldn’t minimize it.

The thing, however, with, the thing I don’t know, and which, is a place where I think Reza and I will actually have a meeting of the minds is I don’t know. It’s perfectly clear to me that my style of conversation is not what can be broadcast to the Muslim world to change people’s minds. I mean, that is your job. You are much better suited for that job. And I would agree with you that, in order to empower the moderates of the Muslim world, drawing cartoons of the Prophet and, and writing paragraphs of the sort I have written is not a strategy.


I am not a diplomat. What’s troubling me is I don’t know whether the line is between encouraging moderation, representing what Islam could be. You know, Islam could be a religion of peace, perhaps. Jihad could be just an inner spiritual struggle and have nothing to do with holy war. Indeed, we have to raise a generation of Muslims who believe those things. But pretending that it is already is problematic because it isn’t for so many millions of Muslims and it may be that, that if you pretend hard enough, in fact, you become what you pretend to be and maybe that’s part of the process.

But I think we have to admit to ourselves that we are confronting the behavior of a death cult among millions and millions of Muslims. Not 10,000 who went to training camps in Afghanistan. We are confronting an endorsement of this kind of behavior and a reflexive political solidarity where Muslims side with other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior simply because they’re other Muslims. We can’t deny the problem while trying to encourage a more benign face of the religion.

I completely understand where you are coming from Sam, and certainly as we have talked in our many other conversations do respect your intellectualism. But there is a reason why I don’t write books about neurscience. Because I don’t have an expertise in neuroscience. I write books about what’s going on in the Muslim world because I have an expertise in what’s going on in the Muslim world. I actually travel through the Muslim world. I study the Muslim world. I understand the conversations that are taking place. And so I feel like, in a sense, I’m in a better position to sort of make judgments about what sort of socio, religious, or political developments are taking place within this people of, you know, 1.5 billion number. Statements like there are millions of Muslims who, you know, have this sort of death cult are profoundly inaccurate. And are based on nothing except your sort of general impression of a region and a of a religion that you have a very surface understanding of.

Well, it’s not — for instance, in The End of Faith, I cite Pew polls that were done in nine Muslim countries, not even the most radicalized. The most radicalized wouldn’t let the polling be done but even in Turkey, you know, the Muslim success story on many fronts, the level of support for suicide bombing against noncombatants in defense of the faith was shocking. I mean, you get — you just run the numbers. When 77% of people in Lebanon say that it is justified, that’s, you know, it’s not a minority. It’s not even close to a minority. Even if it were only 5% of the Muslim world radicalized, by my lights, that is still a problem we have to talk about soberly. We’re talking about 75 million people.

Certainly and I don’t think anybody would say that’s not a conversation we need to talk about.

But its a civilization problem.

Now, hold on.

That is not amenable to saying that Islam is a religion of peace.

I don’t understand what Islamic civilization means. I don’t —

I am talking about our global civilization.

Oh, I see. Look,the issue here, of course, as you mentioned before, is how do you go about addressing a very serious, serious problem that is taking place, not just in the Muslim world but throughout the world. I mean, we, both of those comments, that the difference between Judaism, Christianty and Islam is that Judaism and Christiany have gone through some kind of reform so it’s tempered its violent aspects and Islam hasn’t, both of those statements are false. I don’t find any kind of tempering in the extremism with which Christianity or Judaism deals with the issue.

The sole — not sole — but certainly the most significant factor in the way that one understands one’s religion, the way one interprets one’s religion is not the religion itself. It’s your social context.

So we apparently forgot about the 80s and the movement of liberation theology in Latin America — a very Catholic, deeply, deeply Christian conception of Jesus as warrior in which priests themselves were forced to take up arms in the name of the liberator Jesus. And, and you know murder opponents in that sense. Very few people I think would’ve blamed Catholicism or Christianity upon those things. We talk about the social political structure of a region when we deal with the conflicts that arise out of that region. So, again, from our position here in the United States, 70%, what, 80% Christian, something to that effect. An incredibly affluent society. If you are a Christian living in, let’s say, Los Angeles, your idea of who Jesus is, of what Jesus means, is profoundly different than if you’re a Christian living in the hills of Guatemala. If you are a Muslim living in Los Angeles, your conception of Islam as a religion of peace, as a religion that prescribes you know peacefulness and tolerance and pluralism, that’s going to be vastly different than if you’re a Muslim living in a garbage heap in Gaza.

