Sam Harris on Drugs (so to Speak)

I’ve mentioned before how poorly written and thought out I find Sam Harris’ anti-religious screed The End of Faith. Previously, I showed how his book begins with a premise that he admitted to be false in the endnotes: the idea that most suicide bombings occur because of religion generally, and Islam specifically. In fact, most suicide bombings occur at the hands of the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist ethno-political movement with no ties to any religion. Oops. Well, here’s Harris arguing that religion is responsible for drugs being illegal:

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. (Harris, End of Faith, p. 160)

This is nonsense. Are we really to believe that the government bans crack cocaine because the Bible says to, or because they don’t want people to be too happy? Should we view the DEA (and perhaps even the FDA) as religious functionaries enforcing divinely-inspired precepts upon an unsuspecting populace? What was Harris smoking when he wrote this? Let’s look at a few of the facts.

  • As it happens, there are many substances – many of them naturally occurring…

The “naturally occurring” clause isn’t wrong, it’s just stupid. Hemlock is naturally occurring. So is arsenic. Just because something exists in nature doesn’t make it any safer than something made through human ingenuity. I’d rather drink a smoothie than hemlock any day, even though the latter is more “natural.” Harris includes this “naturally occurring” detail to suggest, “Hey, these can’t be that bad, right?” And on that note, he’s just disregarding science.

But besides that, he’s not just mad that naturally occurring drugs are illegal: we can tell because he says “many” of the substances in question are 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.

The truth is that even some real misery-producing drugs are popular, because of thrill seeking and/or addiction. Take, for example, this description of the effects of PCP published by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology:

The mnemonic RED DANES was coined by Giannini and colleagues (48,49) to characterize eight acute symptoms of PCP intoxication that may be seen at any dose: rage, erythema, dilated pupils, delusions, amnesia, nystagmus in the horizontal plane, excitation, and skin dry. It is important to note that the toxic effects of PCP may persist for days because the half-life of PCP after overdose may be as long as 3 days (50).

Nystagmus, if you’re wondering, is involuntary eye movement. The normal symptoms aren’t “pleasure.” They’re things like rage and crazy eyes, which can be seen “at any dose.” The closest things to pleasure are delusions, excitation and amnesia.

But let’s assume that PCP does create “pleasure” for its users (assuming, of course, they’re not also suffering from the violent emotional swings PCP brings on). They’re still really not fun for people on the road or in the path of the hopped-up psycho. A mentally ill man was sentenced last month for taking a PCP-induced attack where he started beating a sleeping man with a hammer. Around the same time, a guy from my home town was given 18 years for what the Kansas City Star calls an “unprovoked attack.” They’re not kidding. The man in question simply kicked in the front door of the house and began “punching, choking and attempting to sodomize the woman.”

If that’s what Harris means by “pleasure” being the problem, then I suppose we agree. But somehow, I suspect that a lot of non-religious people also have a problem with this kind of recreation, for reason which have nothing to do with religion. Pleasure at any price is just a carte blanche justification for things like rape.

  • Of course, pleasure is precisely the problem with these substances, since pleasure and piety have always had an uneasy relationship.

Here, I’m actually of the opinion that he’s partially right, in one very narrow sense. Religious people often place a high value on public order, and chaos-inducing drugs threaten public order. I’m completely comfortable with that rationale. In the case of some religious people, the high view of public order is taken from Biblical texts (Romans 13:1-8, for example). But the Biblical passages reflect what most people already believe: that order is superior to chaos.

In fact, the most order-obsessed societies, the society for whom a love of public order, security, and structure really got out of hand have generally been atheistic societies, or at least societies where the leader didn’t believe in God. Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Castro and Guevara, the Khmer Rouge, etc. easily fill up lists of despotic and murderous societies, far bloodier than their religious counterparts. Even though atheists make up a small portion of the global population, and an even smaller portion in the middle part of the last century, they’ve been disproportionately responsible for genocides and mass killings at such a rate that Harris book isn’t just false (as would be the case if religious and atheists were equally violent), it’s the polar opposite of the truth. His criticisms, almost to the last letter, better apply against his co-lack-of-religionists.

Or better yet, against himself: he writes that since beliefs influence action, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (End of Faith, p. 52-53). Are you getting that? It might be ok to kill people who haven’t done anything, just because their religious views mean that they might. This, smack-dab in a book complaining about how religion is violent? Even at the height of the witch hunts, people were executed because they were actually thought to be practicing witches… not just because they might at some point cast a spell in the future. As C.S. Lewis correctly pointed out (I can’t remember where), we, regardless of religion, would probably behave in much the same way as our forefathers if we believed that witches were doing what they believed they were doing. In other words, the witchcraft trials were a bad result built upon paranoia and bad intelligence. And Harris, an Iraq war support, is in a remarkably bad position to criticize that. Besides that, as we can see from the quote above, Harris is more violent and more extreme in his justification than virtually anyone he criticizes throughout his book.

As for the relationship between religion and pleasure, it’s not so much “uneasy” as “balanced,” just like the relationship between authority/order and liberty/free will. The truth is that religiously-influenced societies have long attempted to balance the human right, given by God, for pleasure, with the human need for order. The New Testament reflects this. Take the world’s most popular drug, alcohol. The Bible clears permits its use in moderation: John 2:1-11, Gen. 14:18 (here, it’s foreshadowing the Eucharist, but it’s still actual wine being offered to God in a way considered praiseworthy), Gen. 27:25, Neh. 8:10, Psalm 104:15, Ecclesiastes 9:7, Wisdom 2:7, Sir. 31:25-28 , Amos 9:14, etc. In Luke 7:33-34, Jesus Himself is criticized by the scribes and Pharisees for His alleged drunkenness and gluttony, just because He ate and drank in moderation, while John the Baptist was criticized for “neither eating bread nor drinking wine.”

So drinking is actually commended and recommended throughout the Bible. But not drinking left unchecked. Drunkenness is condemned throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament. For example, Ecc. 10:17, Rom. 13:13, Gal. 5:21, 1 Tim. 3:3, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 4:3, etc. In the words of Socrates, “everything in moderation, nothing in excess.” A little wine makes you happy, too much wine can make you a depressed alcoholic. A little is good for your heart, a lot is bad for your liver. This is the position of Socrates and Aristotle, the position of modern science, and most important, the Christian stance, the position most relevant to a discussion on American drug laws. Since Harris says “our criminal laws,” I assume he’s trying to attack Christianity’s alleged hatred of pleasure. But he’s really only attacking a certain Puritanical excess which the vast majority of sane religious people have long fought against… using Biblical texts.

If he’s arguing that some Christians advocate for total prohibition contrary to the pro-temperance Bible, he’s not arguing against Christianity. If anything, he’s giving another reason to hew closer to the teachings of our beloved Faith. His real problem is that some people in power enjoy controlling other people, and will attempt to do so, at times, with religious texts. But without religious texts, these same people have been just as successful — and more so, because their own behavior isn’t kept in check by anything above themselves.

At the end of the day, Christianity doesn’t demand the prohibition of a single drug: we’re left to organize our society around prudential judgments. Should marijuana be a Schedule I drug? Schedule II? Decriminalized? Legalized? The Bible has no answer on this, Sacred Tradition has no answer on this, and the Church offers no answer on this. Certainly, they give us the tools to weigh the pros and cons (human liberty should be enjoyed, some things go to excess, the rights of third-parties should be protected, etc.), but to suggest that there’s one, dogmatic, unflinching anti-pleasure position called Christian morality is patently false.

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