Making Sense of Belief and Unbelief - Transcripts

March 17, 2023

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Episode 6 of The Essential Sam Harris


Welcome to the essential Sam Harris. This is Making Sense of Belief and Unbelief. The goal of this series is to organize, compile, and juxtapose conversations hosted by Sam Harris into specific areas of interest. This is an ongoing effort to construct a coherent overview of Sam's perspectives and arguments, the various explorations and approaches to the topic, the relevant agreements and disagreements, and the pushbacks and evolving thoughts which his guests have advanced. The purpose of these compilations is not to provide a complete picture of any issue, but to entice you to go deeper into these subjects. Along the way, we'll point you to the full episodes with each featured guest, and at the conclusion, we'll offer some reading, listening, and watching suggestions which range from fun and light to densely academic. One note to keep in mind for this series, Sam has long argued for a unity of knowledge where the barriers between fields of study are viewed as largely unhelpful artifacts of unnecessarily partitioned thought. The pursuit of wisdom and reason in one area of study naturally bleeds into and greatly affects others. You'll hear plenty of crossover into other topics as these dives into the archives unfold, and your thinking about a particular topic may shift as you realize its contingent relationships with others. In this topic, you'll hear the natural overlap with theories of moral and political philosophy, free will, artificial intelligence, consciousness, death and spirituality, and more. So, get ready. Let's make sense of belief and unbelief.

If there is a central fulcrum to consider for Sam's overall interests and efforts, it may very well be this concept of belief, questioning the nature of it, considering the power of it, probing the fragility of it, exploring the absence of it, distinguishing it from other types of knowledge conjecture, and trying to describe it physiologically. We could use an examination of belief as the entryway to just about any of the episodes in the entire catalog of making sense, but to avoid such wayward meandering through the archives, let's take a quick look at the math that we'll be using here. We're going to start with three interviews of women who left faith systems under different circumstances. Each of these women are now engaged with different levels of advocacy, and all of them have their own opinions and frustrations with what they see as a cowardly or hypocritical attitude when it comes to the promotion of universal human rights and the political sanctity of religions. You'll also hear Sam's full-throated agreement on many of those observations and critiques. We'll then take a turn towards the conceptual, philosophical, and existential concerns of religion and belief. This turn will take us towards Sam's brand of atheism, which moves quickly towards his interest in selflessness and meditation as being intertwined with what religions are claiming to have on offer. Then we'll take a step further away from the personal and let Sam and a guest play around with ideas of epistemology or the frameworks for understanding how we know what we know. And finally, we'll come back and do something slightly different in this compilation. We'll borrow a few important moments from Sam's career which are not directly from the Making Sense Archive. These will be two excellent audience questions from live events that echo familiar responses and concerns regarding Sam's advocacy of atheism. So, let's start there briefly.

Sam's atheism.

We are really prisoners of literature right now. We are constrained to talk either explicitly about these books or in some vague conformity to these books. Every person in this room has more access to information and scientific knowledge and just what is now basic common sense than the authors of the Bible and the Quran. And in fact, there's not a person in this room who has ever met a person whose worldview is as narrow just by the sheer time in which they appeared in history as the worldviews of Abraham or Moses or Jesus or Muhammad. And until we grapple with that fact and honestly commit ourselves to a 21st century conversation about the possibilities of human well-being, we're just going to be at sea and we're going to be trying to figure out whether we should pass laws about gay marriage and whether we should ban blasphemy at the UN and whether we should allow newspapers to print cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. And we're going to just be bewildered by the relentless certainties of people who are obviously lying to themselves.

From time to time, new listeners are taken aback to hear just how deep Sam's distaste for religion runs and how hostile he can appear to be to it. Sam's public career began in earnest with the publication of a book called The End of Faith, which will be recommended reading for this subject. He's described this book as his direct response to the events of September 11, 2001. While he may change phrasing in certain passages if he would rewrite the book today, his attitude of frustration with the shielded, protected status of faith systems, at least in the US at the turn of the century, would not be any less fierce. This book hit the shelves alongside Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. All of the books were successful and launched what became informally known as the New Atheist Movement. There are several vague definitions floating around, but Sam thinks of it as a renewed public effort to push back against the special status of religion given an interconnected, technological world quickly raising the stakes of the persistence and perpetuation of bad ideas, as exhibited by 9-11. New Atheism's most controversial impulse was also showing little hesitation to speak about individual belief systems as causing specific and distinguishable levels of threat and danger. Sam and the New Atheists took a stance that all religious belief systems are philosophically harmful, but that it is only honest and politically prudent to notice the specific political and social consequences that each system presents. It's important to note that that is a fluid stance that can and should constantly reorder its beliefs of most concern given the complex, contextual situation of global politics, technology, economic status, history, and much more. It also doesn't necessarily cast familiar codified religions as the eternally fixed targets of critique. Systems of political ideology, pseudoscience, and magical explanations can become the rational targets of objection given the right circumstance.

Throughout this compilation, we'll be considering some of the debates around the tactical efforts which take aim at all of these harmful belief systems. An important tenet to start with in order to follow Sam through these conversations is this simple one which Sam espouses. Belief motivates behavior. Sam goes to great lengths to make this point. Bad ideas are a far bigger problem than bad people. By this he means that bad people are luckily quite rare. A bad person would be someone physiologically disposed to do harm, something akin to bad brain wiring or genetically determined sociopathic tendencies, where the person derives actual pleasure from inflicting harm and is physiologically unable to feel empathy. These kinds of people do exist, of course, and you should listen to our compilation on free will to understand how easy it should be to conjure an attitude of honest compassion towards them while also safeguarding society from them. But what is overwhelmingly more common is that an otherwise perfectly good person has bad ideas which motivate his behavior, bad software running on good functional hardware. Sam points out what is simultaneously so frightening and encouraging about this fact. If we lived in a world that was chock full of actual psychopaths who were impervious to being persuaded by good ideas, that emergency would feel rather hopeless and dangerous. But because the mind and brain are generally open hardware systems, it matters greatly what kind of software is running on them.

If we take it as a given that the vast majority of brains out there are perfectly capable of enacting good behavior, then there could scarcely be anything more important than trying to transmit good ideas to as many of them as possible. This stance motivates Sam's effort to persuade through argumentation rather than condemn and cast out. He sometimes summarizes this situation by saying that conversation and persuasion is really all we have as an alternative to violence, and we've surely had enough violence already. This doesn't discount the truth of an enormously regretful necessity of violence when the situation forces your hand, but that complicated point is best explored in our compilation on violence and pacifism. With that groundwork under us, let's go to our first clip. As we mapped out, this clip will be a personal story of shedding a religious belief system, and as we wanted to make sure to flag, it is only a very small aspect to an otherwise rich and full story, so our encouragement to seek out the full conversations after hearing these clips is especially urged here. One of the different strategies of persuasion, which is sometimes deployed by someone who is convinced that religious belief is a dangerous hindrance, could be called militant atheism. While none of these persuasion strategies have firmly agreed upon definitions, this concept of militant atheism might be most clearly exhibited by the work of Christopher Hitchens. He used sharp and relentless ridicule and attack aimed squarely at religious belief and institution. This attitude is certainly not for everyone given its aggressive messaging and sometimes jeering tone, but we're about to hear someone's story that started with the intended defensive and retreating response that militant atheism can instigate and eventually led to her taking a closer look at the charges coming her way. After failing to mount an adequate response, she was moved to reassess her belief system. This is an episode featuring Sarah Hader.

Hader co-founded the Ex-Muslims of North America, which does non-belief advocacy work and runs a supportive community of questioning people. They provide safe and confidential outlets for Muslims who may have growing doubts and concerns about their religious faith. But for our purposes here, we're going to listen to her teenage encounters with militant atheism and her subsequent personal journey. We'll also stick with her conversation with Sam to hear a bit of mutual frustration with what they describe as a liberal confusion when it comes to open criticism of otherwise illiberal ideals. In the case of this clip, they'll be discussing the hijab specifically and the clash of feminism with religious freedom. This conversation is from 2017 and there will be some political references and cultural touchstones mentioned from that news cycle. This is Sarah Hader

from episode 81, Leaving Islam. Speak for a moment about your background and just how you came to be

one of the founders of ex-Muslims of North America. Sure. So I grew up in what I would consider to be a pretty liberal Muslim family. I didn't know at the time that my upbringing was so liberal relative to other Muslims. I only found out as I began to meet other ex-Muslims about what their reality was to know how good I had it. But I grew up in a relatively liberal Muslim family, which means that they allowed me to move away from college. They allowed me to sort of be a little bit more independent than Muslims generally are. Where were you? Where were you growing up? I grew up in Texas. I was born in Pakistan and I moved here, I think I was seven or eight when we immigrated to the United States. I remember the process of coming here, I remember the shock of coming to this country.

I actually remember that the first time I saw a woman in public whose legs were exposed. It was a flight attendant when we stopped in in Europe on our way to America. I remember the shock. I remember feeling, not really understanding, what I was looking at and not really

understanding that this was going to be a norm in America. Interesting. So when did you realize that you were a bit of an outlier in terms of your family environment with respect to religion?

