Sam Harris Brilliantly Explains How Cults And Religion Both Make You Want To Die

By Shannon Barber | 26 March 2015
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Neuroscientist Sam Harris speaking at TED 2010

I’ve always said that the only difference between mainstream religion and cults is the number of followers and the general social acceptability. Well, famed atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris has explained these parallels more brilliantly than I ever could, certainly. He says what most people who are only mildly religious – and especially those of us who are not religious at all – have known for quite some time: Religious extremism makes people happy. It really is as simple as that. The more extreme the commitment, the happier the devotee.

Harris’s statements come from the most recent edition of his Waking Up podcast. He uses a great example to show just how happy religious delusions can make people by conjuring up memories of Marshall Applewhite’s notorious Heaven’s Gate cult. 39 of Applewhite’s followers famously committed mass suicide back in 1997 because they sincerely believed that in doing so, they’d be leaving an evil earth, and the prisons of their bodies behind so that their souls could transcend this plane of existence to ride aboard a spaceship traveling alongside the Hale-Bop comet. He discussed the exit statements of the cultists prior to their self-inflicted deaths. The statements can be seen below:

Sounds crazy, right? Well, think about our own modern religionists, and it is really just the same thing in a milder, more socially acceptable form. Christians believe that if they do what the Bible says in just the right way, they’ll go to heaven. The more extreme fundamentalists pray for Armageddon, the End Times that are spoken of in Revelations, and the return of Jesus Christ before the world is destroyed.

In their minds, this mass destruction and death is a good thing, because that means they leave this flawed Earth to go to a perfect heaven to be with their savior. In other words, it’s no less crazy than what the members of Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult believed and did. Their commitment made them happy, and their beliefs, literally, made them want to die.

Harris said of these cultists, and the same is true of many religionists:

Because of what they believed about their souls and the death of their bodies, 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.

Wait a minute, isn’t that what every Christian who has ever tried to “save” anyone says? That if you come to Jesus, make him your lord and savior, that everything will fall into place?

Harris went on to say:

The horror, of course, is that they were wrong. 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.

Harris went on from Heaven’s Gate to the rationale behind Islamic extremists such as the man who bombed the Boston Marathon:

For instance, 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.

That sums it up right there. If people truly believe they are acting in the name of an all-powerful, all-knowing creator and supreme being that holds the fate of the world in its hands, then there is no competing with that. If there were, rationality would take over, and there would be none of this holy-warring – be it literal in the sense of groups like ISIS, or figurative, such as with culture wars surrounding things like abortion and LGBT rights.

Harris goes on to talk about his discussions with former ISIS fighters:

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 counts on, the repository of most value. But of course, it’s not the surest part of life.

It’s at best 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.

Again, Harris is right. But, belief is a powerful thing. When people believe these things with all their hearts, regardless of the absolute absurdity of the beliefs, along with the atrocities committed because of said beliefs, nothing can be done to stop them. There can be no rationality in the face of irrationality on the grand scale of something like religion.

Harris goes on to say of more modern, acceptable religion that, just like in the case of the Heaven’s Gate members, “belief is the primary driver of their behavior. These people are just as eager to die, and just as un-conflicted 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.”

Harris concludes by calling understanding of these basic facts an “epiphany,” and, says that once you have it, “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.”

Absolutely brilliant man. If only people could open their minds and see the destruction of such beliefs, and also understand why otherwise rational people adhere to them. We might actually get somewhere one day if that were possible.

Listen to the entire Waking Up podcast episode below:

Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Michael Shermer: Why people believe weird things

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Sam, as someone who has given 20-odd years to the study of philosophy and religion (I have also been the member of a cult), I think your concept of belief could use some tweaking. The notion of "belief" which many people attribute to religious ideals has never been a comfortable one for me, and this is even including that time of more than five years, when I was a full-time religious volunteer (brahmacari). I have come through that experience, and through a long study of epistemology to regard that term (belief) as a rather poor substitute for the actual phenomenon of how religious thinking works.

    But to cut to the chase: what we are prone to call "belief", when associated with ideals which lay beyond all investigation and possibility of existential confirmation, is nothing but the atrophic wasting away of wonder. Religious types say that they "believe" such and such when their youthful wonder has been led to stop itself at a certain answer which they can neither affirm nor deny. And as this dogmatic paradox is neither proven by their own apophatic experiences, nor dismissed by some critical method, they actually are in a state of hermeneutical suspension; to wit, they are "stuck" in a view they neither know how to make evident to others, nor how to dismiss as untrue.

