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"The Moral Landscape": Why science should shape morality

Thanks to Kim Z for the link

Sam Harris, the notorious atheist, explains his controversial stance on religion -- and his provocative new book

To call Sam Harris a divisive figure is to put it mildly. Harris — along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens — is considered one of the most influential members of the so-called New Atheism movement, a term that generally refers to nonbelievers who seek a true separation of church and state, civil rights for atheists, and the freedom to openly criticize religious belief.

In his previous book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," Harris aimed to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms." In the wake of the book, theologist Madeleine Bunting wrote an article in the Guardian comparing Harris' arguments about Islam to "the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition." In a debate about religion on Beliefnet, an exasperated Andrew Sullivan called one of Harris' arguments "a form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism."

His long-awaited new book, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," deals head-on with issues that many atheistic thinkers have been skirting for years. If religion is so bad, where should humans look for a moral authority? The answer, for Harris, is science. Harris defines morality as anything related to the "well-being of conscious creatures." Since many scientific findings have implications for how to maximize well-being, Harris believes scientists should be authorities on moral issues. As Harris sees it, scientists not only have every right to make moral arguments, but should be authorities of the moral realm.

Salon spoke to Harris over the phone about suicide bombers, our hard-wired need for religious faith, and which religions are more objectionable than others.

In this book and others, you are particularly critical of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But what about Eastern religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism?

I do criticize all religion, but I point out that "religion" is just a word, like "sports." There are many different types of sports, and they don’t necessarily have anything in common. And this same spectrum can be seen among religions. There are religions that are intrinsically peaceful. The greatest example is Jainism, which really is a religion of peace. Nonviolence is its central precept. Then there’s Islam, which is not even remotely a religion of peace, though many people insist that it is. There’s a reason why none of us are lying awake at night worrying about the Jains.

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