I started, well, I think most atheists would say this, and that's how I do identify as an atheist, that we were always sort of questioning, there were always sort of problems with religion, and I had them from an early age, but there was always ways for me to justify religious traditions that I may have found problematic. Until I got to be a little bit older, I was in my mid-teens when I really started looking at the religion in a really critical way, I started actually reading for myself, the Quran, and finding that there were problematic verses and things that didn't really make a lot of sense to me, and the more that I looked into it, the less that it made sense. I actually encountered quite a few militant atheists, and this is why even to this day, I don't think that militant atheism is such a horrible thing because it does push people like me to look into their faith, if only for the reasons that we want to defend it, and that is what happened to me, that I knew some atheists, and they were giving me some probing questions, and I wanted to be able to defend my faith, so that was one of the reasons that I looked into it with such urgency, because I wanted to be able

to defend it, and I found that there really wasn't much there for me to defend. Were these ex-Muslims,

or were these Westerners? These were Westerners, these were people who came from a Christian background and then left their faith, and then started pointing out the problems within Islam to me, and of course I was offended, so this is something that people talk about a lot, that then Muslims are offended when you talk about their faith in a critical way, and that's to be expected, and I was offended, I remember being offended, but that offense doesn't really mean anything in the longer arc of what we're talking about, which is truth, and of course people will be offended if you talk about something that they hold so dear, but it did push me to look into

religion. Well, the offense is really a symptom of not having an argument. You know, I don't get offended if someone claims that my deeply cherished mathematical beliefs or historical beliefs are false, because either they have an argument or they don't, and just offense never enters into it. The fact that we're in the territory where someone only has their offense

to wield shows that there's a problem intellectually. That's probably a part of it. At that time, when I was first being confronted with the problematic verse of the Quran, I didn't know it was possible. That seems ridiculous, and as I'm saying it, it sounds ridiculous,

but I remember at that time not knowing. You just didn't know what was in the Quran at that point

when you first had these conversations. Right, right. I didn't know exactly what was in it, and I didn't know that it was even possible to look at it in anything, but as this extremely virtuous text, I didn't know that there was an interpretation like that out there. So when I

first encountered it, it was quite shocking to me. You did an interview with Jeffrey Taylor, which was a great read, and you said one thing there that I wanted to read into this conversation. You said, if Muslims feel they're being badly treated here in the United States, they can go to Muslim majority countries, but where can a person like me go? I'm in the safest place I can possibly be, and yet I'm too afraid to tell people where I live. It's tragic for me that there's even a need for our organization, and that really does expose just how unique a position it is to be an ex-Muslim. You are in the safest place in the world to be if you're a Muslim, even, really. I mean, we can talk about the problem of anti-Muslim bigotry, but I think it is safe to say that most Muslims are safer in the US than they are in most Muslim majority countries, given how unstable and sectarian those tend to be. But for an ex-Muslim in the US, really anywhere in the West, I guess it gets worse once you go to Western Europe, there is this real concern about not being protected by any community.

Right, and just to mirror your language, I believe it's true that most Muslims are safer in the West than they would be in a Muslim country. But more Muslims are safer in the US than are ex-Muslims. Ex-Muslims are less safe in the US. Ex-Muslims are less safe in Western countries than your average Muslim. And I think that's a perfectly fair thing to say,

and it should be extremely concerning. Yeah, and obviously you inherit all of the problems of, quote, Islamophobia in so far as that is a problem. Having your name looking like someone who was born in Pakistan, you encounter the same bias or bigotry that any Muslim could be worried about going through an airport or in any other situation where that would become relevant. And yet you have this added concern, which I would argue is a far more pressing one, which is you have some percentage of the Muslim community that thinks what you're doing warrants a violent response. And you never know how big that percentage is or how much you're on their radar and it bears repeating. This is unique to Islam. As badly behaved as Scientologists are when you take a good swing at that hornet's nest, they don't come and kill you. You know, they can make your life miserable. They can sue you. They can show up at your office with a crazed look in their eyes and video cameras pointed at you 18 hours a day. These are bizarre people who are in an especially bizarre cult, but they don't commit murders and they don't commit suicidal acts of terrorism. And so this is, again, anyone who wants to defend Islam against the unique scrutiny that it merits at this moment has to deal with this fact that, as I said before, you have a play like The Book of Mormon that becomes a Broadway hit and the Mormons take out an advertisement in Playbill, in reprisal, right?

Their reaction is really adorable. There's not the slightest concern that Trey Parker and Matt Stone will spend the rest of their lives being hunted by religious maniacs. And yet no one can even imagine staging such a play about Islam at this moment. And the reasons for that are patently obvious and yet everywhere denied by people who complain about

quote Islamophobia. Right. I mean, I think if Islam could get to where Mormonism is today, that we would be in a much, much better place. And I think that in itself should be telling. The hijab is a good way to illustrate the extent to which liberals are confused about this issue, because as you pointed out, it's ridiculous to see the poster, the I think Shepherd Ferry poster of a woman in a hijab as part of the Women's March. And I understand why people on the left, why progressives have this tendency. I understand what they are trying to do, which is to stand for the freedom of religion for Muslims. And this is a laudable endeavor. This is something that I support. This is a tendency that I really love about the left. I like that they instinctively want to protect the little guy. Having said that, not everything done in the name of good intentions is necessarily good and not everything done in the name of good intentions will help the people that you want to help.

And in many cases, it might harm the very principles or the very people that you want to help. And I think this is, especially the hijab in context of women's rights, is a case where we can see this in a very clear way. And so I supported the Women's March. I supported, generally speaking, women's rights are really close to my heart, and it's really important to me that feminism is something that becomes universal, that becomes global. So I support, generally speaking, these kinds of initiatives, but I was really disheartened to see that the hijab was suddenly, it's become this totem, it's become this symbol of religious freedom. And it's pretty perverse, given the context of what the hijab actually is, and given the

religious justification for the hijab, which is distinctly anti-freedom. If this is your first time encountering those kinds of arguments, we encourage you to seek out the full conversations to understand the nuance, and how someone like Sarah Hader and Sam are well aware of the counter-arguments and common objections to these kinds of critiques. The moral math regarding how we talk about these things, and who is best to talk about them in certain ways, is quite tricky. But it's wise to go slowly through these emotionally charged issues and seek out a range of perspectives. It's also wise to note how easy it is to abandon solid moral ground when it seems to demand an outward expression that runs against the grain of one's tribe, whether that be political, religious, familial, or social. We're now going to a story of someone abandoning a belief system, which is quite personal to me. It's actually my story, and my first interview with Sam on Making Sense. I'll be breaking the 4th wall as your narrator for a bit here, and speaking to you directly. So my name is Megan Phelps Roper, and I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, you might better recall the images of colorful signs with bold letters and messages like, God hates fags. I grew up holding those inflammatory signs while picketing at funerals and learning the theology of the church, an institution bounded by my grandfather, Fred Phelps. I tell my story in detail in a memoir entitled Unfollow, a memoir of loving and leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.

In this next clip, Sam asked me about some of the specific doctrines and beliefs I held while I was a member of the church, and we chronicle a bit of my journey, how I started out professing intensely held religious beliefs that I took to be completely true to the place I am now, reading a script for a prominent atheist philosopher. My experience has surfaced the strange nature of belief in my own mind. After we listen in on my conversation with Sam, I'll be back to reflect on what those beliefs were, and how my process confirms many of the arguments and stances that Sam has outlined in his career. One familiar retort to arguments and stories like the ones we're sharing in this compilation goes like this. Well, that's not real Islam, or that's not real Christianity, or that these people are just psychopaths who are going to do these things anyway. I'll provide some of my thoughts on those kinds of responses here. You should also know that for this conversation, Sam and I connected shortly after I'd read an article by Graham Wood entitled What ISIS Really Wants, an article which didn't tiptoe around the explicit link between religious doctrine and outward behavior. Needless to say, I found some parallels in this article worth discussing with Sam. So here's me talking with Sam from a very early episode of Making Sense.

This is from episode 12 from 2015, an episode entitled Leaving the Church. Let's back up and talk about your background itself and what the Westboro Baptist Church is. Many people will have seen the visuals online of you and the rest of your family, I guess, holding signs that say God hates fags or, I think, thank God for dead soldiers is one of them.

So tell me about Westboro and let's get into what you actually believed growing up. Right. Okay. So the protesting started when I was five and the church is located about half a mile from a public park in Topeka, Kansas. And this park was known as a place where gays could go and meet and have anonymous sex. And it was something that was well known in the community and it was even listed in this nationally circulated address book of such places, listings across the country. And one day, a couple of years before the picketing started, my grandfather was riding through the park with my older brother, who was at the time about four or five maybe. They were riding their bikes and my grandfather would ride ahead a little way and then circle back. And one of the times when he was circling back, he saw two men trying to lure my brother into the bushes and just immediately wanted to do something about it. So he started writing letters to the city fathers and going to city council meetings, trying to get the park cleaned up. I mean, it was really something that was well known. There were journalists and cops, they were doing sting operations.

And so it was an undeniable fact. So this was in what year? 88, 89.

And this was your father or your grandfather who had this experience? My grandfather. Yes. My grandfather is Fred Phelps, sorry. And he's the one who founded, I mean, who was the first pastor of the Westboro Baptist


Was he a pastor already or he just decided to become one at this point? So he was ordained when he was, I think, 16 or 17 in Utah and he was kind of a traveling preacher. And then he ended up in Topeka and he was preaching at a church called the Eastside Baptist Church and they were about to start another church on the other side of town and they asked him to stay and be the pastor.

So that's how he ended up in Topeka at this church. Was he already someone, he had to have already been someone who was quite fundamentalist in his belief anyway, right?

Or was this a formative moment for him? So the church actually started in 1955. So he had been a preacher for some time before this incident and his views over the years had gotten further and further away from the mainstream. And so when this happened and he spent, I think it was about a year, maybe more than a year, trying to get the city to do something about it and he said, okay, well, I'm going to do something about this myself. So that's when the picketing actually started. And it was just relatively innocuous signs like, you know, watch your kids gaze troll this park, you know, gaze are in the restrooms and, you know, things like that. And the response, you know, from the community, other churches started coming out to counter protests saying things like God's love speaks loudest. It was a huge contingent of protesters from, or counter protesters from, you know, KU, which is about half an hour away from the church. And so yeah, and it started, you know, he, there wasn't really wasn't much about God initially. But then when, you know, these, when these churches started to counter protests, they were like, well, you know, the Bible does say things about gays and it's not good. And we are a church and we have to, we have to address this issue. So that's, that's how it initially got started.

