Author Sam Harris might not be as famous as his contemporaries Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (sometimes referred to collectively as “the New Atheists” along with philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett), but his best-selling 2004 book, The End Of Faith, preceded both Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) and Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007). So if there really is such a thing as the New Atheism, and if the term arose as a result of this series of best-selling books in the last decade, then Harris is arguably the movement’s unwitting founder.
With his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris has shifted from the more philosophical and social arguments he’s made against the world’s religions and used his background in neuroscience to argue that moral truth exists and science is the best tool to employ for its discovery. If we can agree that morality is based upon the notion of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that we can then begin to make factual claims about what is right and what is wrong.
Shortly before book’s publication, Harris spoke with The A.V. Club about science and morality, utilizing examples as far-ranging as the Catholic Church, witchcraft, Kim Jong Il, “racist dwarves,” schizophrenics, and Tina Fey to make his case.
The A.V. Club: Did your inquiry into religion with The End Of Faith trigger a kind of “eureka” moment that led you down the path to studying morality from the perspective of neuroscience in The Moral Landscape?
Sam Harris: I was actually already doing my Ph.D. in neuroscience when September 11 happened. The End Of Faith is essentially what September 11 did to my intellectual career at that moment. I was studying the brain, I was interested in religion and belief of every type—scientific and unscientific belief—and I was getting ready to study belief at the level of the brain with fMRI [functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging]. Then, when September 11happened, I felt I had to address this issue of how religion was functioning in our world and causing people to do things that were quite insane.
But this new book did come out of a “eureka” moment—that came out of my experience since September 11—in criticizing religion publicly and discovering that more or less everyone agrees on one point. People agree—whether they’re fundamentalist Christians who think the universe is 6,000 years old or atheist scientists like myself—everyone seems to agree that you can’t talk about moral truth in the context of science. Religious people think you can’t talk about moral truth in the context of science because the truths have to come from a voice in a whirlwind that has been codified in our holy books. Secularists and more educated liberal types, by and large, think that there’s just no such thing as moral truth; morality is either purely a product of culture, or we make it up, or it has just been drummed into us by evolution and there’s nothing about our intuitions of right and wrong and good and evil that actually connects to reality in any scientific sense.
I really perceive this to be an intellectual emergency, because the only people who are sure that there are right answers to moral questions are, for the most part, religious demagogues. I consistently encounter people in academic settings and scientists and journalists who feel that you can’t say that anyone is wrong in any deep sense about morality, or with regard to what they value in life. I think this doubt about the application of science and reason to questions of value is really quite dangerous. Essentially what we’re saying is: When we try to talk honestly and rigorously about the nature of reality—when we try to get our biases out of the way, when we rely on careful observation and clear reason—these efforts have absolutely no application into the most important questions in human life. And that’s just on its face ridiculous. But I think it’s dangerous because these decisions get made based on people’s dogmatism and their reliance on Iron Age philosophy. So now we’re a culture that debates gay marriage while not really addressing problems like nuclear proliferation, climate change, the crisis in education, poverty across the world, etc.
AVC: Are scientists as much to blame as the demagogues in terms of voluntarily excluding questions of morality from their field of expertise?
SH: There are a few dogmas and double standards and really regrettable exports from philosophy that have confounded the thinking of scientists on the subject of morality. First, there’s this double standard around how we view differences of opinion. For instance, in science, on any topic that falls within its purview, there’s always difference of opinion. There’s difference of opinion within science, there are controversies at the frontiers of science, and there’s obviously rather stark collisions with public opinion on scientific topics like evolution. It’s been 150 years and we still can’t convince the majority of Americans that evolution is a fact. Now, that disagreement doesn’t remotely challenge the science of biology. No one is in doubt about whether biology is a science just because a majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution. In science, we don’t anchor our truth claims and our epistemology to democratic principals. It’s possible for most people to be wrong on any given subject and scientists readily acknowledge this. But somehow, on the subject of morality, people have been led to believe that the mere fact that there can be a difference of opinion—the mere fact that we have our moral intuitions but the Taliban have theirs, and they seem quite irreconcilable—that fact proves that there is no such thing as moral truth, that there’s no way to be right or wrong with regard to moral facts of any sort because this difference of opinion proves that there’s no ground truth. That’s a double standard that we just have to notice and transcend because it makes absolutely no sense. We’re keeping two sets of intellectual books.
