Sam Harris: Cults just magnify 'the horror of religion generally' -- it makes you want to die
Neuroscientist Sam Harris speaking at TED2010 (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

In the latest installment of his "Waking Up" podcast, neuroscientist Sam Harris argued that one of the reasons Americans have such a difficult time thinking about radical Islam is they fail to understand how happy extreme religious commitment can make an individual.


By means of example, he discussed the Heaven's Gate cult led by Marshall Applewhite, 39 members of which committed mass suicide in 1997 in order to have their souls transferred to a spaceship travelling in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. Harris was particularly interested in the "exit statements" made by the cultists in the days before they committed suicide in which they happily said goodbye to those they were leaving behind:

"Because of what they believed about their souls and the death of their bodies," Harris said, "they felt truly lucky -- they were leaving a sinking ship and felt true compassion for all confused people who didn't have the good sense to get off it."

"The horror, of course, is that they were wrong," he continued. "Their beliefs were certainly false in every respect. This is the horror of religion generally, the horror of Islamism and jihadism. What is central to the phenomenon -- the thing that makes it so horrible, and yet so captivating to true believers -- is this promise of paradise, the idea that most of what is good in any individual's existence is the part that comes after death."

"That's the claim that leeches all the value out of this world."

"For instance," Harris explained, "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, wrote on the side of the boat where he was finally captured, 'Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven.' How can you compete with that? You can't."

"I recently spoke with a former ISIS fighter who basically said the same thing about being motivated for his concern with the afterlife, which he called 'the surest part of life.' This is the thing he count on, the repository of most value. But of course, it's not the surest part of life."

"It's at best," Harris said, "a hypothesis founded on nothing. But this is exactly the sentiment you get from the Heaven's Gate members -- they're talking about how happy they'll be when they finally transcend humanity. Then look at the Middle East, what's going on with a group like ISIS, the Western recruits who [are going] by the thousands to fight these guys and recognize that -- whatever the diversity of their backgrounds, whatever other variables we are told for their behavior -- simply realize that these people also believe what they say they believe."

As with the Heaven's Gate cultists, "belief is the primary driver of their behavior. These people are just as eager to die, and just as unconflicted about the misuse of their lives in this world, and just as certain of their place in eternity as the class members in Heaven's Gate."

Once you have that "epiphany," Harris said, "you'll see how confused most people are about current events. So much of what passes for analysis of Islamism and jihadism skates across this psychological fact, or denies it outright, looking for other reasons. [But] whatever contributions U.S. foreign policy or the legacy of colonialism or the lack of integration in Muslims in Europe might play -- the basic fact, at the core of the phenomenon, held and held deeply, is the belief in paradise, that death is an illusion and that the purpose of this world is be forsaken."

Listen to Harris' latest podcast in its entirety below via SoundCloud.