And then over the years, it just got more and more extreme. So first, you know, gays were the target. And then it was churches for supporting gays and otherwise, you know, not following what the, what my grandfather and the church members believed. They weren't following what the Bible said, not just about gays, but about, you know, premarital sex and divorce and remarriage and adultery. And then pretty quickly, the funeral protesting started. They were protesting funerals of gay people who had died of AIDS. And it was a partly an attention getting mechanism, but it was never, it was never just to get attention. I remember, and this is something that a lot of people, you know, have charged the church with. Yes, they're not really Christian. They don't really, they don't really follow the Bible here. Look, they ignore this person, this person. But I remember listening to my grandfather in an interview a few years ago.

And the reporter said, some people say that you're just doing these things to get attention. And he kind of looked at her like she was crazy or stupid and said, well, of course I'm doing it to get attention.

How can I preach to these people if I don't have their attention? The charge that things are done just to get attention usually carries with it the insinuation that people don't really believe what they say they believe that these expressions of hatred are just meant to be inflammatory, but aren't necessarily an honest statement of one's outlook. Was there any distance between what you and the rest of the family believed and what you were saying publicly, or were you just simply giving voice to your actual worldview?

No, we were just giving voice to our actual worldview. I mean, my family didn't come to the table with hatred for LGBT people. And then look to the Bible to justify that hatred, which is a common charge. They read, if a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination. They shall surely be put to death, their blood shall be upon them. And walked away from that with, and not just that verse, but lots of other ones, they walked away from that with God hates fags and supporting the death penalty for gays. And to categorically deny a connection between those words from Leviticus and our beliefs, to say that we read into the text what we wanted to see is, I think, to be blind to the nearly all-encompassing power of that sort of blinding faith. And that's why it was such almost a relief to read in Gramwood's article to say that ISIS is Islamic, very Islamic. It's not a matter of ISIS being representative of Muslims as a whole.

It's a matter of them drawing inspiration from the text. Yeah, and the church and your grandfather are sometimes mentioned in this connection. So what I find, as someone who criticizes the link between religious belief, in this case, Muslim, jihadist ideas, and a phenomenon like ISIS, I find that people who don't like that connection very much will say, well, we have our extremists, we have the Westboro Baptist Church. Now, it's always a frustrating thing to hear as though what your family has done is in any way analogous to what is happening throughout much of the Muslim world, and in particular in Syria and Iraq right now. But your family's church is often held out as the most extreme variant of Christianity in the West, and in particular in the US. I'm wondering if that's true. I'd like to just find out precisely what you believed on other topics. So what are other killing offenses?

What else would your grandfather pull out of Leviticus as actionable? I might say adultery, but again, this was one of the things that... For one, they're not actually trying to institute a theocracy. They don't believe that the United States, they believe that the world is going to end, and that only a tiny remnant of humanity, which is to say the church itself, but only the true, the elect of God. So they're not trying to actually change the laws, they're not actually trying to make anything happen with the government. They don't believe it's possible, and so it's not something that they pursue. But that question about death penalty for bags, that was the very first point, the very first real question that I had about our theology. When I say question, I mean doubt. The first thing I realized that we were wrong about, and it came from a conversation with a Jewish guy on Twitter. I'm advocating for the death penalty for gays, and I'm quoting these verses from Leviticus, and he says, well, what about this member of your church who had a child out of wedlock? And I said, what about her? She repented, so she doesn't deserve that punishment.

And he says, yeah, but that's also a sin worthy of death. And also didn't Jesus say, let he who is without sin cast the first stone? So this is the first time stepping back from that and realizing if she had been killed, if you kill someone as soon as they sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent and be forgiven, which is a major foundation of Christian theology. This is what we were preaching, repent or perish. You have to repent and follow God's laws and live as we live, and that's the only way to heaven. And then for him to say that, quoting Jesus, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, I realized, because we would always answer that quote, because people would throw that in our face all the time. We would answer that by saying, yeah, but we're not casting stones. We're preaching words. All we have are words. We put words on signs and we stand on public sidewalks. We're not hurting anybody. But we were advocating for the government to kill people.

And what was Jesus talking about there, if not the death penalty? So I take that to my mom and a few other people in the church, and it was just immediately shut down. It's like, no, Leviticus calls for the death penalty. If that penalty was good enough for God, then it's good enough for us.

Romans 1 says that gays are worthy of death, and so are their enablers.

No. So what did your mom say about the analogy to the other member of your family who had

a child out of wedlock? Just that I was getting wrapped around an axle, like, oh, this is just not an important piece of theology, or that the point is they're not going to do it. That's what she said. And I remember thinking, like, well, yeah, but if we're going to use this as a litmus test, the fact that, you know, instituting death penalty, since Jesus said what he was without sin cast the first stone, shouldn't the litmus test be the other direction? Shouldn't the fact that we don't do that be, you know, showing that we're obedient to

God and such? So one thing that I think we should flag here is that it's often believed on the atheist, secularist, rationalist side of the conversation that you just can't reason people out of their heartfelt religious convictions, because there's this meme that has gone around, often attributed to someone like Mark Twain. I don't know who actually said it, but the idea is that if you can't reason somebody out of something they didn't reason themselves into. But it's clearly not true, and anyone who's actually been in dialogue with many people like yourself over the years knows it's not true. Your effort to make your beliefs self-consistent, and this person on Twitter pointing out a logical contradiction in your beliefs, was an entering wedge for you, which ultimately separated you from these ideas that had been drummed into you.

In 2019, I spoke with Sam on making sense again, around the time of the release of my book. The way I now conceive of those old beliefs is something like this. They made complete sense to me at the time, within a context of assumptions that I took to be unquestionable, specifically that the Bible was literally true, and that the interpretation by the Westboro Baptist Church was completely accurate. I took those claims about reality as givens, and I was operating in a world where they were solid facts. Sam's reflection that bad ideas are a much bigger problem than bad people resonates deeply with me. With the rules of the world that I assumed myself to be in, I had all good intentions and was trying my utmost to be a good person. This may seem like an odd claim, given how hateful my behavior appears from the outside, and it's challenging for some people to fully comprehend. When I revisit my behavior, I fully understand that I did not have a broken brain that was causing my actions, and my family members, who were behaving in similar ways, nearly all of them continuing with that behavior still, also don't have broken brains. There is an unignorable, determinative variable causing that behavior, and it's their belief about reality. Now, of course, that belief is not the only variable resulting in their behavior. There are many complex psychological factors on the table. Things like loyalty to family, fear of ostracization, financial dependency, reactionary personalities, and so much more.

But Sam emphasizes and insists that belief, and specific beliefs, must be acknowledged as causes of specific outward behavior. While this may seem uncontroversial and obvious, the implications have become politically radioactive, given the tension with competing principles like tolerance of other cultures, ideas, belief systems, and identities. Before I build the fourth wall again and morph back from included guest to narrator, I want to underline a contrast between my shedding a belief with Sarah Hader's. It's hard to know what other collisions with criticism and challenge to my beliefs would have resulted in, but what ended up pushing me to a close examination and eventual collapse of the first principle claims I held was not so much an aggressive, militant atheism approach with mockery and insult, but rather a steady, prolonged conversation and exposure to very patient conversation partners. Many of those conversations happened on Twitter. We have a compilation dedicated to Sam's interest in social media, which we recommend in light of the unique role that that plays in my story. But now, let's go to another personal account of someone leaving a faith system. This account will give air to some of the psychological variables that we've alluded to that can entrench people in belief systems and religious ideology. This guest's reconsideration of her belief system is absent the encounters with teenage militant atheists or patient, logical deliberations conducted on social media, but is instead interwoven with familial complexities, insecurities, fears, and abuses. But even with these variables highlighted in the brew of ideological trappings, the doctrines and details of the belief system still matter and must be considered. We're also going to let this clip drift into the frustration that certain women feel with a perceived political shield of criticism towards religious ideology, especially those religious ideologies that tend to overlay with specific racial and or national demographics. This is the exact kind of political taboo that Sam and many of the labeled new atheists were unafraid to trespass.

After this clip, we'll shift the conversation towards the abstract and philosophical notions of belief and examine various approaches towards knowledge that might help us navigate our way through this topic and propose some defining characteristics of belief. But first, here's the activist and author Yasmin Muhammad sharing her story with Sam from episode 175, Leaving the Faith.

Let's just start with your story from the beginning. Where did you come from and what were your parents like and what was your upbringing like? This is the beginning of your story that has, for better or worse, made you one of the most

courageous voices I can name at the moment. So the beginning, I guess, would be my parents meeting each other in university in Egypt. So my dad's from Palestine and my mom is Egyptian, but Palestinians could go to university in Egypt, it was all covered. They were treated as Egyptians, but they weren't given citizenship, so they met in university in Egypt, and my mother's family were very angry at her for marrying a Palestinian because they thought he was so beneath her. But they got married and then they moved to San Francisco together and they were there during the peace love hippie era and they had my sister and it was a bit too much peace and love. And so my mom wanted like a quieter place to raise the kids. And so then they moved to Vancouver, Canada and that's where I was born. But then their marriage fell apart in the end anyway. So when I was about two years old, my dad, you know, left us, went to the other side of the country. So here my mom is now in a new country, no support system, no community, three children

and she's feeling, you know, depressed, vulnerable, sad, lonely, all that stuff.

How religious were they at this point? No religiosity whatsoever, neither of them. They're both grew up very secular. My dad had like zero connection to religion. It was just like a cultural thing. He's very anti-Israel, just being Palestinian, but there's no religious, like him personally. He wasn't very, he wasn't practicing and then my mom's all alone. And so she goes looking for a support system and she goes looking at the mosque for community. And at the mosque, she finds a man who is already married, already has three children, but he offers to take my mom on as his second concurrent wife. So you know, she is happy to have somebody take care of her and take care of her kids. And so she's willing to put up with whatever he's dishing out. My dad was abusive towards her.