And scientists seem to think that consensus on moral truth demonstrates absolutely nothing. What’s interesting is that there’s actually much more consensus on moral truth than there is on any other scientific claim. Many more people agree that being cruel to children is wrong—that’s almost universally subscribed in every culture—than agree that evolution occurred, or that the special theory of relativity has any truth to it. Our core moral principles are actually quite well subscribed. So what I’m arguing in my book is that we are actually free to define our terms in our conversation about morality in the same way we’re free to define our terms on any other scientific topic.
For instance, in physics we talk about things like causation and laws and theories and matter and energy and we talk about these things within certain constraints and people who don’t obey those constraints really can’t talk the talk of physics. If they show up at a physics conference, they don’t make any sense. There’s nothing wrong with that. You have to define your terms in science. But here we run into another double standard. On the subject of morality, when I define morality as relating to the well-being of conscious creatures—humans and animals for our purposes—people say, “Well you can’t just define morality as related to well-being. Who says it’s related to well-being?” People seem to worry that merely defining your terms puts morality on very shaky ground, whereas it doesn’t in any other scientific discipline.
We define health in a very open-ended way as having something to do with not dying too early and not being in continuous pain and not being ravaged by infectious disease, etc. Health is a very loose concept and yet we can have a science of human health and that’s what medicine is. It’s very clear when the difference is between someone who’s dying of end-stage Alzheimer’s and someone who’s in the prime of their youth. That difference is hard to define rigorously, but it’s something we can talk about quite intelligently and study scientifically.
No one ever thinks to attack the philosophical foundations of medicine by saying, “What gives you the right to define health as being free from debilitating pain and early death? How can you convince someone with Alzheimer’s that they’re not as healthy as you are?” Yet when I talk about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, I get these exact charges thrown at me. “How can you say to Mullah Omar of the Taliban that morality relates to well-being? Who’s to say it doesn’t relate to cutting the heads off adulterers?” People think that this is some kind of philosophical insight that they’re expressing and yet it’s patently insane.
AVC: Proponents of religion often attack prominent atheists like you for having a negative worldview. The Moral Landscape—whether or not you agree with its central argument—is about the potential for human well-being. So, at its core, this book is about the pursuit of happiness, an effort not usually associated with atheists.
SH: I’m glad you’ve pointed that out. The book is really not in any sense narrowly focused on religion. It has this one consequence, which is if you take what I’m saying seriously about moral truth, then perhaps the most popular defense of religion becomes problematic. The most common defense you hear of belief in God is not that there’s so much evidence that God exists, but that belief in him is the only source of universal morality. I just think that’s untrue. It’s true that many people think they’re getting the universal morality from religion and many people who are not religious think that there is no such thing as moral truth. That’s a problem. But my effort in this book is to show that we can think about moral truth—and things like right and wrong and good and evil—in the context of science and in the context of our best effort to understand the world honestly and rationally. I really think that is the only possible endgame for civilization. The only way we’re going to create a viable global civilization where we converge on the same kind of economic and environmental and political goals is to form some conception of shared values, some conception of what constitutes a good life that we can agree on.
Now, obviously we’re not going to get everyone to agree at the same moment all perfectly. We never do even in science, even among scientists, but we can clearly make huge progress and have made huge progress despite ourselves. If you look at this country and how racism has been undermined—obviously racism is still a problem, but racism has been eroded as a legitimate moral and intellectual stance to a remarkable degree. If you were to get into a time machine and go back 75 or 100 years and visit New York or Los Angeles you would find the level of racism absolutely unrecognizable. The kinds of newspaper editorials that were published back then could only have been written by a white supremacist group today. That’s huge progress and we can make that kind of progress simply by beginning to talk about issues differently. I think it’s less a matter of the laws we write and much more about the kinds of conversations we have.
AVC: But as you mentioned with evolution, even 150 years later, people just ignore the evidence if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. So, even if science were to pursue questions of morality and make factual claims about it, do you think it will have any significant effect on the beliefs of individuals?
