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Sam Harris, Religion & Drugs

By John Clarke

What with my recent com­puter troubles (I’ve had to format at least once more since writing that post, by the way), I’ve not been able to post any­thing with much sub­stance in the past few weeks. To make that up to you, this post will a long one, albeit not my own words, so put the kettle on and dig out your reading glasses.

The End Of FaithThe fol­low­ing passage is taken from Sam Harris’s book, The End Of Faith, and talks about religion’s role in keeping drugs illegal:


The War on Sin

In the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, it is cur­rently illegal to seek certain exper­i­ences of pleas­ure. Seek pleas­ure by a for­bid­den means, even in the privacy of your own home, and men with guns may kick in the door and carry you away to prison for it. One of the most sur­pris­ing things about this situ­ation is how unsur­pris­ing most of us find it. As in most dreams, the very faculty of reason that would oth­er­wise notice the strange­ness of these events seems to have suc­cumbed to sleep.

Beha­vi­ors like drug use, pros­ti­tu­tion, sodomy, and the viewing of obscene mater­i­als have been cat­egor­ized as “vic­tim­less crimes.” Of course, society is the tan­gible victim of almost everything human beings do — from making noise to man­u­fac­tur­ing chem­ical waste— but we have not made it a crime to do such things within certain limits. Setting these limits is invari­ably a matter of assess­ing risk. One could argue that it is, at the very least, con­ceiv­able that certain activ­it­ies engaged in private, like the viewing of sexu­ally violent por­no­graphy, might incline some people to commit genuine crimes against others. There is a tension, there­fore, between private freedom and public risk. If there were a drug, or a book, or a film, or a sexual pos­i­tion that led 90 percent of its users to rush into the street and begin killing people at random, con­cerns over private pleas­ure would surely yield to those of public safety. We can also stip­u­late that no one is eager to see gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren raised on a steady diet of methamphet­am­ine and Marquis de Sade. Society as a whole has an interest in how its chil­dren develop, and the private beha­vior of parents, along with the con­tents of our media, clearly play a role in this. But we must ask ourselves, why would anyone want to punish people for enga­ging in beha­vior that brings no sig­ni­fic­ant risk of harm to anyone? Indeed, what is start­ling about the notion of a vic­tim­less crime is that even when the beha­vior in ques­tion is genu­inely vic­tim­less, its crimin­al­ity is still affirmed by those who are eager to punish it. It is in such cases that the true genius lurking behind many of our laws stands revealed. The idea of a vic­tim­less crime is nothing more than a judi­cial reprise of the Chris­tian notion of sin.

It is no acci­dent that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others. This impulse has less to do with the history of reli­gion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incom­pat­ible with the exist­ence of God. If God sees and knows all things, and remains so pro­vin­cial a creature as to be scan­dal­ized by certain sexual beha­vi­ors or states of the brain, then what people do in the privacy of their own homes, though it may not have the slight­est implic­a­tion for their beha­vior in public, will still be a matter of public concern for people of faith.

A variety of reli­gious notions of wrong­do­ing can be seen con­ver­ging here — con­cerns over non­pro­cre­at­ive sexu­al­ity and idol­atry espe­cially — and these seem to have given many of us the sense that it is ethical to punish people, often severely, for enga­ging in private beha­vior that harms no one. Like most costly examples of irra­tion­al­ity, in which human hap­pi­ness has been blindly sub­ver­ted for gen­er­a­tions, the role of reli­gion here is both expli­cit and found­a­tional. To see that our laws against “vice” have actu­ally nothing to do with keeping people from coming to phys­ical or psy­cho­lo­gical harm, and everything to do with not anger­ing God, we need only con­sider that oral or anal sex between con­sent­ing adults remains a crim­inal offence in thir­teen states. Four of the states (Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mis­souri) pro­hibit these acts between same-sex couples and, there­fore, effect­ively pro­hibit homo­sexu­al­ity. The other nine ban con­sen­sual sodomy for every­one (these places of equity are Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisi­ana, Mis­sis­sippi, North Car­o­lina, South Car­o­lina, Utah, and Vir­ginia). One does not have to be a demo­grapher to grasp that the impulse to pro­sec­ute con­sent­ing adults for non­pro­cre­at­ive sexual beha­vior will cor­rel­ate rather strongly with reli­gious faith.