He used to hit her and this man never hit her. He'd hit us of course, but he never hit her. So she felt like this was a better relationship for her. So she stayed with him as a second concurrent wife, we lived in his basement. And he is very, like my life changed completely when he entered our lives. So before him, I used to be able to, you know, play with my neighbor's friends. Like we'd play Barbies together, I'd go swimming, I'd ride my bike, I'd go to birthday parties, listen to music, just like a normal childhood. And then once he entered our lives, it was just immediate. Everything is haram, everything is forbidden. And all of a sudden, my mom started covering her hair, and we had to start reading from this book of this, you know, these words that I didn't understand, and I had to start praying five times a day. And I resisted it from the beginning. Of course, I missed my old life, I was especially upset that I couldn't play with Chelsea and Lindsay anymore.

They'd always come knocking on the door wanting to play Barbies, and we never, I was never allowed to go. And they were never allowed in.

And you're going to the same school at this point?

Yep. But not for long. Then I got as soon as the Islamic school was, I mean, it wasn't built, it was in the mosque, but as soon as it was established, that we would have an Islamic school, and my mom was

teaching in it, then I started going there. Was this associated with any religious awakening on your mom's part, or she just needed a man

to take care of her, and it was just practical and romantic, that's the only word. I don't know if romantic is part of it, I think practical for sure, and it was a combination of both of those things. So she needed, I think, she was happy to have somebody to take care of her, but then also she just became a full-on, born-again Muslim. So she just entered it, she just jumped all in. It was never, if you see her wedding photos, she looked like a Bond girl, like short wedding dress, big, huge beehive, there was a belly dancer at her wedding. And to go from that to the woman that raised me, that I remember, is just a pretty shocking difference. And I used to always resent that, I'd be like, how come you got freedom? How come you got to live like this? Look at your pictures when you were a kid, you know, how come I don't get that life? And she'd say, because my parents didn't know any better and I'm raising you better and you're gonna be a better person and you're gonna go to Heaven and my parents did the

best they could, but they were wrong.

So how old are you when you're expressing these doubts? I was about six years old when he entered our life, and I resisted all the way up. Probably about nine years old is when I stopped, cuz that's when the hijab was put on me and and I started going to Islamic school and it was just too much. So you can't really fight anymore when everything in your life is pushing you in one direction. You just succumb, especially when you're a kid. But according to my mom, I was never good enough. The devil was always whispering in my ear and making me question. I always asked questions, right? If Allah created everything, who created Allah and stuff like that? How could I even? These are such blasphemous. If Adam and Eve are the parents of all people, are we all children of incest?

So these basic questions that a kid would ask,

I'd get in trouble for them.

So was there any point where you just went hook, line, and sinker and fully adopted the worldview without doubt? Or did you always have some doubt humming

in the background? The doubt humming in the background finally went quiet once I was forced into the marriage with Assam. So once I married him and I wore niqab, so that's like full face covering, the gloves, everything, I was so diminished that I didn't have anything left. And I also kind of made the conscious decision that, I mean, I was desperate for my mom's love and approval. My sister was always the good girl that always listened and never questioned and I wanted that. I wanted to have that relationship with my mom. So she kept on pressuring me to marry this man and I eventually gave in because I thought, you know what, maybe she'll actually love me. If I follow what she wants me to do, I'll marry the man she tells me to marry. I'll do everything the way she says to do it. I've been fighting against this my whole life. What happens if I just let go and see if she's actually right? And how old are you at this point?

So I'm 20 and I did let go and I did follow exactly what she said and until I had my daughter and held her in my arms and saw that she was about to grow up in the same environment that I grew up in, my mom was talking to her the same way she had talked to me. Her father was talking about FGM and her dying a martyr for a law and things like that and I'm like, okay, enough. I could maybe accept this world for myself but I'm not gonna accept it for my daughter.

There's no way she's gonna live this same life. And was he Egyptian? Yeah. And I think people aren't generally aware that FGM is practice in Egypt. Like 98% of Egyptian women. Basically like Somalia in terms of the prevalence of that practice. So and this was just a fully arranged marriage

or it had been encouraged once you had met him. Yeah, like 98% of Egyptian women. Basically like Somalia in terms of. So it wasn't fully arranged in that I didn't know I was gonna marry him my whole life. Sometimes people arrange marriages for their kids like from the get go but it was definitely a forced marriage which is a very common thing in the Arab world. So it's like this is the man we want you to marry. And then you basically just get introduced to him. And the woman doesn't need to consent. Like in Islam it says silence is consent. So if you just sit there and cry, it's like, okay, we're good. Yeah, right, yes. You're now, that's like saying I do.

And so it was, you get pressured into it in the same way you get pressured into everything else. So it's just like wearing the hijab and you get given two choices. Like do you wanna go to heaven or do you wanna go to hell? Do you wanna be a good, pure, clean girl or do you wanna be a filthy whore? Like these are your choices. Make the right choice. So forcing you into a marriage is similar kind of coercion. So, it would be things like there's a Hadith that says, heaven is at the feet of your mother's. So your mother gets to decide whether you're gonna go to heaven or not. So this was the one that was used all the time. And it's a very dangerous weapon for an abusive mother to have. So she would use that one.

She'd say, you're never gonna go to heaven unless I approve you to enter heaven. And if you don't marry this man, you will never go to heaven. You will burn in hell for eternity. And you will suffer here on earth because you are no longer my daughter. I want nothing to do with you. I won't even allow you to come to my funeral because I don't, like, as far as anyone is concerned, you're no longer my family. And then when you die, you'll burn in hell for eternity. So go ahead and make the choice.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, and you're wearing the niqab at this point?

At what point did that happen? What point did that happen? My job was at nine years old, you know, as far as I could remember. And then once I was engaged to him, started wearing the niqab. He got it all delivered from Saudi Arabia. And that really helps in dehumanizing you. That really helps in turning me into a nothing that he can control very easily. It just suppresses your humanity entirely. It's like a portable sensory deprivation chamber. And you are no longer connected to humanity. You can't see properly, you can't hear properly, you can't speak properly. People can't see you, you can only see them.

I mean, just little things like passing people in the street and just making eye contact and smiling, like that's gone. You're no longer part of this world. And so you very, very quickly just shrivel up

into nothing under there. Yeah, well, we're gonna get to this, but it is amazing how sanguine Western feminists are around this practice. Like this is just another culture's ideal of how to honor feminine beauty and empower women. Who are we to criticize it? We should differentiate the hijab from the niqab. The hijab is just a straight up symbol of female empowerment now in the West. It is just amazing to see what is being done with this. And we have in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, the prime minister of New Zealand puts it on as the only possible show of respect for the community. Like there's just no other way to express solidarity, but to don the symbol. And there's so many examples of this. For some reason, people, one can't see that most of the women on earth right now who are wearing a hijab are not doing it based on some empowerment they felt at an Ivy League institution where they're just gonna take the male gaze off them at their own discretion. So they're forced to do it.

The consequences of not doing it in many cases are, if not absolutely coercive social pressures, actually physical violence.

What have your encounters with Western feminists been like? Well, that makes me really sad that they consider Muslim women to be of some other species and that are so completely different from them. So for themselves, they will recognize all of those things that you talked about are basically victim blaming, slut shaming. They recognize those elements of rape culture when we're in the Western context, which are, they're much harder to see in the Western context. But under Sharia, it's very, very easy to clearly see a perfect example of rape culture. But they somehow, when it's those women over there, it's empowering. Like would it be empowering for you if you were told you have to wear this clothing in order to protect yourself from men who might rape you? Or you have to wear this clothing in order to be good and pure and go to heaven because if you don't wear it, then you're a filthy whore? That you wouldn't, no woman would want to hear that. No seven-year-old child would like to be told, you have to wear this in order to go to school, and your brother doesn't have to, he can wear whatever he wants, but you must wear this, or you're not allowed to get educated. It is an atrocity, like that's something that every human being should be upset about. And the fact that they think that it's okay for those humans over there,

but not for us, is the part that really upsets me. Yeah, the double standard is so clear, and it really is sanity straining that it's so hard for people to see. So the clearest case for me in the media was when, I don't even remember this, but Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS, the fundamentalist Mormon cult, his compound was raided, and all these little girls and young women were led out in these little house on the prairie dresses, right? They were made to wear these awful 18th century dresses, and they had been married to men who were their grandfather's ages, and these forced marriages were described as rapes, and the men were totally unrepentant, and Jeffs got, I think it's at least 15 years in prison. I forgot, he got a real prison sentence. And this was all talked about on the news as just an unambiguous example of patriarchal exploitation of girls. The fact that it was associated with religious belief was not even slightly exculpatory, and everyone celebrated the fact that there was a SWAT team raid on the compound. We kicked in the door of this place to free those girls, and it didn't matter at all that the girls didn't want to be freed. I mean, we knew they had been brainwashed, so when they're talking about how they loved their husbands for to a man or whatever it was, no one had any qualm discounting that for their obvious ignorance and brainwashing, right? And when you compare that to what is happening routinely in the Muslim world, the mainstream media has the opposite response, and this is the most benign case of real extremism in the Muslim world. I mean, in truth, it's not even extreme, but the extremism in the Muslim world, you have to add to that the cliterectomies that would have been performed on these girls, the fact that they were raising their sons to be suicide bombers, right? And there was an explicit indoctrination of martyrdom, and they were exporting terrorism to the capitals of Europe and America.

That's how the fundamentalist Mormon cult would have to behave to make it an analogous situation,

and no one can see it on the left.

We gotta be those girls. So I mean, when you were talking about the difference between that Mormon cults and girls in the Muslim world, I started to tear up because it reminded me of your TED Talk, which I'm gonna tear up again. That TED Talk to me hit me so hard because it was the first time anybody in like media,

like media, I'd ever heard somebody care about those girls the same way you would care about any other girls. Like the argument you were making in that TED Talk, like these girls in Afghanistan, why are they different than the girls from the Mormon cults? Sorry, Sam.