SH: Many people are quite skeptical that we’re ever going to get rid of religious doctrines—specifically religious beliefs, to say nothing of religion in general—and as evidence of that doubt they point out things like how every country that has ever existed has been religious and religion has risen independently more or less everywhere. But the same could be said of witchcraft. Witchcraft has been a cultural universal. It has existed everywhere, east and west, north and south. You roll back the clock a few hundred years, in the United States and in Europe, belief in the power of witches and the power of magic spells and the agency of Satan and his familiars was absolutely current. It’s still quite current in Africa. If you go to Africa, you’ll find that belief in witchcraft is truly pandemic at this moment, but the thing to notice is how bizarre that looks. Because in the developed world—apart from a kind of new-age spin on it that has very little to do with what it has been historically—witchcraft, or the belief that your neighbor can give you bad luck through the evil eye, has just vanished.
How did we get rid of it? Well, we made a few crucial breakthroughs in science that stole the ground from under all of these crazy beliefs. Specifically, we developed a scientific approach to medicine where we began to understand the causes of disease. There’s obviously much more progress to be made here, but understanding the germ theory of disease did a lot to banish witchcraft in the developed world. The same is true with agriculture. Knowing how crops fail—and that they don’t succeed or fail based on magic—has a lot to do with people not burning their neighbors alive for casting malevolent spells on them. When you look at what’s going on in Africa, there’s really a kind of amazing ignorance of how things work in the world that allows this belief system to still thrive. You’ve got people literally hunting albinos to use their flesh for magical rituals because they think albino flesh has magical properties. How do you eradicate that belief? Well, you really have to one, criticize it, but two, talk about how things actually work in the world.
But in the West, there’s still this huge disconnection between all of the progress we’ve been making despite ourselves, and all of the insights we make scientifically, into how the world works and the most important questions in human life. Questions like, “What is worth living for? How should you raise your children? What constitutes a truly happy and fulfilled life?” Yet, all of these questions relate to the experience of human beings. And we know experience is arising out of the way the universe is. It arises out of the laws of nature. Specifically, in our case, it arises out of all of the ways in which our brains are influenced by states of the world and by the behavior of other people and in turn how that influences the brains of others. Clearly, all of these details fall within the purview of science at every level, from genetics to economics and every level in between: neurobiology, psychology, sociology, etc.
AVC: Let’s say science can and will make factual claims about morality. How then do you implement these moral truths to effect change in the world? Wouldn’t these truth claims lead to a kind of moral colonialism where the so-called developed world that has arrived at these conclusions then goes around the rest of the world to police or enforce these moral truths in other societies that haven’t yet discovered them?
SH: Clearly, if we could do that, we should do that. In the same way that we do it to ourselves. We have laws in this country and because we have laws against certain truly egregious forms of misbehavior, then those behaviors become less likely, and that’s a good thing. We recognize that and we’re trying to do that on an international scale, it’s just very difficult to do. There’s no real mechanism to enforce international law that works. But when you look at something like North Korea, clearly if we could help the people of North Korea despite the fact of they don’t want to be helped, we should. We’re talking about a hostage crisis, really, where you have millions of people held hostage by this lunatic with bouffant hair and they’ve been taught to worship him and his father. Are these people free to worship him? Well, not really.
We’re talking about one of the most information-starved cultures that has ever existed. I think the spell is beginning to break a little bit because information is getting in there despite the best efforts of the regime, but apparently most people believe that the shipments of food aid we send to North Korea, to keep everyone from starving to death, are devotional offerings to the genius of Kim Jong Il, an acknowledgment from the world that he is the greatest leader who has ever existed. So they have this hermetically sealed, diabolical psychological experiment going on where people in North Korea are some number of inches—I think it may be as many as 6 inches—shorter on average than their brothers and sisters in the South. As my colleague Christopher Hitchens says, “This is now an island of racist dwarves.”
And it’s true; they’re incredibly racist. There’s a virtual religion of racial supremacy being taught to everyone and it’s only possible based on their not having to encounter what the rest of the world is like. It’s not an otherworldly religion, but it has all of the features of a religious cult apart from explicit promises of happiness after death. But there’s this hero-worship mythology that is totally irrational. If we could intrude on that situation without having Seoul get annihilated by artillery or a nuclear bomb, it would be a good thing to do. We just can’t make the sacrifice to do it.
So, we have to acknowledge that people are suffering based on bad ideas. People are suffering based on a misunderstanding about how to find happiness in this life and people are suffering based on the sadistic selfishness of powerful people. These are all problems that have potential solutions and we should be eager to articulate those solutions. How you implement these solutions once you have them clearly in view is another issue. Again, we’re constrained by the same concerns. The reason why we can’t just walk into North Korea and begin helping people is because it would start a war. Now, we don’t want a war with North Korea for the same reasons: We don’t want people to suffer. Suffering is still our concern in every case, it’s just sometimes the cost is too high to do what would seem to be the right thing in the abstract.
