April 10, 2009

Words of Wisdom: Sam Harris

afternoon sunset
Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments.

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage)

When I first came across this quote, I wasn't sure what to think. As someone who thinks that tribalism, racism, and some approaches to politics are pretty bad in terms of their impact on conflict, I was skeptical about the possibility of religion being even worse. But I think Harris is right when he points out that religion is the only one that makes the differences between people eternal.

Racism, which I think most of us would agree is a bad thing, may be the one most closely associated with dehumanization. But as bad as that is, it doesn't always go as far as religion seems to with making the out-group not just subhuman but evil in the sense of deserving everlasting punishment.

The concept of eternal punishment is probably something we critics of religion do not emphasize enough. The hell Christians imagine is supposed to be forever. Once there, one is not eligible for parole; one remains there forever. That is not the sort of sentence a loving being would impose.