So, it’s not just simply verbal sophistry to say that there are much more significant aspects that define one’s political or social views that lead one to even acts of violence than just merely religion. Religion does not explain soley why someone decides to strap a bomb to themselves and kill combatants or noncombatants or however it would be and I think it’s a profoundly simplestic way of thinking about not just religion but those social conflicts themselves.

Reza, I would like to focus on one of the implications of what you’re saying. One of the most remarkable phenomena of recent history has been the rapprochement between Israel and the PLO, which was formerly vilified as a satanic force in the world, as terrorists and murderers, and suddenly, by comparison with Hamas, PLO seems like a very desirable partner for peace to the extent that Israel is entertaining releasing men that they put in jail for terrorist acts so that they can turn their weapons against Hamas. And, and the reason is that with PLO, an organization with nationalist aspirations, one can negotiatate a state and the state will satisfy their demands. With Hamas, which has a much more expansive, cosmic view of the struggle, there is no basis for a negotiated peace. Is that not an example of where injecting religion into a political conflict raises the stakes? That’s a, a phrase from —

There are one of many, many examples. I would say, however, that it’s important to recognize that the Israelis reached out and negotiatated with the PLO long before the Hamas was a serious organization of any kind and not again because they though, “Well, PLO’s better than Hamas.” It’s because the social aspects changed. Suddenly, it was politically expedient in order to negotiatate with the PLO and so suddenly the terminology of them as a “death squad,” of suicide bombers or of fanatics that could not be talked to, that kind of rhetoric fluttered away. To me, that in many ways strengthens in many ways what I am talking about when I say we cannot in any way think of religion existing solely in a vacuum. That’s what I meant by religion is by definition interpretation.

I don’t. I don’t. But again, if the poorest, most molested people were, by and large, jihadists and the engineers, and the architects, and the doctors, people who had the benefit of a good life were disproportionately moderate, then this analysis of yours would make sense. But we have someone like Ayman al-Zawahiri. Right? A surgeon. He comes from one of the most respected families in Egypt. He’s got doctors and judges and pharmacists as far as the eye can see. He is not an exception. If you correct for literacy in the Muslim world, support for suicide bombing goes up. The most radicalized people are not the people who you — in particular, you can see this in microcosm when you actually look at the biographies of the 19 hijackers. These were all college educated. Many of them had PhDs. Religion is really separable as the most important variable. And what is actually right on the surface to be seen is that these people are telling us what is motivating them. The jihadis are talking all day long about the pleasures that await martyrs in paradise, the, just, the horrors of living in proximity with infidels, the desecration of the Muslim holy sites by the proximenty of infidel troops on the ground.

Osama Bin Laden tells us what motivates him. He’s telling us why he’s not living in Paris and dating models with his inheritance. I mean, he’s — he is being quite articulate, ad nauseam. And, so to deny the role that religion is playing — I would never for a moment say that, that there are not poor, mistreated people driven to extremis and to extreme violence for reasons other than religion. Of course that happens but this is a separable component which we have rendered, by the terms of our discourse, by our emotional attachment to it, immune to criticism.

It is taboo to say that the Quran is bogus. As a document that describes the history of the evolution of our species, as a document that makes really cogent prescriptions about how to live in the 21st century as the Bible. Almost entirely bogus if you’re going to take it as a text to live by. It is taboo to say that. You could not possibly get elected in this country if you even openly doubted whether there was a creator god listening to the prayers of our constituents. This is the world we are living in and it’s obscurantism to deny it.

Sam, I have to say, I’m not sure what world you’re living in. But if it were taboo to say those things I don’t think you would sell half a million copies of your book.

Half a million copies. The 25 million copies of the The Purpose Driven Life being sold. [laughter]

Those are vastly different books and vastly different audiences but look I think al-Zawahiri and I am so glad that you brought this up because al-Zawahiri wasn’t a jihadist until he was placed in the dank and sadistic prisons in Egypt and tortured and then when we came out, then he became a jihadist.