AVC: For the sake of argument, if we could strategically drop an atom bomb somewhere in the Middle East and wipe out radical Islam and the threat of jihadist-bred terrorism forever, even if we killed innocent people in the process, should we? Would that just be one of the valleys we’d have to descend before arriving at the next peak on what you call “the moral landscape”?
SH: It might be, it’s just a question of how we can know. What you’re alluding to is my view of the moral landscape where the peaks correspond to the heights of human well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. This image of all possible experience as a landscape immediately disgorges a few facts. One is, there could be many different peaks on this landscape that are equivalent but are still quite different and to move toward a peak from wherever you happen to be on the landscape could entail moving downward as opposed to just moving upward immediately. I think that’s true. I think there are probably many different peaks and there are many different ways for us each individually to live our lives so as to be as happy as possible and there are many ways for human beings to live together so as to flourish as much as possible. These could actually be incompatible with one another, so you can’t do two things at once. And we’re constrained by the limits on resources, so that allows for a remarkable amount of diversity in the right answers to moral questions. But, there are clearly many more wrong answers than right ones. There are many more ways not to be on a peak. Multiple right answers to moral questions doesn’t at all mean that there’s not a clear difference between right and wrong answers. The analogy I give for this is food. I would never argue that there is one right food to eat, but there are clearly many things that are not food that will kill us. The distinction between food and not food is still quite clear and scientifically salient.
To go back to this idea of maybe having to descend before we go upward on the landscape, that’s clearly true both individually and collectively, that we often have to make sacrifices, we often have to struggle, we often have to experience pain to get something that is truly good that we could get no other way. The very obvious case is just getting your life saved by modern medicine. There are life-saving surgeries or medications which are unpleasant and perhaps impose an immediate burden of pain on you that you wouldn’t otherwise experience but will nevertheless save your life and allow you to go on to live happily for many more years. That’s an immediate sacrifice we have to make in order to get something we actually truly want more than we want not to make the sacrifice. I think that’s true collectively. I think certain sacrifices are worth making and certain wars are worth fighting, because we have a sense of what life will be like, or could be like, on the other side. Then there’s just the problem of whether we’re right when we make those decisions. We can be right or wrong. Actions have consequences and we’re not always well-informed about what those consequences will be.
But again, this comes to a distinction that many people lose sight of that’s important. There’s this distinction between answers in practice and answers in principle. Many people think that because we can’t get certain answers in practice—because we can’t immediately know whether the net consequences of a certain action would be good or bad—means that there’s no actual answer in principle. That’s clearly not true. There are an infinite number of scientific questions we’ll never answer since we couldn’t practically do it and yet we know they have very clear answers in principle. If someone asked the world’s scientists at this moment and gathered them all into a room and said, “How many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth?,” no one could tell you. There’s no Manhattan Project that could produce that information. And yet we know it’s a trivial question. There’s a simple numerical answer to that question.
Science is done in the context of a larger reality in which we know that there are questions that we could not possibly answer, but we know they have answers. Knowing they have answers actually changes the kinds of questions we ask and the way we think about reality. Yet on the subject of moral truth, many people take the difficulties of not being able to immediately figure out what the consequences of actions are to suggest that maybe there are no right answers to moral questions. That clearly makes no sense the moment you begin to focus on the details of human and animal well-being. There are a range of possible experiences for anything that can have an experience in this universe and these experiences can be anything from excruciatingly awful to truly sublime and everything in between. There’s a difference there! In fact, it’s the only difference we can value. It’s the only thing in the universe that can be valued. Not only is it the most valuable thing in the universe, I argue it’s the only thing of value: the possibilities of having increasingly good experience.
