Remember when Sam Harris said religion was worse than rape?

There have been some issues on Patheos involving image use and attribution. Now that NPS is on Patheos, what images we’re allowed to use is different—we generate (very, very modest) ad revenue, so we can’t use images that are for noncommercial use only. This means I’ve been going through all of our old posts that well predate me to make sure we’re all good in that department (because if we get sued then it’s me, not Patheos, that is fucked).

The upside, though, is that I’ve been finding some old gems, like that time Sam Harris said he’d rather get rid of religion than rape.

It’s understandable to worry whether this is an instance where someone takes Harris out of context or reads him uncharitably—which does happen unfortunately often, and I avoid doing so as best I can. But no, that’s exactly what Harris meant to say. Let me extensively quote his interview at The Sun Magazine (emphasis mine)

Saltman: Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?

Harris: It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.

Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.

Saltman: Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?

Harris: I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.

Saltman: I’ve interviewed a lot of born-again Christians. Many of them said they were praying for me because they were convinced I’m going to hell, since I’m not a “believer.” Sometimes this irritated me, but I never felt that I was in real danger.

Harris: Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. They’re not, presumably, eager to see people burned alive for heresy. A few centuries of science, modernity, and secular politics have moderated even the religious extremists among us. But there are a few exceptions to this. There are the Dominionist Christians, for example, who actually do think homosexuals and adulterers should be put to death. But the people going to a megachurch in Orange County, California, are not calling for this.

They are, however, quite sanguine about human suffering. Their opposition to stem-cell research, for instance, is prolonging the misery of tens of millions of people at this moment. Michael Specter wrote an article in the New Yorker titled “Political Science” about how the Christian Right is distorting the government’s relationship to science. One example is that we now have a vaccine for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, of which five thousand women die every year in the United States. The vaccine, which can be given to girls at age eleven or twelve, is safe and effective. Yet evangelical Christians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — political appointees — have argued that we should not use this vaccine, because it will remove one of the natural deterrents to premarital sex. Reginald Finger, who’s on the immunization advisory committee of the CDC, has said that even if we had a vaccine against HIV, he would have to think long and hard about whether to use it, because it might encourage premarital sex.

Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.

Saltman: If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?

Harris: Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable.

I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.

I think Harris is pretty obviously wrong, here: the biggest body counts belong to statist, not religious, ideologies, and it’s only recently that religious ideologies have become such a big share of current violence and terror (in the 20th Century, for example, the most suicide attacks were perpetrated by the secular, nationalist Tamil Tigers). Even more, I think it’s pretty naive to suppose the human community would be less fractured without religious doctrine. We’ll fracture over pretty much anything (see: atheist blogs), and looking to secularized communities is a poor comparison. These countries are getting less religious because they are economically and socially prosperous; so we can’t look at their benefits for a cue of what happens when religion goes away via magic wand. Would a region like the Middle East be less fractured if it weren’t for religion? I’m pretty skeptical that it would be, given 20th Century U.S. History—the doctrines of Islam didn’t change, so I don’t know how to explain the uptick in violence after the Cold War without appealing to social and political and economic factors.

Even if Harris were right, I would absolutely love it if people could stop using rape as a cheap prop in their arguments. There are many terrible things in the world; you don’t need to use a traumatic example that overwhelmingly affects women. According to the National Violence Against Women survey, 15% will experience rape or attempted rape. Research by the CDC suggests that 20% of women will experience rape in their lives.

If you’re going to use something to fill the gap in your argument where “something really really bad” goes, consider not using one that has potentially traumatic associations to a disproportionate number of women. When men talk about rape in this way, they’re using it in a ham-fisted effort to be inflammatory; it’s something much more serious and personal to women.

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