That’s actually not true. Read The Looming Tower.

No, it’s absolutely true. I know Lawrence Wright. We’ve talked about this. He himself, al-Zawahiri, was, of course, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but the Muslim Brotherhood is not a jihadest organization. And to —

Close enough, by my lights.

That again indicates the profound unsophistication that you have about this region to think that there is a connection between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda that they are exactly the same thing.

I’m not saying they are the same thing.

That they’re “close enough.”

The ideology is so close in its divisiveness.

You could not be more wrong in that case.

OK, well, we’ve read the same book.

This is not the issue. The issue isn’t that poor people become suicide bombers. Everybody knows that that’s not true. The point is that, and you read bin Laden, his justifications for the terrorists acts are not religious justifications.

They’re not?

No. Not at all. He says very clearly: “It’s because of Palestine. It’s because of troops in Saudi Arabia. It’s because of now what’s going on in Iraq.” Now, these we can say these are false constructs. That he doesn’t really mean these things and certainly he has never done anything to help —

No, but, they’re theological grievances.

No, they’re not. And that is exactly where I think you are misunderstooding what’s happening. They are social grievances. They are political grievances. They are economic grievances. And, like everybody on Earth, they are framed in the language of religion. You know, we stand here in the United States, one of the most religious countries in the world as Sam, you certainly know. And a country in which we are perfectly comfortable when our politicians, even those that are nominally religious use the most distinct religious language to talk about purely social or economic or political issues. It’s perfectly form normal for us because of course we understand that that kind of language is the language that holds the most currency with the masses. We are of course in a war embroiled between good and evil are, we not?

I mean, again, but snow -somehow, when a member of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt uses the same kind of religious language to talk about his economic agenda, we immediately label it as theocratic or Islamist or fundamentalist in some way. There are people who have, legitimately or not, very serious grievances with what they see — how they understand — a legitimate resistance to what they view as an attack upon their very identities and of course identity goes far deeper than just simply cultural or social or national or religious. It’s a combination of those things. And who have used the language of religion to give voice to that opposition. To give voice to that resistance in very extreme and very unusual cases that identity, that attack on an identity, that language, leads to horrific acts of violence.

But, to sort of reduce it to, “Well, it’s not about, you know, being poor or being rich, you know, he was a doctor and he became a jihadist therefore it must’ve been religion that influences him do it and not his, his, you know, poverty or for any situation.” Again, I think that it’s a real sort of oversimplification of a very complex issue that has much more to do with one’s identity than it does with one’s faith …

Sam, I’d like to ask you how you can reconcile the statements, the generalizations, that you feel comfortable making about Islamic, the Islamic world, when we are confronted every night, hammered, every night, by the reality that the problem in Iraq is the problem that, within an Islamic nation, there are Sunni Muslims fighting Shiite Muslims and then Kurdish Muslims whoe are fighting both of them. And, in this I’m joining Reza in emploring you: is there not more diversity and pluralism in the Islamic world than perhaps you’re giving it credit for?

Yeah, and nobody is suffering from the diversity in Islamic world more than Muslims. I mean, we have in Iraq right now Shia and Sunni drilling holes into each other’s brains with power tools in the suburbs of Bahgdad, people, I would argue, who would not otherwise be engaged in this behavior but for their incompatible religious identities. I mean, they are caught in a blood feud, which has all of the character of nonreligious blood feuds, I mean vendetta, it goes back for centuries. No doubt, we stirred up this hornet’s nest with our intrusion there, which I think has been hideous and utterly misconceived and misapplied, as we can probably all agree.

But, the reality is that, if Iraq were all Sunni and there was no religious difference to be exploited by this crucible that we have placed these people in, I don’t think you would have the same character of violence. They have defined — the Sunni, especially have defined the Shia as apostates and, across that gulf, they have managed to completely dehumanize them and this is now spiraling out of control. If you want to step back from it, the real issue is tribalism, the real issue is us-them thinking.

The real issue is instrumental violence where you don’t really care to kill the person who killed your son, you’ll just kill one of his sons or you’ll just kill someone who’s a part of the same group. That kind of breakdown of empathy, ultimately, is enabled massively by the fact that we have these competing religions in the world.