AVC: How far along are we already on this progression toward an understanding of moral truth; how far do we have to go to get closer to this sort of utopian idea? You purposely avoid using the term “utopia” in the book, but—
SH: It’s no more utopian than we have utopian medicine. Medicine is clearly progressing, but everyone still dies and everyone still suffers and we still have medical problems. We just have different medical problems and things are getting better. Every time you cast a glance over your shoulder at the past, the past looks pretty grim and the future looks better in medical terms. The same could be true on questions of psychological and social well-being. Everyone agrees that physical well-being is something we can study and we study it in terms of physical health. But all of a sudden, once we change the subject to psychological and social health—which is really just a synonym for morality, I argue—then people think that science could never possibly get a handle on these questions, but psychological and social facts are facts about our world. They’re facts about conscious minds and physical brains. This is something that we can make progress on and have despite not having a very clear conversation about what progress entails. We could make huge breakthroughs that could really change human life in very tangible ways, but we could also just make very simple changes in how we talk about morality that would pay huge dividends.
For instance, the moment you agree that human well-being is really the core focus of all moral concern—and animal well-being, I would say, but let’s just talk about humans for the moment—then you immediately see that certain people, in fact, rather huge groups of people, are not really talking about morality. Look at an institution like the Catholic Church. This is an institution that is more concerned about stopping contraception than it is concerned about stopping child rape. They’re more concerned about preventing gay marriage than preventing genocide. They’re clearly not focused on human well-being in any intelligent—or even intelligible—sense.
AVC: In the book, you repeatedly use the phrase “this world.” The delineation seems to be that there are people that are concerned with this world and there are people who are more concerned with the next world. So to a religious person, any hindrance to well-being in this world that is demanded by faith would seem a minor concern compared to what’s expected in the afterlife, or the next world.
SH: Yes, but one thing to point out is that if there is an afterlife that would also fall into my conception of the moral landscape, it would just change its temporal scope. The moment that you get this distinction between this world and the next world, then the conversation you have to have is, “Okay, well, now we’re just talking about evidence and degrees of certainty.” We know this world exists. We know that people are suffering mightily in it. We know that we can have really remarkable swings in our collective well-being; we can be plunged into absolute chaos and civil war, or we can live in very orderly, well-run societies where people basically trust one another and collaborate peacefully. There’s no question; those are bedrock certainties. This realm exists and changes within it are possible.
And then you have all these people coming to the table saying, “Well, actually, the most important changes in conscious experience are going to happen after death and they’re gonna go on for eternity and you’re either going to be at the right hand of God or you’re going to be suffering hellfire.” The only thing worth talking about at that moment is: “What is the evidence for this?” Because I know that when you go into a village in Africa and preach that contraception is a sin and that condoms do nothing to stop AIDS and in fact make it worse, that you are actually causing unnecessary misery and death for millions of people. Now, the Catholic Church does this. So what they want to say in reply is, “Well, we do this because contraception is a sin. And if you sin in this way you will suffer in hell for eternity.” Again, there’s this rather yawning blank space where evidence needs to be provided. They can’t do that. Everyone knows they can’t do that. In fact, every religion is mutually contradicting every other one because they all believe differently on crucial points and so they’re mutually nullifying.
If in the moment we saw that all we have to talk about is human well-being when we talk about morality and values, all of a sudden these kinds of concerns would get marginalized in a way that they already have been on every other subject of importance, like human health. It used to be that priests and religious figures were the authority on human health. When you woke up in the morning and you saw your kid was having a seizure—because there was no science of neurology and because nobody knew what the hell was going on when someone had a seizure—the priests could tell what was going on. The priests would tell you that your child was possessed by a demon! And, in fact, that is still going on in Africa. You’ve got exorcisms being performed on epileptic children. Occasionally, though very rarely, it still goes on in religious communities even in the West.
The thing we would be forced to recognize is that we really do have a zero-sum conflict between beliefs for good reasons and beliefs for bad reasons. Therefore, we have a zero-sum conflict between science and rationality generally, and religion and faith claims. We just have to admit it and let good ideas slam into bad ideas long enough and publicly enough so that people become embarrassed by their bad ideas. And we begin to laugh at them and our laughter begins to matter. What’s so useful and seditious about comedy is that laughter often is really the killing blow for bad ideas and for false certainties.
While I and many other people wrote op-eds and made a great effort to discredit Sarah Palin in the 2008 election and to point out how scary it was that it was even possible to think that she could become the next president of the United States, no one did more to spare us the fate of a possible Palin vice-presidency, and ultimately presidency, than Tina Fey. Tina Fey was standing between us and absolute doom. [Laughs.] I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration. I think it’s quite possible that without Tina Fey and a few other comic efforts of that sort, we’d be living in a very different world. The need for this kind of firewall of laughter between the sane and the mob is something we’ll have to keep erecting in the future. It’s crucial.