Jesus once got 5000 people totally baked with only an eighth of weed

Jesus once got 5000 people totally baked with only an eighth of weed

The influ­ence of faith on our crim­inal laws comes at a remark­able price. Con­sider the case of drugs. As it happens, there are many sub­stances — many of them nat­ur­ally occur­ring — the con­sump­tion of which leads to tran­si­ent states of inor­din­ate pleas­ure. Occa­sion­ally, it is true, they lead to tran­si­ent states of misery as well, but there is no doubt that pleas­ure is the norm, oth­er­wise human beings would not have felt the con­tinual desire to take such sub­stances for mil­len­nia. Of course, pleas­ure is pre­cisely the problem with these sub­stances, since pleas­ure and piety have always had an uneasy rela­tion­ship.

When one looks at our drug laws — indeed, at our vice laws alto­gether — the only organ­iz­ing prin­ciple that appears to make sense of them is that any­thing which might rad­ic­ally eclipse prayer or pro­cre­at­ive sexu­al­ity as a source of pleas­ure has been out­lawed. In par­tic­u­lar, any drug (LSD, mes­caline, psilo­cybin, DMT, MDMA, marijuana, etc.) to which spir­itual or reli­gious sig­ni­fic­ance has been ascribed by its users has been pro­hib­ited. Con­cerns about the health of our cit­izens, or about their pro­ductiv­ity, are red her­rings in this debate, as the leg­al­ity of alcohol and cigar­ettes attests.

The fact that people are being pro­sec­uted and imprisoned for using marijuana, while alcohol remains a staple com­mod­ity, is surely the reduc­tio ad absurdum of any notion that our drug laws are designed to keep people from harming them­selves or others. Alcohol is by any measure the more dan­ger­ous sub­stance. It has no approved medical use, and its lethal dose is rather easily achieved. Its role in causing auto­mobile acci­dents is beyond dispute. The manner in which alcohol relieves people of their inhib­i­tions con­trib­utes to human viol­ence, per­sonal injury, unplanned preg­nancy, and the spread of sexual disease. Alcohol is also well known to be addict­ive. When con­sumed in large quant­it­ies over many years, it can lead to dev­ast­at­ing neur­o­lo­gical impair­ments, to cir­rhosis of the liver, and to death. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people annu­ally die from its use. It is also more toxic to a devel­op­ing fetus than any other drug of abuse. (Indeed, “crack babies” appear to have been really suf­fer­ing from fetal-alcohol syn­drome.) None of these charges can be leveled at marijuana. As a drug, marijuana is nearly unique in having several medical applic­a­tions and no known lethal dosage. While adverse reac­tions to drugs like aspirin and ibupro­fen account for an estim­ated 7,600 deaths (and 76,000 hos­pit­al­iz­a­tions) each year in the United States alone, marijuana kills no one. Its role as a “gateway drug” now seems less plaus­ible than ever (and it was never plaus­ible). In fact, nearly everything human beings do — driving cars, flying planes, hitting golf balls — is more dan­ger­ous than smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home. Anyone who would ser­i­ously attempt to argue that marijuana is worthy of pro­hib­i­tion because of the risk it poses to human beings will find that the powers of the human brain are simply insuf­fi­cient for the job.

And yet, we are so far from the shady groves of reason now that people are still receiv­ing life sen­tences without the pos­sib­il­ity of parole for growing, selling, pos­sess­ing, or buying what is, in fact, a nat­ur­ally occur­ring plant. Cancer patients and para­ple­gics have been sen­tenced to decades in prison for marijuana pos­ses­sion. Owners of garden-supply stores have received similar sen­tences because some of their cus­tom­ers were caught growing marijuana. What explains this aston­ish­ing wastage of human life and mater­ial resources? The only explan­a­tion is that our dis­course on this subject has never been obliged to func­tion within the bounds of ration­al­ity. Under our current laws, it is safe to say, if a drug were inven­ted that posed no risk of phys­ical harm or addic­tion to its users but pro­duced a brief feeling of spir­itual bliss and epi­phany in 100 percent of those who tried it, this drug would be illegal, and people would be pun­ished mer­ci­lessly for its use. Only anxiety about the bib­lical crime of idol­atry would appear to make sense of this retributive impulse. Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sin­ful­ness of our neigh­bors, we have grown tol­er­ant of irra­tional uses of state power.

Our pro­hib­i­tion of certain sub­stances has led thou­sands of oth­er­wise pro­duct­ive and law-abiding men and women to be locked away for decades at a stretch, some­times for life. Their chil­dren have become wards of the state. As if such cas­cad­ing horror were not dis­turb­ing enough, violent crim­in­als — murders, rapists, and child molesters — are reg­u­larly paroled to make room for them. Here we appear to have over­stepped the banal­ity of evil and plunged to the absurdity at its depths.