I just thought TED Talk was like,

I just thought TED Talk was like, thank you so much. That's, you don't have to apologize.

This is good radio. At the end of that clip, you heard Yasmin make reference to a TED Talk that Sam delivered. That talk compressed his argument against moral subjectivism, an argument he fully lays out in his book, The Moral Landscape. That topic is explored deeply in our compilation on morality, but you can appreciate how intimately it's related to the delicate issue of belief. If belief is a primary driver of behavior and behavior can be objectively evaluated morally, then it's apparent to see how belief systems become the natural, rightful, and obvious targets for their culpability and motivating immoral behavior. But now we'll start to refocus ourselves onto broader notions of belief. If you're new to Sam Harris and a bit taken aback to hear how strongly he argues against religion, this next clip is a very important one to pay attention to. Sam is certainly a strident atheist, so he isn't even convinced about the political expediency of using the term atheist. We'll use the term atheist here with the caveat that Sam is wary of the tendency of labels to generate unhealthy tribalism, and that he sees a description of atheism as the rejection of an epistemology leaning upon faith and unfalsifiable conjecture, which is too broad of a category anyway. But this observation also points to one of Sam's most important admissions of the work laid out before atheism, which we'll save for our final clips in this compilation. Let's first take a moment to comment on the communicative strategies of atheists. Some atheists can take an aggressive approach that unmercifully goes after all faith-based epistemologies equally, from the familiar codified and established religious institutions to fringe seemingly inconsequential superstitious habits.

For these atheists, a direct offensive against all religions, sometimes using mockery, insult, wit, and outrage, is defended as a necessary political tactic designed to draw attention to the harms inflicted by their denizens and supporters. Sam may flirt with and has engaged in those tactics at different points in his career, but for the most part, he's careful to underline just why he takes such umbrage with religion. Sam is quick to distinguish himself from more sledgehammer-wielding atheists by insisting that the proclaimed experiential aims of religions are perhaps the most important human experiences possible and that some of the methodologies they use to urge people to arrive at those mental states are, at least superficially, profound and beautiful. To explain what he means and hear him deflect some common criticism which he insists is unfair, let's quickly read from an essay of Sam's from 2013,

which he titled, Islam and the Misuse of Ecstasy.

But Allah, Sam writes, let me say a few things that will most likely surprise many of my readers. Despite my antipathy for the doctrine of Islam, I think the Muslim call to prayer is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. Take a moment to listen. I said to Allah, Allah. I find this ritual deeply moving and I am prepared to say that if you don't, you are missing something. At a minimum, you are failing to understand how devout Muslims feel when they hear this. I think everything about the call to prayer is glorious. Apart from the fact that, judging by the contents of the Quran, the God we are being asked to supplicate is evil and almost surely fictional. Nevertheless, if the same mode of worship were directed at the beauty of the cosmos and the mystery of consciousness, few things would please me more than a minaret at dawn. I also have no problem with spiritual devotion, ecstasy, and awe. In fact, I think they are among the most important experiences a human being can have. I just object to the incredible ideas that surround such experiences in every church, synagogue, and mosque.

I also worry that certain religious beliefs make devotion, ecstasy, and awe both divisive and dangerous. Again, my tolerance for difference is much higher than my critics understand. I'm not a scared white guy who is put off by the howls of the natives. In fact, I've done a fair amount of howling with the natives myself. I know what these people are experiencing, and I value many of the same experiences. This empathetic theme in Sam's critique of religion will become more apparent as we move through these clips. So now we'll take that turn we mapped out, shifting away from the personal stories and letting Sam take us deeper into the abstract and philosophical reasons he rejects religious faith so strongly. Not just from the politically obvious ways that the three clips thus far make clear, but from a conceptual and existential level. To hear some of this in action, let's go to another clip. This one comes from a live event that Sam did with two other atheist authors, Richard Dawkins and Matt Dillahunty in Vancouver. Richard Dawkins especially is known to exhibit more of the direct, unabashed derision of religion, offering little patience for its intent and becoming a bit of an avatar of the sharp-tongued, godless critic of the decade. In this clip, we'll hear how Sam places himself slightly apart from his fellow presenters by emphasizing the spiritual core of religious efforts as aiming at something truly worthwhile and important.

This comes from Making Sense, episode 105. There's been lots of discussion about how best to engage on these, how much, for lack of a better phrase, how big of an asshole should you be? How much pushback should there be? How seriously should you take them? And quite frequently, someone will come up and present the idea that there are sophisticated theologians that this preacher that I had a debate with is in one category, and some other academic erudite theologians are in another category.

Is that the case? Well, there are sophisticated theologians who accept evolution, of course, and have no problem with that. And so our argument with them is a quite separate argument. I have met sophisticated theologians who believe pretty astonishing things like believing literally that Jesus turned water into wine. And I thought sophisticated theologians had written all that stuff off and said, oh, no, that's just metaphor, that's just a nice story. We don't really believe that anymore. But I have spoken to very, very highly qualified sophisticated theologians, highly educated, they accept evolution totally. But yet they think Jesus turned water into wine and walked on water and rose from the dead and was born of a virgin. All very unscientific ideas.

And still they call themselves sophisticated theologians. Well, first we should acknowledge that sophistication is better insofar as it means moderation and less of a commitment to the most dangerous ideas. But my problem with so-called sophisticated theology is that no one ever admits where the sophistication is coming from. It's coming from a loss of faith in specific doctrines. I mean, it's getting hammered into them from the outside. It's coming from science and a modern conception of ethics, a universal conception of human rights, a sense of how unseemly it is to think that anyone by virtue of being born in the wrong place is gonna spend eternity in hell just because they didn't happen to hear the good word from their parents. So they lose their purchase on those dogmas. And yet they retain this conviction that Jesus was born of a virgin or was resurrected and will be coming back. And those are just the, it's a God of the gaps argument in certain cases, but there's just certain questions where science hasn't yet closed the door to belief. And so they're putting all of their chips

on those questions. We might have slightly different views of what a sophisticated theologian is, which is probably a testament to how it's actually not sophisticated theology, but obfuscated theology. What gets labeled as sophisticated theology is the exact same thing. It's not like the arguments of these sophisticated theologians are any more sound than the arguments of great comfort. It's just that they're better speakers. They have a-

But they're actually less sound in one way in that they don't. So the belief system is still anchored to a belief in revelation. They're still fixated on the texts, but they have ignored much of what seems untenable in the texts. And they don't have an argument about why that's okay. Because if God wrote any of these books and nowhere in the book does God say, well, you could ignore the first half because now I'm getting to the good part. It's all God's words. It's actually a less principled position than fundamentalism. That's why it's always, in my view, unstable in the face of fundamentalism because the fundamentalist always has the advantage of saying, listen, I'm going to read the whole book. I'm going to take the most plausible interpretation of it. I'm going to read every word as literally as possible. And that always begins to fixate

on more divisive, more doctrinaire, more irrational ideas. At least for the fundamentalist, you know what your argument gets. Yeah.

You're not arguing against a wet sponge.

Yeah, no, there's a, it seems perverse to say it, but there's actually more integrity to the most fundamentalist position because there's simply one irrational move, which is the belief that this book is perfect in every word. But the moment you believe that, well, then it is, in fact, rational to try to connect all the dots

as reasonably as possible. But sometimes they really don't say anything. They say something like, well, God is the ground of all being. Or God is the essence of is-ness or something.

Well, in fact, I have a soft spot for that kind of, I mean, I don't like the theistic version of it, but this is perhaps the only argument I can adduce in favor of so-called sophisticated theology, which is there's an experience that people have, you know, Christian contemplatives, say, or really contemplatives in any tradition and have had for millennia, which does provoke those sorts of noises from people. I mean, the problem is you get far enough into any of these contemplative traditions and everyone begins to sound like a Buddhist. And then they, you know, if you're in the 14th century in Christendom, the Inquisition shows up at your door, as they did to Meister Eckhart, who happily died of natural causes just in time. But there's an experience that people have of, you know, losing their sense of self, say, and feeling at one with the universe or the world, or having some kind of ethical, just a full ethical reboot of their hard drive where they feel love that they didn't know was possible, right, a kind of self-transcending love.

Yeah, I'd enjoy that. There, you begin to hear Sam move swiftly from arguments against the existence of God into his interest in the self, meditation, consciousness, and many other topics which, in some atheistic circles, get dismissed as pseudo-religious endeavors which are beside the point of the immediate threat of religious devotion in the world. We'll save Sam's deepest arguments about what there is to discover and the investigations of the illusory nature of the self for their own compilations. But we'll use this opportunity to again distinguish Sam as an atheist who is comfortable swimming in the waters of spirituality, and even uses that word with only mild apology. In fact, his book Waking Up brandishes the subtitle A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and he devotes the first few pages to having that word, spirituality, on the cover. He describes his fruitless search for a word which truly points to the deep kinds of experiences that he has in mind, which are not only real, but of supreme importance to an inner life worth seeking. After trying out words like contemplative, transcendental, mystical, and boundless, Sam dragged himself back to the word spiritual, a word that invokes the metaphysical impossibility of a spirit as its root, something that seems to fly in the face of an atheist. But this word is something that Sam wears comfortably enough, and when properly understood, it also informs a reader or listener as to just why he is so repelled and dismayed by the religious tendency to co-opt any inner feeling like this and cast it as a religious experience. This, more than anything else, looks to Sam like an act of deceitful religious fraud and theft of something more fully and deeply achieved by secular means. But of course, the role that communal experience and simultaneous collective participation plays gives the historical established religious institutions a strange advantage and a stubbornly persuasive argument for their place in the world, even a world which subscribes more loosely to their professed doctrines. But we'll save that consideration for our outro. We're now going to continue on our map into the realm of epistemology.

