In a well-meaning attempt to be tolerant of other cultures and religions we often blithely subvert our values and morality, says Sam Harris, the outspoken critic of blind religious faith. We do this because we think that questions about good and evil or right and wrong cannot be answered definitively. But they can, he told a rapt audience at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference Thursday — and they should.
Harris is no stranger to the argument that, to put it more mildly than he might, religion does more harm than good. His 2005 New York Times bestseller The End of Faith attempted to draw a straight line from faith to human atrocities. His subsequent Letter to a Christian Nation took on the fierce pushback he received from writing his first book.
So it should come as no surprise that Harris ran with this theme at TED, expanding his argument beyond the faithful to the secular-leaning. Scientists and academics, who are wedded to facts and empiricism, he said, do something different when they talk about morality. “We value differences of opinion in a way that we don’t in other areas,” Harris said.
We know that there are fundamentally right and wrong answers to certain questions and issues, but do not trust our instincts, he said. These cast-aside tenets should respected and should be the basis of a universal morality, regardless of variations in cultures and belief.
Even within a single culture it’s easy to fall into a morally relativistic trap, he said. For example, Harris noted, there are 21 states in the U.S. where it’s legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board to the point of leaving bruises and breaking skin. The rationale for this behavior is the Biblical quote about sparing the rod and spoiling the child.
The obvious question, Harris said, is whether it is actually a sound idea to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior.
He also pointed to the issue of women in the Muslim world who cover themselves in burqas.
“I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want,” he said. But it’s not an option when not wearing a burqa is a punishable offense. And even more importantly, he said, what of those cultures which punish a brutalized woman, where “when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?”
We should not feel constrained to assert what we think is an objective truth — that such behavior is wrong — for fear that it will be taken as subjective meddling or demagoguery, Harris argued. There is a moral imperative not to hold one’s tongue but rather to speak out.
“Who are we not to say [that it’s wrong]?” he asked. “Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well being that we have to be nonjudgmental about a practice like this?”
We can no longer respect and tolerate vast differences of opinion of what constitutes basic humanity any more than we can take seriously different opinions about how disease spreads or what it takes to make buildings and airplanes safe, Harris insisted.
We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important question in human life, Harris concluded. And to do that we have to admit that there are answers.