The con­sequences of our irra­tion­al­ity on this front are so egre­gious that they bear closer exam­in­a­tion. Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arres­ted in the United States because of our drug laws. At this moment, some­where on the order of 400,000 men and women lan­guish in U.S. prisons for non­vi­ol­ent drug offences. One million others are cur­rently on pro­ba­tion. More people are imprisoned for non­vi­ol­ent drug offences in the United States than are incar­cer­ated, for any reason, in all of Western Europe (which has a larger pop­u­la­tion). The cost of these efforts, at the federal level alone, is nearly $20 billion dollars annu­ally. The total cost of our drug laws — when one factors in the expense to state and local gov­ern­ments and the tax revenue lost by our failure to reg­u­late the sale of drugs — could easily be in excess of $100 billion dollars each year. Our war on drugs con­sumes an estim­ated 50 percent of the trial time of our courts and the full-time ener­gies of over 400,000 police officers. These are resources that might oth­er­wise be used to fight violent crime and ter­ror­ism.

In his­tor­ical terms, there was every reason to expect that such a policy of pro­hib­i­tion would fail. It is well known, for instance, that the exper­i­ment with the pro­hib­i­tion of alcohol in the United States did little more than pre­cip­it­ate a ter­rible comedy of increased drink­ing, organ­ized crime, and police cor­rup­tion. What is not gen­er­ally remembered is that Pro­hib­i­tion was an expli­citly reli­gious exer­cise, being the joint product of the Woman’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union and the pious lob­by­ing of certain Prot­est­ant mis­sion­ary soci­et­ies. The problem with the pro­hib­i­tion of any desir­able com­mod­ity is money. The United Nations values the drug trade at $400 billion a year. This exceeds the annual budget for the U.S. Depart­ment of Defense. If this figure is correct, the trade in illegal drugs con­sti­tutes 8 percent of all inter­na­tional com­merce (while the sale of tex­tiles makes up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent). And yet, pro­hib­i­tion itself is what makes the man­u­fac­ture and sale of drugs so extraordin­ar­ily prof­it­able. Those who earn their living in this way enjoy a 5,000 to 20,000 percent return on their invest­ment, tax-free. Every rel­ev­ant indic­ator of the drug trade — rates of drug use and inter­dic­tion, estim­ates of pro­duc­tion, the purity of drugs on the street, etc. — shows that the gov­ern­ment can do nothing to stop it as long as such profits exist (indeed, these profits are highly cor­rupt­ing of law enforce­ment in any case). The crimes of the addict, to finance the stra­to­spheric cost of his life­style, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his ter­rit­ory and his goods, are like­wise the results of pro­hib­i­tion. A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for ter­ror­ist organ­iz­a­tions like Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbol­lah, Shining Path, and others.

Even if we acknow­ledge that stop­ping drug use is a jus­ti­fi­able social goal, how does the fin­an­cial cost of our war on drugs appear in light of the other chal­lenges we face? Con­sider that it would require only a onetime expendit­ure of $2 billion to secure our com­mer­cial sea­ports against smuggled nuclear weapons. At present we have alloc­ated a mere $93 million for this purpose. How will our pro­hib­i­tion of marijuana use look (this comes at a cost of $4 billion annu­ally) if a new sun ever dawns over the port of Los Angeles? Or con­sider that the U.S. gov­ern­ment can afford to spend only $2.3 billion each year on the recon­struc­tion of Afgh­anistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are now regroup­ing. War­lords rule the coun­tryside beyond the city limits of Kabul. Which is more import­ant to us, reclaim­ing this part of the world for the forces of civil­iz­a­tion or keeping cancer patients in Berke­ley from reliev­ing their nausea with marijuana? Our present use of gov­ern­ment funds sug­gests an uncanny skewing — we might even say derange­ment — of our national pri­or­it­ies. Such a bizarre alloc­a­tion of resources is sure to keep Afgh­anistan in ruins for many years to come. It will also leave Afghan farmers with no altern­at­ive but to grow opium. Happily for them, our drug laws still render this a highly prof­it­able enter­prise.