Your explanation of Iraq does not in any way explain why the Kurds, who are Sunni, are killing and fighting other Sunni Kurds. It doesn’t explain why, in Southern Iraq, Shia militias, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, are killing each other. And, it’s, I think, again a fundamental misunderstanding of why these groups are fighting each other, and it’s as simple as simply reading —

Let’s make it very, very simple then. Imagine the problem in the Middle East without religion. How good a thing is it that the Jews think that the creator of the universe promised them a certain strip of desert on the Mediterranean? Is that having any consequence in our world?

Let me ask you a question? Do you believe that the lack of a two-state solution in peace in Palestine is the result of the Jewish government believing that God gave them that land so they won’t deny it? I can’t imagine you actually believe that.

And, I have to join in here and say that the men and women who created the modern state of Israel were atheists who believed that if they stayed in Europe, the Jewish people would be murdered —

And, they were right.

And they turned out to be right. They were not religious Jews. They were condemned as apostates by the religious Jews. The Zionist project was —

And, indeed, the ultra-orthodox religious Jews don’t believe — However —

To misunderstand the intent of my remark. I think the history of anti-Semitism is the history of the religious vilification of Jews which had the consequence of the virtual extermination of the Jews in Europe which then gave real justification to the State of Israel.

All I will say, it gets my blood up to hear that phrase: “What if the Jews had not believed that this little strip of land had
been given to them by God?” As if to say that this was a religious crusade by Jews.

I take that caveat. But, what do you think would happen if we woke up tomorrow with the brilliant idea that we’re just going to end the problem in the Middle East by giving the Jews British Columbia. Would they accept it?

That was tried —

Yeah, actually with Ghana.

Uganda —

Why not accept that trade?

Well, I have to concede this point to you, which is that, in this very discouraging times of, where the prospects of peace in the Middle East are so dismal, if you play that thought game, what if the Jews were magically removed from Israel, would that solve the problem of the Islamic world or the problem between the Islam world and the West, then I think you would have to conclude not at all.

It would solve the problem between the Jews and their neighbors. I mean, the reason why can’t all live happily together on that land is because Judaism and Islam are hostile to one anotehr on that sanctified ground. If the Jews left, they would not be attacked by the Canadians.

Actually, before 1948, of course, there were tens of thousands of Jews living alongside their Arab neighbors without any problem at all. Again, to talk about —

And, throughout the Arab world.

Without any problem at all is — I list the years of pogroms against Jews.


In Palestine? I’m referring to Palestine.

Yeah, throughout the Arab world.


The point that I’m making is that, by talking about this conflict as a religious conflict, as you are explicitly doing, you are essentially doing the same thing that the extremists are doing, and that is by overlaying this religious significance upon this, that turns an Earthly conflict into a cosmic battle, a battle for identity, a battle for who you are as a human being versus who the other is.

Let’s play a different thought game. Instead of “let’s remove the Jews from Israel,” let’s play the thought game in which we stop thinking of this as a Jewish-Muslim issue, because it’s not, and start thinking about it as a Palestinian-Israeli issue, which it is. And, certainly there are religious connotations about it. There’s no question about it.

You know, the most ultra conservative Jews and ultra conservative Muslims in that region have a very cosmic conception of what is taking place there, but we cannot fall into the same trap by simply swallowing that conception of it and legitimizing it by sort of discussing as though that truly is the problem. This is an inherent Muslim-Jewish problem. It’s not.

No, no. The problem is that so many people believe that it is. What I’m concerned with is the logical and behavioral consequences of beliefs. If you believe —

Are you one of these people, Sam?

I’m going to have to bring our part of the conversation to a close with apologies to Sam, I want to affirm what Reza from your lips to God’s ear. I believe there’s a microphone, I’m going to call on this young lady.

My question is, do you think that it would be possible in this country to sort of like exclude people who don’t believe in evolution from scientific or managerial jobs that require logic and judgment on the grounds that, if you don’t believe in evolution or if you believe that the world is only 6,000 years old, that by itself shows that you aren’t capable of this job?