This next clip is from one of Sam's most famous and, depending on who you ask, most frustrating episodes of Making Sense. We're going to listen to some of Sam's first conversation with a controversial and now very popular author, speaker, and psychologist, Jordan Peterson. This full episode runs about two hours, and Sam didn't even get past the first item on his agenda for the conversation because the two men get stuck on the concept of truth, and they don't budge from it until they run out of energy. Some listeners found this exasperating while others loved the philosophical wrestling match, even without a referee. One of the persistent challenges to atheism comes in the form of a claim like this. If there is no God, then there is no moral order, and there's no way to determine right and wrong. Peterson presents a more sophisticated version of this argument with his representation of pragmatism. As the name suggests, this is a philosophy of truth that centers around how useful and evolutionarily successful an idea is to determine how much truth it contains. We'll have to briefly import a core concept of the philosophy of morality into this discussion to prepare you for the clip. The philosopher David Hume once famously reasoned that one cannot get an ought from an is, or in other words, there is no description of the way the universe is that tells us how the universe ought to be. Sam contends that many thinkers have taken this observation way too far and completely severed questions of science and explorations of what's out there from moral judgments of what we ought to do in the world. This severing results in an assumption that morality is entirely subjective.

We'll fully explore that topic in our compilation on morality, but what you'll need to keep in mind for this clip is that Sam places himself in the moral realism camp. He takes the position that there are moral truths to discover that are objective and can be uncovered, or at least deeply informed, by methods of science. Or in the very least, Sam believes that the severing of is questions from ought questions is a nihilistic disaster. This position and argument for secular paths to objective morality gives him confidence that the worry that morality needs a God to command it and divinely transmit it to us is an unnecessary fiction. Peterson, however, is not so confident in them. To him, God is not only necessary, but true enough, because God works to bridge the impossible-is-ought gap for us. So his phrasing of the worry that without God, there is no morality can be understood as an insistence that without aughts, we will descend into suicidal nihilism. In this regard, he and Sam might agree, but Peterson suggests that the only way to have aughts is not through the pursuit of ises, as Sam would advocate, but to cling to God as the definer of those aughts and to use his brand of pragmatism to label that idea as true enough to be considered true since it's worked for so long as evidenced by the survival of the species. As you'll soon hear, Sam is no fan of using the word truth in this way, and he remains entirely unconvinced of the necessity or philosophical robustness of that framework. So hopefully that helps as we listen in on this clip that continues to dance towards and around the notion of truth and belief. Some listeners loved this episode, while others found it to be frustrating and impenetrable. See what you think about truth, belief, unbelief, and religion as we listen in on Making Sense Episode 62.

What is true? I think we need to talk about religion and science and atheism and the foundations of morality, things like meaning, your interest in mythology, your fear of nihilism. Let's get into all of that. I think you and I share some fundamental concerns and we feel a similar kind of urgency. I think it expresses itself in slightly different ways and different ways of talking, but we feel an urgency that our fellow human beings get certain questions right. I think a good starting point is this, the concept of truth. I've heard you say in a variety of ways that religious truth isn't scientific truth and that the difference here is that science tells you what things are and that religion tells you

how you should act. Yeah, that's a good that, well, I'm gonna approach that obliquely to begin with. So I've been thinking a lot about the essential philosophical contradiction between a Newtonian worldview, which I would say your view is nested inside and a Darwinian worldview because those views are not the same. They're seriously not the same. I mean, the Darwinian view as the American pragmatists recognized, so that was William James and his crowd, recognized almost immediately was a form of pragmatism. And the pragmatists claim that the truth of a statement or process can only be adjudicated with regards to its efficiency with in attaining its aim. So their idea was the truths are always bounded because we're ignorant. And every action that you undertake that's goal-directed has an internal ethic embedded in it. And the ethic is the claim that if what you do works, then it's true enough and that's all you can ever do. And so, and what Darwin did as far as the pragmatists were concerned was to put forth the following proposition, which was that it was impossible for a finite organism to keep up with a multi-dimensionally transforming landscape, environmental landscape, let's say. And so the best that could be done was to generate random variants, kill most of them because they were wrong and let the others that were correct enough live long enough to propagate whereby the same process occurs again. So it's not like the organism is a solution to the problem of the environment, the organism is a very bad partial solution to an impossible problem.

Okay, and the thing about that is that you can't get outside that claim. I can't see how you can get outside that claim if you're a Darwinian because the Darwinian claim is that the only way to ensure adaptation to the unpredictably transforming environment is through random mutation essentially and death and that there is no truth claim whatsoever that can surpass that. And so then that brings me to the next point if you don't mind and then I'll shut up and let you talk. So I was thinking about that and I thought about that for a long time. So it seems to me there's a fundamental contradiction between Darwin's claims and the Newton deterministic claim and the materialist objective claim that science is true in some final sense. And so I was thinking of two things that I read. One was the attempt by the KGB back in the late part of the 20th century to hybridize smallpox and Ebola and then aerosol so it could be used for mass destruction. And the thing is that that's a perfectly valid scientific enterprise as far as I'm concerned. It's an interesting problem. You might say, well, you shouldn't divorce it from the surrounding politics. Well, that's exactly the issue is how much it can be divorced and then, and from what? And then the second example is, a scientist with any sense would say, well, our truths are incontrovertible.

Let's look at the results. And we could say, well, let's look at the hydrogen bomb. If you want a piece of evidence that our theories about the subatomic structure of reality are accurate, you don't really have to look much farther than a hydrogen bomb. It's a pretty damn potent demonstration. And so then I was thinking, well, imagine for a moment that the invention of the hydrogen bomb did lead to the outcome, which we were also terrified about in the, during the Cold War, which would have been, for the sake of argument, either the total elimination of human life or perhaps the total elimination of life. Now, the latter possibility is quite unlikely, but the former one certainly wasn't beyond comprehension. And so then I would say, well, the proposition that the universe is best conceptualized as subatomic particles was true enough to generate a hydrogen bomb, but it wasn't true enough to stop everyone from dying. And therefore, from a Darwinian perspective, it was a insufficient pragmatic proposition and was therefore, in some fundamental sense, wrong. And perhaps it was wrong because of what it left out. Maybe it's wrong in the Darwinian sense to reduce the complexity of being to a material substrate and forget about the surrounding context. So, well, those are two examples.

And so you can have a way of that if you want. Yeah, okay. So there are a few issues here that I think we need to pull apart. I think that the basic issue here and where I disagree with you is, you seem to be equivocating on the nature of truth here. You're using truth in two different senses and finding a contradiction that I don't in fact think exists. So let's talk about pragmatism and Darwinism briefly for a second. I've spent a lot of time in the thicket of pragmatism because I was a student of Richard Rortes at Stanford and I took every class he taught and just basically did nothing but argue with him about pragmatism. So I'm very familiar with this way of viewing the concept of scientific truth. I'm not so sure our audience is deeply schooled in this. So briefly, let me just add a little to how you describe pragmatism. The idea is that we can never stand outside of human conversation and talk about reality as it is or truth as it is. We never come into contact with naked truth.

All we have is our conversation and our tools of augmenting our conversation, scientific instruments and otherwise. And all we really have, the currency of truth, is whatever successfully passes muster in a conversation. So I say something that I think is true and it seems to work for you. We have a similar, we're playing a similar language game and some people disagree. They criticize what we are claiming to be true and we go back and forth. And all we ever have is this kind of ever expanding horizon line of successful conversations that allow us to do things technologically that are very persuasive. So as you say, we can build hydrogen bombs. And so the conversation about the structure of the atom, at the very least, the conversation about the amount of energy hidden in the otherwise nebulous structure of an atom, that becomes very well grounded in facts that we all can agree are intersubjectively true.

Yeah, well, that seems to weaken the claim that it's just within language, which is kind of a postmodern claim too because it's very difficult for me to believe that the hydrogen bomb is what it is just because we agree what it is in conversation. It immediately reflects a world outside of, now, outside of language, that doesn't mean we get permanent and omniscient access to that world, but it's more than language as far as,

so maybe I'm misunderstanding Rorty or... I think you are understanding him. He will say that, again, all we ever have is our effort to organize the way the world seems to us with concepts and language. And we just have successful iterations of that and unsuccessful ones. And a hydrogen bomb explosion, no matter how big, assuming we survive it, still falls within this empirical context of an evolving language game. But to get back to some of your claims here, there's this claim you're making about the Darwinian basis of truth and knowledge, that there really is just survival, right? There's just biological change selected against by an environment. And there's what works in that context, what is pragmatic in that context biologically, and there's what doesn't, and what doesn't gets you killed. Now, obviously, that picture of how we got here is something that I agree with. But our conception of truth, and our conception of truth in general and scientific truth specifically, and even of Darwinian evolution within that subset of truth claims, that is not functioning by merely Darwinian principles.