Anyone who believes that God is watch­ing us from beyond the stars will feel that pun­ish­ing peace­ful men and women for their private pleas­ure is per­fectly reas­on­able. We are now in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we should have better reasons for depriving our neigh­bors of their liberty at gun­point. Given the mag­nitude of the real prob­lems that con­front us- — ter­ror­ism, nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion, the spread of infec­tious disease, failing infra­struc­ture, lack of adequate funds for edu­ca­tion and health care, etc. — our war on sin is so out­rageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment. How have we grown so blind to our deeper interests? And how have we managed to enact such policies with so little sub­stant­ive debate?


Letter To A Christian Nation Wise words indeed. Sam Harris is a philo­sopher, neur­os­cient­ist and the kind of atheist who takes no shit from anyone. The rest of his book tackles the irra­tion­al­ity of belief, the damage it can do to society and high­lights the reasons why reli­gious tol­er­ance is cer­tainly a bad thing. This book should be on everyone’s reading list, but if you’re looking for a more concise attack on irra­tional belief, I’d also recom­mend Sam Harris’s other book, Letter To A Chris­tian Nation. Weigh­ing in at just over 100 pages, this is more of an essay than a book, so you’ll finish it in one after­noon.

If you’re one of those rare kinds of people with an atten­tion span longer than 10 minutes, you might also like to watch The Four Horse­men — a dis­cus­sion between Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet & Chris­topher Hitchens. It’s two hours long, so you might want to preroll before­hand. 😉.

11 Responses to Sam Harris, Religion & Drugs

  1. Gomarrah says:

    Shame that Hitchens is a racist scumbag and Harris is little better. Dawkins should be read by every­one but Hitchens sup­por­ted Bush’s war in the middle east. Reli­gion is neg­at­ive thing but so is war mon­ger­ing.

  2. Synchronium says:

    Didn’t Hitchens get attacked recently?

  3. matt says:

    in ortho­dox chris­tian faith the marijuana bud is used as the euchar­ist.

  4. Ken says:

    You might spend time reading “TIHKAL” and “PIHKAL”. The authors spell it very clearly how gov­ern­ment has botched the whole affair when it comes to drugs.

    Entheo­gens have been an integ­ral part of all cul­tures and it all has been doc­u­mented.

    I submit a perfect example. “Frankin­cense” and “Myrrh” (oh, and gold), were gifts of the Persian wisemen (astro­lo­gers) to “God” (Jesus) who became flesh and lived among us.

    If you do a search about these 2 spices you will find that they are both endowed with “psy­cho­at­ive” molecules that were fit for “The King of Kings”.

    “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is God and the King.

    If it was a gift to the creator, then all society should embrace entheo­gens. If it is good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for all.

    I just would add that to be “mod­er­ate” in the use of any­thing is a good way to live.

  5. Juliano says:

    If we blame theism, what then is a-theism but a RE-action to theism? What I mean is that theism had already de-graded spir­itu­al­ity by assum­ing and trans­mit­ting that nature was lesser than spirit. hence when science comes along we get this ongoing schism mani­fest where ‘science’ agree to focus on ‘forces of nature’ and the church in ‘spir­itual matters’. Even­tu­ally science even dis­penses with THAt false idea of reli­gion and we get dragged into the mech­an­istic-mater­i­al­istic age where ‘God is dead’ and we become souless glor­i­fied com­puters whose sole purpose is to be cogs in a machine, or com­puter, and to consume products we dont really need (Edward Bernays), In this destruct­ive soul-dead ‘Waste­land’ we are now!

    The atheist above in his defense of people taking ‘drugs’ he sees no harm also in them watch­ing violent hard-core por­no­graphy in the privacy of their own home and that any concern about that MUST come from the theists.

    But that is not so and the reason that isn’t seen is because as said the a-theist is really the other side of the penny of the theist
    There is no sense of any authen­tic spir­itual vision from either camp because for both the whole notion of spirit seems de-graded. Either put up beyond the stars or is JUST sci­entific con­form­ity. Ie., the a-theist will find fault with ‘belief’ and yet usually cow two the current beliefs of sci­ent­ism which they will say are NOT beliefs and will often – in my exper­i­ence – even ques­tion the term ‘sci­ent­ism’. But their reli­gion is science for many. I really felt this vibe at Richard Dawkins forums!
    I hear Sam Harris ‘doesn’t take any shit’?.…Oh yes, I know THAt atti­tude. I have never met such gross dis­respect­ful and closed­minded­at­ti­tude from others till I exper­i­enced some members from the Dawkins forum

