(CNN) -- For the world to tackle truly important problems, people have to stop looking to religion to guide their moral compasses, the philosopher Sam Harris told CNN.
"We should be talking about real problems, like nuclear proliferation and genocide and poverty and the crisis in education," Harris said in a recent interview at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. TED is a nonprofit group dedicated to "ideas worth spreading."
"These are issues which tremendous swings in human well-being depend on. And it's not at the center of our moral concern."
Religion causes people to fixate on issues of less moral importance, said Harris, a well-known secularist, philosopher and neuroscientist who is the author of the books "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."
"Religion has convinced us that there's something else entirely other than concerns about suffering. There's concerns about what God wants, there's concerns about what's going to happen in the afterlife," he said.
"And, therefore, we talk about things like gay marriage as if it's the greatest problem of the 21st century. We even have a liberal president who ostensibly is against gay marriage because his faith tells him it's an abomination.
"It's completely insane."
Watch Harris' talk at the TED Conference
Harris also said people should not be afraid to declare that certain acts are right and others are wrong. A person who would spill battery acid on a girl for trying to learn to read, for instance, he said, is objectively wrong by scientific standards.
"It's not our job to not judge it and say, 'Well, to each his own. Everyone has to work out their own strategy for human fulfillment.' That's just not true," he said.
"There's people who are wrong about human fulfillment."
Harris placed no faith in the idea that Muslims and Christians will be able to put their differences aside and cooperate on global issues.
"There's no way to reconcile Islam with Christianity," he said. "This difference of opinion admits of compromise as much as a coin toss does."
John D. Sutter, CNN
CNN Online, accessed Sunday, March 28, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/03/25/ted.sam.harris/index.html?hpt=P1