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MIKE PESCA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Take just about any news story, scratch the headline, and behind it you'll often find religion. Iraq and Israel are the most obvious. There's terrorism, stem cell research, and Reverend Jerry Falwell linking Senator Hillary Clinton to the devil - in jest, he says.

Sam Harris is here to talk about religion in public life. He's the author of the new book, Letter to a Christian Nation.

And welcome to the show.

Mr. SAM HARRIS (Author, Letter to a Christian Nation): Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.

BRAND: Now, this is a thin book, or a very long letter.

Mr. HARRIS: Mm-hmm. Right.

BRAND: And you say at the outset that this is a response to the people who wrote in responding to your first book, the bestseller The End of Faith. Why did you feel moved to write a response?

Mr. HARRIS: Christianity, in my mind, is doing such mad work in our society. We have, I think it's no exaggeration to say, the most powerful and consequential society probably in human history at the moment, given our technological abilities. And we are systematically promoting people to positions of power who believe, quite literally, that the earth is going to - human history is going to end in their lifetime.

It's something like 44 percent of Americans think Jesus is going to come in the next 50 years and rapture all the good people so that they can preside over this sacred genocide that's going to happen at the end of human history. So we have religious conceptions of what matters commandeering our national discourse and our geopolitical discourse, and I think that should be troubling to all of us.

BRAND: Why do you say moderates are providing cover for the fundamentalists? What are moderates doing that you don't like?

Mr. HARRIS: Moderates want their faith respected. They want the basic project of raising kids to believe they're Christians or Muslims or Jews to be respected. And therefore they don't want faith itself criticized, and yet faith itself is what is bringing us all of this lunacy. We have to deal with polarizing ideologies and we're not doing that, because it is taboo to criticize people's religious certainties. Moderates have rendered it taboo and fundamentalists take really luxurious cover under this taboo. And moderates have lost touch with the fact that people really are motivated by theology in a way that they're not.

BRAND: Well, what about having interfaith dialogue? There's been a lot made of that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that moderates from all religions should come together to create a more moderate world. Do you disagree with that?

Mr. HARRIS: The problem is, is that these religious worldviews really are, at bottom, incompatible. You know, either Jesus was the son of God or he wasn't. And if you believe that he was, you're a Christian. If you believe that he wasn't - as all Muslims have to do, as mandated by the Koran - you are on a collision course with really committed Christians.

And to have this moderate dialogue, we have to take pains not to deny the fact that religion is actually getting people killed. And nobody denies this like moderates. Moderates just systematically say this is not faith, this is not religion - because it's not religion as they know it. They think that religion is being used as a cover for other motives - politics and economic grievances. It's not. People are quite literally flying planes into buildings because they think they're going to get to paradise.

BRAND: You actually say in your book - a quote - "the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion hijacked by extremists is a fantasy." I think a lot of people would be offended by that.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

BRAND: Many Muslims have taken great pains to disassociate themselves from the people who flew the planes into the buildings.

Mr. HARRIS: Right. Right. Well, there are different ways to disassociate yourself. You need, I would argue, moderate Muslims on a mass scale arguing that the version of Islam preached by Osama bin Laden is illegitimate. There's a tension here, because to argue that it's illegitimate is in many respects to obscure the fact that, really, millions and millions of Muslims view the world the way he does. He is not the Reverend Jim Jones of the Muslim world.

So we have a dance here to do between encouraging moderation in the Muslim world and calling a spade a spade, being honest about the real contents of the Koran, the fact that the Koran is a document that - whose central message is that infidels are to be despised. And so one thing I would argue is that moderate Muslims have to be candid about the uniquely problematic nature of certain dogmas, specifically the dogma of martyrdom and jihad - because aspiring martyrs are not going to make good neighbors for anyone in the future.

BRAND: Your book, what makes it such a page-turner, is it really is forceful. I mean it's a take-no-prisoners manifesto against religion. I mean, you basically call religion asinine. So how does that square with what you just said about not being dogmatic? I mean, here you are being dogmatic but on the other side.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, no. I'm not being dogmatic. Dogmatism is when you believe things strongly without evidence. When we have evidence, we talk about the evidence. When you have good arguments, you talk about the arguments. It's when you have to start accepting things on faith that you start reaching for dogmas, because faith really is, frankly, the permission people - religious people give one another to believe things when reasons fail. And this is not what we do in science. It's not what we do in every other area of our lives, really, when we talk about our view of the world.

And you don't have to be dogmatic to reject that Zeus or Apollo or any of the other dead gods - we all reject these dead gods. We don't have to prove their absence. I mean, this is one of the fallacies of religious argumentation, the idea that the atheist has to prove the absence of God. Nobody has proved the absence of Zeus. And yet everyone is behaving as though the God of Abraham has a completely different status than these thousands of other dead gods, and he frankly doesn't.

BRAND: Do you think it's possible to be a moderate Muslim or a moderate Christian, to believe, let's say, in stem cell research...

Mr. HARRIS: Mm-hmm.

BRAND: ...to believe in contraception - and still be religious? Or do you still think those people are deluding themselves?

Mr. HARRIS: They tend to be deluding themselves about the source of their moderation. They're not being honest. Their moderation has clearly come from outside the faith. And you know, if the pope rethinks the Catholic dogma that makes contraception a sin, he's going to rethink it not because Christianity has rethought it. He's not going to - it's not that he looked more closely at the Bible and found the line in there that de-legitimized this dogma. He will have suffered criticism from the secular world and he will have suffered the spectacle of just the sheer untenability of this dogma, where in sub-Saharan Africa you Catholic ministers preaching the sinfulness of condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic and where people are being decimated.

And this, you know, I argue in my book, is genocidal stupidity. And yet because it comes under the aegis of faith, it has not received the criticism that it would. If this were a secular organization doing this, it would be over tomorrow. It's getting people killed, which is really the problem.

BRAND: Sam Harris is the author of the new book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Sam Harris, thank you for coming in.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

PESCA: And we welcome your letters, of course, about faith, politics, foreign policy, the arts, all the things the Victorians said polite people do not discuss at dinner parties. To write us, go to www.npr.org. And click on Contact Us.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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