Sure. I mean, you can’t be a basketball player if you can’t shoot a free throw. Yeah. Of course. I mean, you can’t join a scientific community if you reject the very foundation of that science. Sure. Of course. I don’t see why that’s controversial.

I would just add to that that there is an insidious equalize these two approaches by the theory of intelligent design because they realize that creationism has a bad odor nowadays, but obviously they’re not comparable, and whether you could enforce such a rule, I’m not sure.

One thing I’d like to add to that is, I’m often misconstrued as advocating that we pass laws against religious belief, that somehow we create some kind of mechanism whereby we really turn down the screws on religious people. I’m not advocating that at all. I’m really advocating just new rules of conversation. Ask yourself, what do we do with the a aastrologers? How have we managed to keep astrologers off the Supreme Court or off our medical boards —

But, not out of the White House?

Yeah, well, there’s always marriage. The peril of marriage perhaps. But, by and large, astrologers are not acquiring vast responsibiliy in our society and we’re not continually ambushed by the neurosurgeon who doesn’t want to perform surgery that day because Saturn is in a retrograde or whatever. I mean, this is not happening. It’s not happening because, when someone talks with too much conviction about the effect of the planets of human affairs, we begin to stop listening to them, we stop taking them seriously, they don’t get promoted. There’s no laws involved. And, I just think that should happen when people begin to express their certainty that Jesus is coming back in their life times, et cetera, et cetera.

Talk a lot about our [inaudible] while we reject a lot of views, the knowledge of example. Most of us don’t want to believe that and [inaudible] are ancient text, so the 20th century view, how is it from a philosophical division, I mean, isn’t there something to be said about their ancient text and let’s not emotionalize them, we look at other philosophical works and should we simply say, it’s no longer applicable, They’re not good, they’re not bad, they just no longer have relevance in today’s day and age?

That’s an excellent question, by the way. I think that there are two ways to view a scripture or text. First of all, you’re absolutely right. I mean, the entirety of human history is inextricably bound to religion, cannot be divided. Or that the conception of religion as a language, and we’re tossing this word religion around a lot. We should figure out what we mean when we say it.

Religion is the language through which one describes sort of the transcendence and by “transcendence,” I don’t mean anything more compliated than that which lies beyond our material realm, our experience of the material realm. We need a means through which we can describe this, to which we can express it to ourselves and more importantly to one another and religion provides that language. Religion is not something you believe in or you don’t believe in. Again, I think that’s a misunderstanding of the function of religion and it’s a misunderstanding that is primarly found amongst people of religion.

The comment that you made about scriptures and how to understand them — very good question. The way that, I think, scholars of religion, historians of relgion, like Jonathan and myself — the way we look at religions or scriptures, is essentially as a documentation of this sort of experience, this historical experience of the transcendence, and the human need to sort of express that through symbols and through metaphors and through stories, through sacred history.

Now, you can take a completely secularist view of it and say the value of this text is to provide us this conception of the evolution of thought that is necessary when talking about our ever-changing experience of the divine. So that the scriptures — when you read the Book of Mormon, for instance, which is about 150 years old, it has a profoundly different sense of morality than, say, the Book of Genesis does or that the Mahābhārata does or the Ramayana does or the Gita does et cetera, et cetera.

But, there is another way of looking at scripture and it’s the faith perspective, if you will. It’s that, what we see here in this long and intimately connected history of religion is not just an attempt for human beings to describe their numinous encounter with the divine, with the transcendence, their experience of transcendence, but there’s another aspect of it, in that there is an attempt by that transcendent reality to sort of communicate itself, to self-communicate itself to human beings, and that these scriptures are sort of those experiences of it.

So in that sense, I don’t think you need to invalidate one scripture because of how old it is or you don’t need to invalidate one scripture in comparison to another scripture. You just have to understand that these are the attampts, the ongoing attempts, of humanity, which will go on for thousands of years. We’ve been talking about the death of god for a long, long time, and hasn’t happened. It’s going to go on for thousands of years, but it is going to change as our understanding of reality changes. As we change the way in which we express this experience. So in many ways, to me, the real prophets in our midst are the scientists, are the theoretical physicists who are trying to create a different language through which we can understand reality.