And this just goes to- Right, but that could be an objection to its validity. Like, there's no reason to assume, and don't get me wrong, like, I'm perfectly happy with science, I'm a scientist. But there's no reason to assume that our view of the world, our current scientific view of the world, isn't flawed in some manner

that will prove fundamentally fatal to us. As a work in assumption, we can decide not to worry too much about that, and that's fine. But yes, I agree, and more fundamental than that, and I think this is the accurate version of the claim you're making. There is just the fact that within the Darwinian conception of how we got here, there's no reason to believe that our cognitive faculties have evolved to put us in error-free contact with reality. That's not how they evolved. I mean, we did not evolve to be perfect mathematicians, or perfect logical operators, or perfect conceivers of scientific reality at the very small subatomic level, or at the very large cosmic level, or at the very old cosmological level. We are designed by the happenstance of evolution to function within a very narrow band of light intensities and physical parameters. The things we are designed to do very well are recognize the facial expressions of apes just like ourselves, and to throw objects in parabolic arcs within 100 meters and all of that. And so the fact that we are able to succeed to the degree that we have been in creating a vision of scientific truth and the structure of the cosmos at large that radically exceeds those narrow parameters, that is a kind of miracle. It's an amazing fact about us that seems not to be true, remotely true, of any other species we know about, and that's something to be celebrated, and it's a lot of fun to see how far we can get in that direction, but I would grant you that there are no guarantees as we move forward in that space. And in fact, we should be skeptical

about how easy we can have it in this space. So partly I made the case that I made to indicate to you and the listeners where I'm starting from in some sense. So I think it's not unreasonable to assume that you're making the metaphysical claim in some sense

that Darwinian truth is nested inside Newtonian truth. I wouldn't call it Newtonian. Let me just change your words a little bit, but it may be a distinction without a difference here, but I would oppose realism, scientific realism, and even moral realism. I consider myself a moral realist. I think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. I would oppose realism with pragmatism, and the core tenet of realism for me is that it's possible for everyone to be mistaken. It's possible for there to be a consensus around truths that are in fact not true. It's possible to not know what you're missing. There's a horizon of cognition beyond which we can't currently see, and we may be right or wrong about what we think exceeds our grasp at the moment. And so that's something that the pragmatists can't say. The pragmatist has to locate truth always within the context of existing conversations, existing consensus, and in the Darwinian conception of truth, you are saying that there is just what works for us biologically, pragmatically, as apes on Earth now. And there is nothing, there's no larger context of truth claims that we can make that situates that in a larger sphere, where you can intelligibly say

that everyone is wrong about something. Well, it's complicated, and I wouldn't say I'm saying exactly that. I certainly don't agree with the language game part of it. And see, if you think of the Darwinian process as something you can't escape, like there's no outside of it. And partly the reason for that is that you're just too damn ignorant to get outside of it in any transcendent manner. Now, you might say, well, you can do that to some degree with science, and I'm not going to argue with that.

But before you move on, let me just understand the claim, because it seems to me we are outside of it in every respect where you want to emphasize the Darwinian component of it. So we're outside of the implications that certain phenotypes would have killed you outright

5,000 years ago, whereas now we have a sibling. Let's let that one fade out. Hopefully you found some threads to follow in that episode if it was your first time, or perhaps our lead-in helped you hear it in a new way if this wasn't your first listen. To finish this compilation, we're going to return to the more familiar and common concerns of religion and religious faith, and play two moments from the Q&A section of live events. We've emphasized throughout these clips two important themes to keep in mind regarding Sam's critique of religion. One theme is that he doesn't shy away from criticizing specific beliefs. The other theme is that Sam's ire for religion comes from a place of empathy toward its deepest spiritual goals. We have a compilation dedicated to Sam's focus on meditation and mindfulness, which can sound superficially friendlier to some Eastern religious frameworks. But Sam is fiercely secular in his defense of spiritual and transcendent experience. And he's determined to wrestle these indispensable aims away from the unnecessary, corrosive, and static epistemologies of religion. But that second theme does have an interesting shadow. Many people contend that religious structures are social necessities that forge the path for these spiritual experiences.

They have rich histories of tradition, song, food, games, and art that bind people to something meaningful and can't be haphazardly erased without personal and societal disaster. Sam was presented with this precise type of challenge in the Q&A section of a solo live event

that he hosted for his book, Waking Up, in 2014. My question has to do with the project of creating a secular institution of spirituality. And it seems to me that the creation of the moral teamwork and community that happens in religion is part of the diamond and not part of the dung hill. And I'm wondering, when you think about that, this project that lies before us of creating cultural institutions that have rites of passages and buildings to go to on Sundays and so on, could you just talk about whatever that, what are the issues that come up for you, or what your vision looks like when

you think about that project? Yeah, it's a big project. I don't know, on one level, it's money. So just imagine what it would take to build a beautiful building in San Francisco that was dedicated to whatever this vision is. We name this thing, and then now all of us here and all of our friends decide, well, we want to build a building. That's a huge project. And the amazing thing is that you can't walk for two minutes without running into a church or a synagogue or a mosque. Religions have done this, and it's just amazing. So we don't have, it's a big generational project, but there are, we have piecemeal ways of getting it, and I think we have to notice that those piecemeal ways are surrogates for what people are getting out of religion. So you have a conference like TED, which is great and fun and brings a lot of people together, and smart things are talked about, and then it gets disseminated. And I would love it if we had a mini TED conference in every city every Sunday in 100 different buildings. And you could make it better than a TED conference, or you could make it slanted in more toward this area than just the usual TED fair.

But it would be great to have a building that you could go to where every Sunday you get together with like-minded people, and something incredibly profound and interesting was being talked about, and then you could all hang out for a few hours. That would be great. There are many pieces to this, but the pieces are not in place. And I think having rituals that mark different moments in life that are not religious but totally rational and yet empowering, I think we need those things. You need a rite of passage, instead of a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah in Judaism, I think you need a rite of passage for teenagers that just is incredibly important for them that doesn't presuppose any divisive religious nonsense. The task is for rational people everywhere to create those things. We're sort of left having to do it ourselves at this moment. And that's a problem for secular people. And this is just a hole in secularism. We don't have a canon of off-the-shelf material. When somebody dies, who do you call when you're an atheist? So a lot of people find themselves calling a rabbi or a priest and just asking him to dumb it down.

So it's like, we don't believe this, she didn't believe this, so just don't mention God. But we're really happy you came because we don't know what the hell to do. And that's the situation we're in. I think it's something we need to solve.

So that just takes some effort. The social and structural significance of religious institutions is difficult to dismiss. And it's important to acknowledge that its rapid elimination could create a vacuum that's not guaranteed to be filled by beauty, philosophy, and peace. Certainly, many contemporary commentators are considering this factor to forecast a potentially volatile moment in society and a rapid expansion in pseudo-religious political ideologies worldwide. But our very last clip is a question that takes this concern to a deeply personal level. This comes from an event in Australia in 2012. This questioner seemed to have recently shared her religious belief in something like faith in the godly meaning and control of events. This is sometimes referred to as the problem of evil in philosophy, or more colloquially, the familiar expression, why do bad things happen to good people? For a believer in divine, compassionate wisdom, events like drive-by shootings, childhood cancers, hurricanes, genocides, and car accidents are said to be mysterious and wrong only to us. But in the mind of God, ultimate judgment and compassionate order persist. And we can sleep easier knowing that God has a plan to sort out all the injustice in the end. But if you shed that belief entirely, you can be swept away by the sudden wave of engagement and responsibility for human, worldly action and intervention as the only safeguard against ultimate tragedy.

Sam addresses this questioner's small crisis while also acknowledging the secular versions of the same passive retreats that sometimes lead religious people to disengage from the world. This comes from a talk entitled Death and the Present Moment, delivered in 2012 shortly after the death of Sam's friend

and colleague, Christopher Hitchens. Hi, Sam. As an atheist, I have really started valuing life and the dignity of life. But the problem is that now when I hear of any loss of life which has happened due to some deliberate actions of others or due to some carelessness of others, it saddens me. It grieves, makes me angry. Because earlier I used to just feel, oh, accident happened because it just had to happen. And it happened. But now I can see the responsibility of other peoples that others are being robbed of their right to live. And so how do I deal with this, like this anger, this grief, me or other atheists like me who can clearly

see the responsibilities of others?

Right, right, right. Well, as I said, the change in attitude that I just recommended, I smuggled mindfulness meditation into this talk and voice digit on 4,000 atheists. So you're now all Buddhists. I'm sorry to have done that to you. But it is an antidote to that kind of suffering. When you look closely at the mechanics of your own suffering, you find that when you're suffering, you are lost in thought. Now, that may seem like the pushback you immediately get from that is that, well, some things are worth suffering over. You mean to tell me that my child dies and I could stop suffering if I just break the spell of thought? Yes, to some degree. But it's damn hard to do when the bar is set that high, when you're dealing with the death of someone close to you. But the experience of the thing you just did for five minutes is something that I have done, I've gone on retreat for weeks and months at a time. And in silence for 18 hours a day, just did that exercise.

And so it takes a long time to realize how much thought is clouding your experience at the present moment and how much of our mediocrity and how we feel moment to moment is just a matter of us continually thinking, this undercurrent of thought. And so when something terrible happens, the undercurrent of your thought is all of these grief-stricken ideas. I'll never see her again, the memory of how much you loved her, back and forth, back and forth, and you're buffeted by thought ceaselessly. And for most of us, there is no alternative, but we're just hostage to the contents of the next thought. And if there's relief to be found in the face of death and loss, the relief is to bear down upon the present moment and become interested enough in the present moment so that you can notice that to some degree, consciousness is a quantum-ist even in the presence of that kind of emotional pain. And then it does erode the pain of that pain. And again, to some degree, it's a kind of framing issue. It's like it's the difference between thinking that the pain in your arm is because you're now getting so good at lifting weights or thinking that it's because you've got bone cancer. It could be the exact same sensation, but the difference is total. And so what I'm recommending to you is many good things come from training. We give no thought to training the mind. We have a lot of thought to training our body.

We give a lot of thought to physical health. We give a lot of thought to getting more information on your education, understanding more about the world, more facts. We give very little thought to training attention itself. And one of the dividends paid, and there's a fair amount of neuroscientific research on this point, on specifically the point of mindfulness meditation, is that emotional self-regulation and cognitive improvements, many good things happen when you can actually just drop your stress and the automaticity of thinking for a moment and just be aware of the next sensation, the next thought, the next moment of a mood. And there's just our experience as a flow in the present moment. And there is relief to be found there, but it can be kind of hard won. It takes training. It takes a commitment to not merely brooding and thinking. And that's, again, I'm not discounting the utility of thought, and I'm not discounting the importance of sorting out the world. There's a quietistic bias among meditators that I think is completely dysfunctional. And we don't want a culture of people who are not engaged and not trying to improve the world. But if there is any kernel of truth in the religions we so deplore, and they are just a carnival of errors, the truth is that it's possible to sink into the present moment in such a way as to find it sacred and to cease to have a problem.