AVC: In this book, you come very close to classifying religious faith as a form of mental illness. You note that The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders—the reference guide most used by the psychiatric and mental-health community—partly defines “delusion” as “false belief,” yet makes a special exemption for religion. Later on, you write, “The boundary between mental illness and respectable religious belief can be difficult to discern.” You then relate details of a recent court case about a group of Christians who were accused of murdering a child and carrying around the decaying body in a suitcase awaiting its resurrection. Is practicing religion a form of mental illness?
SH: I wouldn’t say that religion is a form of mental illness, but I will say that religion allows perfectly sane and neurologically healthy people to believe things by the millions that only mentally ill people could believe on their own. The social support of doctrine allows for quite crazy beliefs in the 21st century to be held and operated upon by perfectly sane people. One example I believe I give in The End Of Faith is if you say that you were talking to God in your prayers and you felt that he has called on you to run for president of the United States, 85 percent of Americans will think you have just said something that is perfectly sane and noble and worth saying as a politician. But if you say you were talking to God through your hairdryer, you’re clearly a lunatic. I believe I said somewhere, “I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim any less incredible.” I’m being a little facetious there, but the fact that these ideas are so well-subscribed allows people to entertain them and talk about them and even act upon them. It doesn’t say anything at all about their mental health necessarily, yet if you have this totally idiosyncratic personal conviction that you haven’t gotten from your community, very often it says a lot about what’s wrong with your mind.
Some very mainstream religious ideas are completely crazy and are no better at producing good decision-making in this world than the beliefs of schizophrenics, it’s just that you don’t have to be schizophrenic to believe them. That’s a difference that actually makes religion much more worrisome than it would otherwise be. If it were all just a matter of mental illness, then we would be talking about 1 percent of the population having truly clinically disordered thinking that we need to worry about. But we’re talking about—depending on the country—vast percentages of the population. In our country, it’s always something around 45 percent. “Do you think that Jesus is going to come back to earth and judge the living and the dead in your lifetime?” It’s just about 45 percent that are convinced that that is going to happen. “Do you think that God promised the Holy Land to the Jews?” And, again, it’s about 45 percent. There’s a 45-percent core of people who are really sure that all of Biblical prophecy is true and the Bible is literally true, and those beliefs are as crazy as any you are going to find in a psych ward.
AVC: What sort of reader do you expect will be receptive to the arguments you make in The Moral Landscape? As you mentioned at the outset of this interview, on the one hand, you have religious individuals who are beholden to the doctrine of their faith and what it says about morality is law. On the other, you have secular intellectuals who will argue that no one has the right, let alone the resources, to define morality. So, who is this book for?
SH: Those are definitely the two ends of the spectrum. They’re both going to find my argument equally challenging because it repudiates their points of view equally. They are both in agreement that science is never going to get a handle on questions of right and wrong and good and evil. I’m certainly writing the book for them, although it’s probably best aimed at all of the people who are somewhere in the middle who see something problematic in getting moral truth from Iron Age superstition and magic books, but also are worried that there’s really no way to talk about values and morality in the context of science without just foisting our own cultural biases on the rest of the world in a way that is intellectually illegitimate and becomes infected by the kind of colonial imperialism that you mentioned before.
To speak specifically about what the liberal secular person would be worried about, there’s this sense that multiculturalism and moral relativism is somehow a stance we’ve arrived at having witnessed all that has been wrong with us traditionally. All of our racism, our xenophobia, our arrogance, our White Man’s Burden, etc. We’re somehow paying intellectual reparations for that. There’s a lot of white guilt that is informing philosophy at this moment—and even science—when people have to pause thoughtfully before condemning practices like female genital mutilation. That’s something that I’m criticizing in the book. Those sensitivities are quite strong among some very smart people at this moment.
It’s especially galling to find liberal, well-educated white women in this country often being the first to criticize someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali [author of Infidel] for her work against Islam. She’s this remarkable woman who grew up in Somalia and suffered female circumcision and fled an arranged marriage and wound up in Holland, speaking no Dutch, learned Dutch and got a college education, became a member of Parliament and has been hunted by Muslim extremists ever since she made a film detailing how badly women are treated under Islam. Some of her staunchest critics are liberal white women in this country that think she is being a bigot in talking about how Islam mistreats women. It’s just mind-boggling.