We actually agree there. My main gripe with religion is that it is the one mode of discourse that resists change so mightily. I mean can’t rewrite the Quran. You can’t rewrite the Bible. The most you can do is dicker with it under the aegis of sanctioned mode of exigesis and you can’t get really far away from it. You can’t divorce yourself so totally from the concept of jihad, the concept of martyrdom, so as to render it utterly moot. You have to find some way of squinting your eyes and turning your head so as to hold people like Osama bin Laden in abeyance.

If you prescribe to the Quran, yes.

And I agree that has to be done. But, look at the alternative we are foresaking. The alternative is a truly open-ended, unconstrained discourse about the human experience. I mean, the fact people have spiritual experiences. I mean, you’ve used this word word transcendent a lot. Who knows what that means? The reality is, it is possible for a person to close their eyes and use their attention in a certain way such that they no longer feel separate from the universe. They felt it was just me a moment ago and all the sudden, there’s just the world, OK? That is an experience that is replicable, that we can all have, that many of us, I’m sure, have had. Most people most of the time have had these experiences in the context of a religious tradition. And they have interpreted them by the light their religious tradition.

The problem with this process is it is not in the scientific spirit encouraging of rigorous honesty. It is encouraging of dogmatism and metaphysical speculation. And, yes, there are diamonds in the dung heaps of religion. I mean Rumi and Meister Eckhart are attesting to a kind of experience that I think we should all be desperate to have. The problem is we need to talk about it honestly. The first thing you can notice about this is that, if a Christian is having a glorious experience of self-transcendence and a Buddhist is having a glorious experience of self-transcendence, one thing you know for certain, the best interpretation of that data can’t be that Jesus is the Son of God put on earth to redeem our sins. It does not authenticate what the Christian thinks it’s authenticating; it doesn’t authenticate what the Buddhist thinks it’s authenticating. We no longer have a right to our religious provincialism. We just have to talk straight.

But it does authenticate the experience itself.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

And regardless of how one uses the language of Christianity or the language of Buddhism to contextualize it, to understand it, because those languages are different, and, indeed, because those languages clash with each other, says nothing about the reality of the experience whatsoever. Nor, for that matter, as you seem to suggest a little bit, does simply our knowledge of the mechanism through which one experiences these kinds of transcendent realities, the fact that we know how it happens, we understand the chemical framework that creates these kinds of quote/unquote religious experiences. That does not make those experiences any less real, particularly since nothing exists in reality that is not, you know, the sum of these chemical experiences. So, you know, I think we should be very careful about saying, “Well, science has explained mysticism as a, b, and c in the brain. So?


It’s very late for me to make that comment in the form of a question, but what actually interests me more than what you disagree on, both of you, is if you both agree that we have a problem with fundamentalists and we have a problem with aggressive fundamentalists and we have a problem with violent and suicidal fundamentalists and you both have fought and feel passionately about the arena of this, what the two of you might do with an hour and a half of trying to figure out what we do about that. Because I think that’s actually more profound and interesting than what you disagree about.

Well, but that’s I think the thing that we disagree about most, and I don’t want to put words into Sam’s mouth, but Sam has said on numerous occasions that it’s religion that’s at fault because there’s no sort of sympathy for moderate forms of any kind of religion. Indeed, Sam says that it is the moderates who pave the way, who give the excuse for the extremists and the fundamentalists. “So you want to get rid of fundamentalism? You want to get rid of extremism? Get rid of religion.” I couldn’t disagree more. Simply because, I don’t think religion is something that one gets rid of.

Religion is the language that we describe these experiences, that have always been with us, and will always be with us, and that language will change, just as religion will change. But, nevertheless, to me, the answer to rooting out extremism, is, it depends. There’s no talking to bin Laden, you’re not going to change the guy’s mind about anything. So, there’s no reason to try. But I’m talking about sort of traditionalism, conservatism, evangelicalism, you know, those kinds of what we would refer to as fringe, even irrational views of religion. The way to combat that is through rational views of religion, as far as I’m concerned.