And that's just a fact for which there is so much testimony. And unfortunately, most of the testimony

is contaminated with religious bullshit. There's so much more to explore about the idea of belief. Any deep investigation quickly finds itself intertwined with considerations of neurobiology, free will, morality, scientific methods, spirituality, and even politics. The famed philosopher Karl Popper once warned other philosophers not to get obsessively lost defining terms and words. He thought this habit was disastrous to good philosophical pursuit. He suggested that we can better illuminate a concept by presenting specific problems to solve that relate to a concept rather than endlessly trying to define the terms directly. For example, people can use the word justice coherently without being able to provide a comprehensive definition of it. And they can reach a useful mutual understanding of it by considering certain judicial rulings or parental remedies. Imagining, encountering, or presenting specific problems about a term like justice may be more fruitful than defining it narrowly. But belief is one of those concepts and terms that seems to attract scrutiny like a magnet. It seems to cry out to be taken seriously and have its sacred persona respected while issuing a warning to tread lightly so as not to disturb some unquestioned ground upon which meaningful and important societies and psychology stand. But it also seems to simultaneously declare itself to be aloof, unaffected, and unbothered by the persistent flying arrows of scientific falsification.

Perhaps all of us secretly want our beliefs to be true and to survive the barrage of scientific critique. And this attitude of indifference is only a front for a threat, a warning against science looking behind the curtain. For a few of the stories we included in this compilation, including mine, the process of dismantling or crumbling a belief system begins with allowing it to be exposed to the scientific challenge of explaining reality. But you also heard Peterson offer a different defense of belief and truth with his applied pragmatism. A belief is a kind of fact claim about reality that can have pragmatic value, even if it's not true or not meant to be taken literally. For example, carrying a belief around that every gun is loaded might be a really good idea. Does this make it true enough to contain some truth to it in a pragmatic sense? An author like Peterson might argue for that conception of truth. And he may argue for the same kind of pragmatic conception of truth when it comes to carrying around religious beliefs. If one considers a life without them to be as dangerous and unsurvivable as Russian roulette, a position he is sympathetic to as someone who urges against atheism. Sam, of course, thinks that this twisting of the word truth badly confuses things and that religious truth claims about history, the physical world, and the insistence on a metaphysical world need to be parsed carefully and identified as literal or metaphorical truths. What does it mean to believe that Muhammad rode to heaven on a winged horse?

Or to believe that Jesus rose from the dead after three days and ascended into heaven? Or that Noah put two of every animal on an ark that survived a flood that God sent to cleanse the world? Are these actual claims about history that are in the same category as a belief that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? Or are these metaphorical claims that merely poetically analogize deeper psychological or philosophical truths and hold some kind of arguably advantageous quality? Being clear about this difference is something that Sam advocates for, and that advocacy may be rooted in his consequentialism. If we identify a deeply held belief as something that someone protects or assumes to be true, which then motivates one's behavior, then many impactful and potentially destructive actions are justifiable. If one has a specific deeply held belief about the fate of souls in the afterlife, one might deeply justify aggressive proselytizing or even suicide bombing, and they would hold these actions to be entirely consistent with moral activity. It's important to know whether the underlying belief is a literal truth claim or a metaphorical one in order to inform our sometimes urgent and massively consequential intervention. We titled this compilation, Belief and Unbelief, to emphasize the personal stories of shedding belief systems, but it could have just as easily been titled belief versus truth, or even belief versus theory. Theory is a word that one of the people you heard from, Richard Dawkins, doesn't love to use because of the confusion that can come along with its common usage, which suggests that it's something as flippant as a mere guess, but in philosophical and scientific terms, a theory is something much more impressive than a simple guess, and paradoxically, a theory can celebrate its impressiveness because it's inherently exposed to efforts to falsify it. In other words, it gets its power precisely from its existential uncertainty, but existential uncertainty can sound like a difficult psychological state of loneliness. It can present atheism as the admission of being a cosmic orphan and a chaotic existence, so an unchallengeable, deeply held religious belief, in an effort to fortify against this supposed dread, announces that it doesn't participate in this game of falsification.

It's the declaration of a certainty that only needs to be defended rather than falsified. For certain religious apologists, this position is necessary and has pragmatic truth. For other true believers, the pragmatism plays much less of a role than insistence on the inherent, literal truth claims in the doctrine. But as we hope we've displayed, Sam tries to engage in this struggle with a high degree of awareness of the place that religion, and even generic individual belief, play on a personal and civilizational level. He also isn't the first famous atheist to try to toe this line. Perhaps the most famous three-word quote in written atheistic philosophy comes from Friedrich Nietzsche when he wrote in 1882 that God is dead. Many atheists have put that on a T-shirt or bumper sticker and called it a day, but the rest of the passage should not be missed. In it, Nietzsche poetically lays out the challenge before atheists to contend with the existential, societal, and psychological void that is ushered in by the announcement of God's revealed non-existence, which came along with the age of enlightenment from many thinkers. Nietzsche's full statement goes like this. God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed Him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives.

Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement? What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? Sam has taken Nietzsche's challenge to heart and poured much of his effort into developing meditative tools, practices, mindsets, and lessons to try to approach the greatness of that deed. If belief is an understandable but hollow clinging to ultimate certainty, then unbelief is the beginning of stepping into an unknown, messy world, and the infinite process of problem-solving, truth-seeking, and meaning-making. Speaking as someone who has moved from belief to unbelief, I can endorse the shift as profoundly important and horizon-expanding. And even if the personal and social aspects aren't always easy, falling in love with the endless exploration of existence, armed only with the uncertainty of scientific theory and boundless curiosity, is something I cherish. And having Sam's public efforts to make sense of the world available doesn't hurt either. Here is suggested reading, listening, and watching on the subject of belief and unbelief.

The episodes of Making Sense featured in this compilation were episodes 81, 12, 175, 105, 62, and 61. As always, we recommend listening to the full episodes as they cover much more ground than was included here. But it's especially important with these episodes as we were only able to include a small part of the intricate personal stories. As we mentioned, there are several other Making Sense episodes that would have fit in with this subject. To name just a few, Sam spoke to Richard Dawkins about evolution and atheism live on stage in episodes 57 and 60. He's spoken about Islam with Ayyan Hirsi Ali, Shadi Hamid, and Majid Nawaz in episodes 50, 55, and 59. Sam also spoke about political emergencies related to Islam with Graham Wood, Fareed Zakaria, and Douglas Murray in episodes 82, 83, and 85. The grouping of these episodes on a certain trend of belief speaks to Sam's aforementioned consequentialism where he tends to focus on the seemingly most impactful ideologies of a given moment. He spoke to Kurt Anderson on America's history of myth and fantasy shortly after the 2016 election, which opened up the topic of political religions. That was episode 103, American Fantasies. Sam did have a second conversation with Jordan Peterson in episode 67 where they tried to pull themselves out of the definitional quicksand. In episode 139, he spoke to Bill Maher and Larry Charles who made the film religious.

We could go on, but this list should be plenty to get you going. For book recommendations, we'll start with The End of Faith and Waking Up by Sam Himself, for two bookends that showcase his simultaneous vitriol and deep empathy for religious devotion. For two memoirs, I wrote a book entitled Unfollow, A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Yasmin Muhammad self-published a book she titled Unveiled, How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, which not only tells her personal story, but as the subtitle suggests, displays her frustration with Western feminism's abandonment of women subjugated in cultures deemed to be victims of Western hegemony. Sarah Hader does most of her writing on her Substack newsletter called, Hold That Thought. We also recommend checking out and supporting her organization, Ex-Muslims of North America. Matt Dillahunty tells his story along with fellow prominent atheist and former believer, Seth Andrews, in a book they titled, Deconverted, A Journey from Religion to Reason. Richard Dawkins has written a slew of relevant books, including The God Delusion and Outgrowing God. He and Sam also recently released a book called, The Four Horsemen, which looks back at their initial collaboration and now minorly famous fireside chat in 2007, along with Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. We'll also recommend two books from authors who were not included in this compilation. The prolific Alain Desbotons has a book entitled, Religion for Atheists, which advocates for secular-minded people to learn from the techniques of religious practice. And Sasha Sagan has a beautiful book which puts much of those techniques into practice.

Of course, there is much to find in classic philosophy on the subject of God and atheism. From Epicurus, Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and David Hume, just to name a few. The famous God is Dead passage comes from Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science in 1882. If you want to give a Richard Rorty book a shot and imagine Sam persistently arguing with him, you might try his 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which was Rorty's attempt to dismantle objective notions of truth. Objective truth being something that's central to Sam's moral philosophy. From the film world, we'll recommend the 1997 film Contact, which was based on a book of the same name written by Carl Sagan in 1985. And we can't forget the classic 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick, 2001, A Space Odyssey, which is still one of the best conversation pieces out there. There are countless documentaries to recommend, but I personally have to cringe a little while recommending Louis Theroux's The Most Hated Family in America from 2007, which features my family and me at a time when I was deep in the throes of the ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church. We'll also recommend Bill Maher's Religulus, Jesus Camp, Marjo, and An Honest Liar, which followed the life of the magician James Randi. For a look at the American legal battle that set a precedent regarding the separation of church and state, we recommend a 2010 documentary entitled The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today, which details the story of Vashti McCollum, who challenged the practice of religious teachings being implemented at her son's public school in 1944. The eight to one Supreme Court ruling in her favor four years later seems vulnerable to intense reinterpretation at the time of this writing. There are a lot of great video essays on YouTube in the genre of inspiring humanistic atheism.

We'll share two of our go-to videos from the last decade. One is a video titled Science Saved My Soul by a user named Phil Hellenis. And the other is a video entitled A Universe Not Made for Us by the legendary Carl Sagan. This episode was edited, compiled, and written by Jay Shapiro and read by me, Megan Phelps-Roper.