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Holy Terror

Sam Harris is the author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason," published this month. He can be reached at www.samharris.org

President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed -- for the moment -- to bring the Constitution into conformity with Judeo-Christian teachings. But even if they had passed a bill calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, that would have been only a beginning. Leviticus 20:13 and the New Testament book of Romans reveal that the God of the Bible doesn’t merely disapprove of homosexuality; he specifically says homosexuals should be killed: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”

God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents. While they’re at it, members of Congress might want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because it turns out that God approves of slavery -- unless a master beats his slave so severely that he loses an eye or teeth, in which case Exodus 21 tells us he must be freed.

What should we conclude from all this? That whatever their import to people of faith, ancient religious texts shouldn’t form the basis of social policy in the 21st century. The Bible was written at a time when people thought the Earth was flat, when the wheelbarrow was high tech. Are its teachings applicable to the challenges we now face as a global civilization?

Consider the subject of stem-cell research. Many religious people, drawing from what they’ve heard from the pulpit, believe that 3-day-old embryos -- which are microscopic collections of 150 cells the size of a pinhead -- are fully endowed with human souls and, therefore, must be protected as people. But if we know anything at all about the neurology of sensory perception, we know that there is no reason to believe that embryos at this stage of development have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer or to experience death in any way at all. (There are, for comparison’s sake, 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly.)

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These facts notwithstanding, our president and our leaders in Congress, many of them citing religious teachings, have decided to put the rights of undifferentiated cells before those of men and women suffering from spinal cord injuries, full-body burns, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Of course, the Bible is not the only ancient text that casts a shadow over the present. A social policy based on the Koran poses even greater dangers. Koran 9:123 tells us it is the duty of every Muslim man to “make war on the infidels who dwell around you.” Osama bin Laden may be despicable, but it is hard to argue that he isn’t acting in accord with at least some of the teachings of the Koran. It is true that most Muslims seem inclined to ignore the Koran’s solicitations to martyrdom and jihad, but we cannot overlook the fact that some are not so inclined and that some of them murder innocent people for religious reasons.

The phrase “the war on terrorism” is a dangerous euphemism that obscures the true cause of our troubles, because we are currently at war with precisely a vision of life presented to Muslims in the Koran. Anyone who reads this text will find non-Muslims vilified on nearly every page. How can we possibly expect devout Muslims to happily share power with “the friends of Satan”? Why did 19 well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed, on the authority of the Koran, that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so easily explained. And yet, many of us are reluctant to accept this explanation.

Religious faith is always, and everywhere, exonerated. It is now taboo in every corner of our culture to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. Consequently, we are unable to even name, much less oppose, one of the most pervasive causes of human conflict. And the fact that there are very real and consequential differences between the major religious traditions is simply never discussed.

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Anyone who thinks that terrestrial concerns are the principal source of Muslim violence must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They too suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against the Chinese? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam versus those of Buddhism and Christianity.

There are now more people in our country who believe that the universe was created in six solar days than there were in Europe in the 14th century. In the eyes of most of the civilized world, the United States is now a rogue power -- imperialist, inarticulate and retrograde in its religiosity. Our erstwhile allies are right not to trust our judgment. We elect leaders who squander time and money on issues like gay marriage, Janet Jackson’s anatomy, Howard Stern’s obscenities, marijuana use and a dozen other trifles lying at the heart of the Christian social agenda, while potentially catastrophic problems like nuclear proliferation and climate change go unresolved.

We elected a president who believes the jury is still out on evolution and who rejects sound, scientific judgments on the environment, on medical research, on family planning and on HIV/AIDS prevention in the developing world. The consequence, as we saw in recent elections in Spain, is that people who feel misled and entrapped by our dogmatic and peremptory approach to foreign policy will be unable to recognize a common enemy, even when that enemy massacres hundreds of people in their nation’s capital.

It is time we recognize that religious beliefs have consequences. As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are a member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels -- and flying a plane into a building is only a matter of being asked to do it. Believe that “life starts at the moment of conception” and you will happily stand in the way of medical research that could alleviate the suffering of millions of your fellow human beings. Believe that there is a God who sees and knows all things, and yet remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual acts between consenting adults, and you will think it ethical to punish people for engaging in private behavior that harms no one.

Now that our elected leaders have grown entranced by pseudo-problems like gay marriage, even while the genuine enemies of civilization hurl themselves at our gates, perhaps it is time we subjected our religious beliefs to the same standards of evidence we require in every other sphere of our lives. Perhaps it is time for us to realize, at the dawn of this perilous century, that we are paying too high a price to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.


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