Hi, Reza, I actually don’t think Sam disagrees that much with you. I think he feels perhaps that, if it was rational from the point of view that the world was expressing themselves off the scriptures they read, that then religion would be OK because it would fall into a range like astrology or something because people would see it as a part of their lives versus inflict it on others.

However, I think that there seems to be something missing here in the whole discussion of the Middle East and perhaps fanaticism throughout the world is the issues that that the institutions of religions such as the church or clerics, the fanatics of the South, they exist, and the issue of literacy. I mean, that’s how this has been controlled for so long and why, if you can’t read the Quran for yourself and make interpretations, logical interpretations, for yourself and you have to believe what someone’s expressing to you. It doesn’t really matter what the Quran says or what the Bible says or the Old Testament in Judaism because someone else is telling you what to believe. I think that may be a big part of the historical problem here.

I think I’m responding mostly to what Reza just said. Not to disrespect your question, but I agree with your point that we don’t disagree as much as we have seemed to.

The issue is that there is no reason for us to have this denominational language. If we are in the business of simply describing transcendent experience, how we have them, what they’re like, what is reasonable to conclude on their basis, neurochemistry is a part of that, but I agree with you, it does not subsume the whole conversation. If we are in that business, there is no room for a Buddhist version of it, a Christian version of it, in the same way there’s no room for Christian physics.

The Christians invented physics, but physics, because it was real domain of inquiry, floated free of its Christian roots. There’s no such thing as American science versus Japanese science. Science is science because it is the one mode of discourse where we are rigorously honest with each other. Everyone is in the business of proving everyone else wrong. You can actually win points by proving yourself wrong in science. This doesn’t happen in religion, and it should, and if it did, it would have a winnowing effect that would be catastrophic for the religious enterprise. And then we would be left with mystical scientists.

Well, I think that it’s certainly true that science has sort of rules and regulations that are far different than rules and regulations of theology, but that’s because they are alternative modes of knowing, alternative means through which you probe reality. And, while science unquestionably has a monopoly on fact, it has no monopoly on truth. Quite the opposite. And the idea that sort of physicality or materiality are the sole means through which one can investigate reality, through which one can probe reality, I think it’s something that even science itself would probably disagree with.

Where have I claimed that?

No, I’m saying that’s sort of the scientific conception, that, you know, anything that cannot be a part of our empirical, observation, our empirical experience of the world, is beyond the realm of science and so, therefore, cannot be discussed in the way that this sort of high concept of the rules of dialogue and discussion that you just spoke about with science. I think it’s easy, I think, for all of us to sort of point to the faults of religion or to the prejudices or the biases of religious people, and then to sort of make generalized comments about religion in general. To me, that is a profoundly unscientific way of discussing religion.

Science certainly does have a role to play in religion, but science uses the same kinds of language to describe similar experiences. When Dawkins refers to memes, I don’t understand the difference between memes and the way that Sufis describe the matter of the universe. When he refers, for instance, this notion of transcendence or mysticism being a result of simulation software in the brain, that’s just simply a new language, a new means to describe the same experience or something else that he says, HAD or hyperactive agent development, this belief that we are sort of hard-wired to expect agency when it doesn’t exist. So, we mistake coincidence or spiritual experiences et cetera, or we mistake chemical things that are going on in our brain for mystical experiences.

Again, that is merely an alternative language, a scientific language, in this way, to describe modes of reality. It’s not any more or less legitimate in the dialogue than religion is, but it certainly has a monopoly on facts and causation and, in that sense, it has a higher level, particularly in these kinds of discussions that we’re having than religion does or theology does.

This is true, but Reza is apparently speaking only of a minority of American Christians when he says this:

Harris Interactive. (2013, December 16). Americans’ Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines. Retrieved March 6, 2015 from

It doesn’t appear to be possible to check how many Christians do think that the Bible “declares itself to be an inerrant or literal text.” I would suggest, though, that Christians probably are more concerned with whether or not it is literally true:

Jones, J.M. (2011, July 8). In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally. Gallup. Retrieved March 6, 2015 from

Sam was either off here or was using statistics other than those from Gallup. Gallup has asked samples of Americans if they believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” since, it appears, 1982. At no point since then has the proportion gone to 53%. The year prior to this debate, it would have been at 46%. The most current proportion (2014) stands at 42% (Newport, 2014). That said, his point still mostly stands.