    I am just point­ing this out and hinting we need some­thing ELSE urgently other than a choice of ‘either theist OR atheist?’ hint hint 😉

  6. Michael says:

    I actu­ally believe Harris’ argu­ment here is incor­rect. If it were true, the logical step for the church to takE would be to man­ou­ver itself so that it was the only legal dis­pens­ory of drugs. Your priest would become your dealer, thus ensur­ing that no chal­lenge could arise to the spir­itual mono­poly of your church. That the reli­gions can’t do this for legal reasons sug­gests that it is the gov­ern­ment and not the reli­gions that don’t want drug use to become wide­spread. I suggest that the reason that gov­ern­ments are afraid of drug use is eco­nomic, rather than spir­itual- a pop­u­la­tion that is allowed to spend a good portion of it’s time off it’s face on marijuana will neces­sar­ily be less pro­duct­ive and pay less tax than a pop­u­la­tion for whom these sub­stances are banned. The reason why tobacco is legal is because the gov­ern­ment knows it can make so much back in tax from it’s sale that it will offset the cost of medical bills for emphysema and lung cancer. The reason why alcohol is legal is because it such an easy drug to man­u­fac­ture that it costs more money to pro­hibit than the gov­ern­ment would lose on loss pro­ductiv­ity, so the gov­ern­ment may as well leg­al­ize it and make back some of it’s losses by taxing it’s sale. This explan­a­tion has much more explan­at­ory power than the reli­gious thesis.

  7. Juliano says:

    I very much don’t agree. They actu­ally MAKE muny from their so-called ‘war on drugs’ – that is import­ant to know, but they DEPEND on their system mech­an­ized enslaved work ethic being pro­moted by pro­pa­ganda, and for pro­pa­ganda to work people have to be dumbed down – both ration­ally and spir­itu­ally.
    We are not JUSt rational beings, but also dream, have ima­gin­a­tion, and spir­itual being.
    These oppress­ors seek to both sup­press our reason and our spir­itu­al­ity, or con­scious­ness.

  8. Michael says:

    If you actu­ally look closely at my argu­ment, you would see that I am saying that they make money from the War on drugs. Basic­ally, I am arguing that keeping Drugs illegal is an eco­nomic decision, and hence if the War on Drugs can pay, it can stay. The basic argu­ment is that a work­force with legal and easy access to cur­rently illicit sub­stances would suffer a loss of pro­ductiv­ity, and hence the gov­ern­ment would gen­er­ate less tax revenue. Hence your objec­tion, that the gov­ern­ment makes money from their war on drugs, isnt an objec­tion at all; if the gov­ern­ment wasnt making money from the war on drugs, my argu­ment would fail utterly.
    A small amount of drug use is accept­able, so long as the gov­ern­ment can make as much money back on pos­ses­sion fines as it loses on lost taxes. The altern­at­ive, wide­spread leg­al­ised drug use, will lead to such an increase in con­sump­tion and such a huge loss of pro­ductiv­ity that the gov­ern­ment simply would not be able to make their money back in sales tax.
    From the point of reli­gion however, illicit drugs would seem to be a threat to their spir­itual mono­poly. The logical step for them to take would be to be the sole sup­plier of drugs, and hence be the sole arbiter of your spir­itual exper­i­ence. For example, an Opus Dei group at a mid­west­ern uni­ver­sity have been caught drug­ging new recruits with mes­caline in an effort to induce a euphoric state that neo­phytes would per­ceive as a reli­gious exper­i­ence. The fact that the church cant mono­pol­ise the drug trade SHOWS that it is the gov­ern­ment banning it for its own reasons, not the reli­gions.

  9. Juliano says:

    We surely both agree that the oppress­ors are totally irra­tional and are intent on des­troy­ing the very web of life, and that there­fore we need radical grass roots change to urgently change this world­view.

  10. Brent says:

    The U.S. gov’t works hand in hand with the phar­ma­ceut­ical industry. Marijuana can cripple that industry if every­one in America could grow it on their own. It is about greed and control more than its about Chris­ti­ans impos­ing their beliefs every­where. Some­times, its just about the bottom dollar. If you have to destroy peoples lives for growing a plant in order to main­tain control of your industry, you’re most likely not doing any­thing right.

  11. Endre says:

    I love how almost nobody agrees with this and that it is just an attack on theism. I think both athe­ists and theists can see as Brent said that the problem’s core even­tu­ally finds its way to the overall profit and interest certain indus­tries have in the sub­stance.

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