Sam Harris is everywhere these days promoting his new book,The Moral Landscape. He was interviewed by the British website New Scientist:
…[I]n fact the most common defence one hears for religious faith is not that there’s so much evidence that God exists, but that religion offers the only basis for a universal morality. Moderates and fundamentalists seem to agree on this point. Of course, it makes no sense as a defence of faith because even if it were true, it wouldn’t suggest that God exists. But there is the additional problem that religion is a terrible source of moral guidance in the 21st century.
Indeed it is. Many have made the argument that religion was historically a source of social progress. This is untrue and the story is more complex than that. Humanity matured and good-hearted people living in religious societies harnessed the bible to promote freedom and progress. The same bible that was invoked to justify slavery now opposed it.
You can interpret the bible in all kinds of ways as support for doing the right thing. There are some fine moral exhortations in the bible. No one denies that. The problem is that there is also a great deal of immorality as judged by modern standards. Antiquity does not accord these texts increased authority. It reduces their relevancy.
Harris offers an explicit example of what happens when our source of moral authority is based on primitive writings:
Consider the Catholic church. This is an institution that excommunicates women who attempt to become priests, but does not excommunicate priests who rape children. This church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.
If in the old days we could articulate morality by backing it with some supernatural prophetic communication with a god, now science and a lack of evidence have rendered this obsolete. Texts can no longer claim universal authority because they are endorsed by some deity. So we must find a substitute.
Moral philosophy and reason will suffice. The reasonableness of this is underscored by the fact that most moderate religious people will abandon or “re-interpret” their scriptures when there is modern, rational, moral pressure to do so. That’s why so many Jews and Christians have, admirably, come to support full equality for women and gay people. Not because of their text. In spite of their text.
I share Harris’ view of what lies ahead:
I happen to think that the scientific study of morality is the lever that, if pulled hard enough, will completely dislodge religion from the firmament of our concerns. The world religions will land somewhere near astrology, witchcraft and Greek mythology on the scrapheap. In their place we will have a thoroughgoing understanding of human flourishing, which will include even the most rarified and traditionally “spiritual” states of human consciousness.
This must be the future of humanity if there is to be a future. We cannot survive as a species in an advanced technological world of both dangers and opportunities with theistic religion in charge. Their legacy of immorality on this planet should immediately disqualify them from leadership.
I honestly believe that this is the key to human survival.