Newport, F. (2014, June 2). In U.S., 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins. Gallup. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

Again, it’s unclear where Sam got this statistic. If this was ever true, it no longer is.
They never come back to this.
Here are some stories (sorted by date, ascending) that might be related to what Sam’s talking about:


Burke, J. (1998, August 15). Half an hour after the executions, Kabul stadium opens for football. The Independent. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

Brown, J. (2001, October 2). The Taliban’s bravest opponents. Salon. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

Khan, N. (2006, January 5). Militants behead Afghan principal for educating girls. The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

Magnowski, D. (2011, December 15). Taliban death stadium reborn as Afghan sporting hope. Reuters. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

If we’re somewhat generous with the dates, we get about 300 years of witch burning. This is about 200 shy of Sam’s “five centuries.”


According to Linder, witch hunting began in the mid-1400s and accelerated after publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in the 1480s (2005). Around 50,000 people are estimated to have been burned as witches in Europe through the 1680s. In the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, those found guilty of witchcraft were hanged (, 2014). The last witch to be burned alive appears to have been Janet Horne in Scotland in 1727 (Burnett, 2009).


Burnett, A. (2009, August 9). Back on the witch hunt. The Herald Scotland. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from (2014, August 13). Were witches burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials?. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

Linder, D. (2005). A Brief History of Witchcraft Persecutions before Salem. University of Missouri — Kansas City School of Law. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from

Sam may be referring here to Abdul Rahman.
This is a noteworthy statement as Reza earlier accuses Sam of basing his impression of Muslims on anecdotal evidence. Personal experience is anecdotal evidence.
Sam accurately quotes both himself and Pew here. However, one major caveat here is that subsequent polls show that the figure he sites for Lebanon appears to have been at a peak in 2002:
The world Muslim population in early 2007 probably was about 1.5 billion. Five percent of 1.5 billion is 75 million people.
According to Pew, the USA was 78.4% Christian as of 2007.

Krueger may be the ultimate source of this information:

He found that the poorest countries, those with low literacy, or those whose economies were relatively stagnant did not produce more terrorists. When the analysis was restricted to suicide-attacks, there was a statistically significant pattern—but in the opposite direction. Citizens of the poorest countries were the least likely to commit a suicide-attack. The nationalities of all foreign insurgents captured in Iraq between April and October 2005 also produced no evidence that poorer countries produced more insurgents. If anything, there was weak evidence the other way.

The Economist. (2010, December 16). Exploding misconceptions. Retrieved March 4, 2015 from

Miller (2008) writes, “Since 2002 it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it the bestselling nonfiction hardcover book in history.”

Miller, L. (2008, December 12). Purpose Driven Life. Newsweek. Retrieved March 4, 2015 from

Without reading The Looming Tower to get a full account of Wright’s take on the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of that book’s writing, one may be able to glean his thoughts from this exchange:

Q: What about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? Do you think banning it will be the end of the movement?

First of all, the Muslim Brothers prospered because it was the only way for many Egyptians to protest against the government, and then more radical movements came out of that. If you look at [Al-Qaeda leader] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, he hated the Brotherhood. There was the [Egyptian] government and then the Islamists who protested against it, and they were the only ones who had the nerve to stand against it. The Brotherhood was an underground organization that went into government, and now it will become an underground organization once more. If you take out the Brotherhood, if you have only the authoritarian government and the radicals, without the Brotherhood in-between, then I think you will see the number of radicals increase. The other thing is that the Brotherhood provides quite a lot of civic and charitable services and so on, which the government fails to do. You remember after the earthquake near Cairo in 1992, the government [of ousted President Hosni Mubarak] wasn’t there. So if the government were to take up the responsibilities the Brotherhood assumed on its behalf, then maybe it wouldn’t make such a difference. But if the government fails to do so and there is a void in terms of the care on offer for the people of Egypt, then I think more radical groups will emerge.

Al-Awsat, A. (2014, August 11). Lawrence Wright: Radicalism will increase without the Muslim Brotherhood. Asharq Al-Awsat. Retrieved March 5, 2015 from

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