    This to me cannot be equated with belief, at least if my primary sense of belief is just something like the fact that gravity keeps me from flying off the face of the Earth, or that the Sun-Earth relation is the primary cause of Spring coming round about now. If I am right, "belief" has gotten mixed up with "stagnation of wonder", or perhaps even with "the distortion of wonder".

    • A belief is a mental state that represents the world as being a certain way. I can believe the moon is a goddess. I’d be wrong. I’d be unjustified, but I can still believe it. I can have totally unjustified beliefs. Racists can’t refute the charge by saying that they don’t “really believe” other races are inferior. It’s not only true beliefs that count as beliefs. As Harris points out, beliefs are inputs to decisions, so what one believes is implicated in what one does, which makes actions a better guide to what one believes, ie., how one represents the world as being, than what one says.

  2. Whilst the beliefs that justify suicide in the case of the Heaven's Gate cult or suicide bombing in the case of ISIS clearly play a critical role in the subsequent actions of those who adhere to them, are they really of themselves a sufficient cause? What is it that makes some people vulnerable to adopting these sorts of beliefs, and is it belief alone that manages to override the natural instinct for self-preservation? People with adequate self-esteem who lead happy and fulfilling lives are simply not susceptible to beliefs that negate the value inherent in this life. Because they experience life as worthwhile they are in no danger of giving a mere unsubstantiated belief a higher reality status than their lived experience. So a precondition of seriously entertaining a belief in an afterlife being a better alternative than a lived experience, to the extent that one is willing to swap one for the other, is that this lived experience is pretty dismal. Only when one's lived experience is miserable, hopeless, full of despair and acute suffering does a desire to die, albeit unconscious, arise. And under these circumstances, then if the afterlife is painted as extremely desirable, then an instinctive fear of death can be overcome. The people in the Heaven's Gate exit video may appear to be calm and even happy with their upcoming choice but this is really no more than parroting the brainwashing to which they have been subjected for months or in many cases years. We do not glimpse the underlying psychopathology that made them vulnerable to joining and remaining within this cult and they of course are equally unconscious of the factors that lie beneath the surface. Whilst ideologies and the beliefs they encompass are of course an integral part of trying to understand these strange phenomena, Harris places too much emphasis on these beliefs and fails to probe the underlying psychological conditions that permit such beliefs to gain such ascendancy.

  3. My impression is that religious affiliation is primarily a social phenomenon; and we sometimes drift into a strong sense of beliefs that help us to feel like a more legitimate member of the group. People born and raised by Islamic parents in an Islamic society tend to be Islamic, whether or not they are devout. The same can be said of Christians, Hindus, and so on.

  4. Benjamin McClintic, I half-agree that belief comes from a kind of stunted sense of wonder, however I have met people totally wound up in awe and wonder at their entirely imagined mystical worldview, so I think it is only part of the answer. Their wonder at the real world has become truncated somehow and been somehow diverted to their imaginary one.

    drongohalfwit, I’ve met plenty of happy, well-off religious people who lead entirely comfortable lives free of any despair. What you say about people seeking solace in a comforting illusion may be true of some people, but certainly isn’t true of all of them.

    Ian MacMillan, I think you are close to the truth of how people are indoctrinated into belief, but it still doesn’t get at what belief actually is.

    I think it is simply a self-sustaining mind-loop. People believe what they believe simply because they do. Some memes die away, but some survive by having self-protecting features. Most religious memes are sticky, in that they have self-preserving mechanisms that prevent them being dropped — it is a sin to question the belief, believe unconditionally and unreservedly, treat those who would challenge your belief as if they are personally attacking you, and so on. Religious memes tend also to be parasitic upon your feelings of joy in being with like-minded fellows, and fear at being faced with either oblivion or eternal punishment, it often also feeds on hate.

    You can see the way religious belief works like a simple mind-loop when you discuss it with religious people. There is never anything solid behind their belief. They think there is, but when it is carefully inspected it always comes back to believing because they believe — usually expressed as “I know it’s true” or “I have faith”.

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