MLU: How do you feel about our culture's religious-based conventions, such as marriage and funeral services?
MS: I think they are overblown. I think that marriage should be a thoroughly civil institution and that all the rights and privileges associated with it should be available independently of any religious considerations. Religions can, of course, have services to commemorate these occasions if they want.
As for death, we seem to be having an orgy of group pity and sorrow for every tragic death. Of course, it is sad when people die and one can understand the deceased person's loved ones grieving over it. But public grief seems to becoming an epidemic. Almost any unexpected death now seems to require periodic observances and memorials.
I myself am a minimalist. I like to keep ceremonial events simple and short.
MLU: Do you agree with Sam Harris when he says that even moderate religious sects are harmful in that they act as enablers for more radical fundamentalist views?
MS: My views on this have definitely changed. I would not have agreed with Harris a few years ago but now I think he is right.
MLU: What changed your mind?
MS: What changed my mind was the growing realization that 'moderation' in religion is something that describes an adult characteristic. But when children are brought up in a religious environment, even by 'moderate' parents, they are still being convinced to believe things purely on the basis of authority (person or text) and despite the lack of any evidence. Once children have accepted that this is intellectually acceptable to do so, even those with 'moderate' parents are easily susceptible to acquiring extremist thinking.
Another problem is that when one decides to not criticize the thinking of 'moderates', one has shut off the most powerful critiques one can make of extremists, which is that the whole edifice of thinking they adhere to has no evidentiary foundation and simply makes no sense. Trying to counter extremists without hurting the feelings of the 'moderates' is like agreeing to play chess while giving up the right to capture the opponent's queen. You are bound to lose, except against the most incompetent player.
MLU: Many of our schools seem to be under enormous pressure these days to conform to the desires of the religious majority -- to lessen emphasis on Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and promote the concept of intelligent design. Evolutionists have certainly mounted a strong defense recently, and you have done more than your share of work to help correct the problem. But what can concerned parents -- and rational laymen -- do to counter religious pressure in our schools?
MS: This is not an easy question because it centers on the question of who should control the curriculum of the schools. What should be the rightful balance between the role of public (who actually pay for the running of the schools and elect school boards and the like), the discipline experts (who know specific content in depth), and the pedagogy experts (who have good ideas on how best to teach)? If they all work together, things can be great. But what does one do when there are conflicts? I am not sure how these issues are resolved in other countries. In the US, since the US has specific constitutional provisions to deal with this issue, the courts also get into the picture.