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The Day The World Changed

A man in a suit leaps from the upper floors of a high rise building, licks of orange flame and black smoke billowing outward around him. As he plummets he is so very alive, moving into a protective self embrace for those final seconds. Across town, members of his family gather around televisions to watch the scene replicated many times over. Inside the superstructure there is a surreal panic as thousands of normal people seek to flee, unaware that in just a few moments one of the largest structures ever built is going to disintegrate around them, closely followed by its twin.

You know where you were. You know what you were doing. This was the day the world changed; shifted in seismic fashion. And ten years on things can never, ever go back.

It's all been said, hasn't it? The testimonies, the soul searching, the heart wrenching pursuit of meaning, the need to make sense of these spine tingling atrocities. Let's be clear; there's no sense to be made of it because the idea behind these attacks was non-sensical to begin with. Nineteen relatively educated men orchestrated, planned, and executed 9/11, each one going willingly to what they perceived would be a glorious martyrdom. As the world watched they gave the word 'delusion' new meaning, and provided ample evidence of the horrifying evils that true believers will perform in the name of their god.

I was still a very committed Christian when those towers fell and when those planes became flesh-encumbered guided missiles. I recall being horrified that anybody could do such a thing in the name of their god. On September 12th a young philosopher and fledgling neuroscientist called Sam Harris began writing a book which would become a global bestseller. It was called The End Of Faith, and it was to change my life. It remains to this day the only book which, on completion, I've turned straight back to the very first page and started again. Such was the power of the narrative and its clear dissection and disembowelment of faith at all levels. It was a book that was to start a movement that became known as the New Atheism; a movement I am now actively a part of as I seek to raise consciousness about the lurking dangers behind all unfounded belief systems.

If you are a believer of any stripe you have something in common with those nineteen men. Don't shake your head, and don't look away. The thing you have in common is that you are claiming to know things about the nature of reality that you cannot possibly know. You believe you have a relationship with the Creator of the universe. You are convinced he cares about you, watches over you, and has a plan for your life. You believe he is telling you to do certain things and abstain from others. In summary, you are taking instruction from a being for which there is no evidence and who has left no detectable mark on his creation. And strangely this being exists in many forms, depending on your culture and the part of the world you happened to grow up in.

The vast majority of you will lead peaceful lives. You may have some quietly repulsive views about sexuality and some tacit bigotry that lurks under your intellectual bonnet, but by and large you are garden variety believers, harmless and quietly living out your delusion.

Yet problems exist. This planet is soaked in religion. Drenched in the stuff. Three or four have large followings, and each of these perceives itself to be absolutely true, irrespective of what the others preach. And across the globe, from the West Bank to the Bible Belt, from Norway to Nigeria, we see how these contradictory systems square up. Think of them as continental plates, rubbing against one another. From time to time the pressure builds so much that there is a tectonic eruption. The seabed rises, a tsunami rips towards land, or the ground shakes everything to rubble.

Wasn't 9/11 a kind or religious tsunami, a moment when the pressure became too much? And why? Because people held beliefs that could only be supported by blind faith. And the moment you evoke the word faith you are quietly acknowledging that your evidence is not good enough. This world is entering a critical phase, with economic, environmental, and population problems creating tectonics all their own. Do you think faith is going to come to the rescue? Is prayer going to cut it?

I'm going to make the following suggestion. Whatever else we take from 9/11 we should accept the fact that religious certainty, religious zeal, religious delusion is only going to add to our problems rather than alleviate them. I'd suggest this is the time to put the fairy tales of old to bed and forge new paths based on reason, compassion, and mutual self-interest. We face global challenges. Challenges that require global cooperation. Religion leads to division and falsehood. Let's remove that card from the pack. It was only ever the joker after all.

TAGGED: HARM, RELIGION, SAM HARRIS


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