Sam Harris

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Sam Harris, circa 2007
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Samuel Benjamin "Sam" Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason, a non-profit organization that promotes science and secularism, and host of the podcast Waking Up with Sam Harris.[1]

Harris is the author of the 2004 book The End of Faith[wp]. [2][3] In 2006, Harris published Letter to a Christian Nation as a response to criticism of The End of Faith. This was followed by The Moral Landscape[wp], published in 2010, in which Harris argues that science can help answer moral problems and can aid the facilitation of human well-being.[4] He subsequently published a long-form essay Lying[wp] in 2011, the short book Free Will[wp] in 2012, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion[wp] in 2014 and Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue[wp] in 2015.

Harris is a vocal critic of religion, a proponent of scientific skepticism and one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheist movement (alongside the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett). He is also an advocate for the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the liberty to criticize religion.[4] Some critics argue Harris's writings are profoundly bigoted toward Muslims and extremist vis-a-vis torture and civil liberties.[5] Harris and his supporters, however, reject that he is an "Islamophobe", claiming that such labeling is an attempt to silence criticism.[6]

Harris has written articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the scientific journal Nature, covering a diversity of topics including religion, morality, neuroscience, free will, terrorism, and self-defense.[7] He regularly gives talks around the United States and Great Britain, including a speech at TED[wp].[8] Harris has also made numerous television appearances and appeared in the documentary films The God Who Wasn't There (2005) and The Unbelievers (2013).


[edit] Intolerance of religion uber alles, even rape

Harris advocates being conversationally intolerant of religious belief, specifically faith claims, and has taken a strong stance against Islam in particular. He argues that the end of religion would eliminate the motives for many crimes (such as Islamic terrorism), end certain sectarian rivalries (such as perennially violent conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims), and render the very concept of sin nonsensical. People would no longer be punished for blasphemy and apostasy, and religiously motivated bigotry against gay people and women would disappear as well. Thus, Harris believes, freedom would increase as religion disappears despite there being a good deal of evidence to the contrary. If there's one thing humans are good at, it's being jerks to each other.

Not much attention has been given to Harris's opinions on women in general[9], however, he posits that eliminating rape would not increase overall human well-being as much as ending religion.

From this perspective, rape is a crime that one man commits against the honor of another; the woman is merely Shame’s vehicle, and often culpably acquiescent—being all blandishments and guile and winking treachery. According to God, if the victim of a rape neglects to scream loudly enough, she should be stoned to death as an accessory to her own defilement (Deuteronomy 22:24).

Harris seems to attribute many incidences of rape to religion, despite rape being[11] [12] more about power and control and that 'corrective' rape constitutes a very small minority of rapes.

[edit] Harris and women

Despite having made fewer public gaffes than New Atheist poster child Richard Dawkins, Harris holds less than enlightened views on women in New Atheism.

I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.

Harris seems to feel the problem is with women's tendency to be more about nurturing and relationships, rather than inside New Atheism itself, an opinion he shares with Dawkins. He posits that fewer women being drawn to atheism could possibly be "explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes"; that atheist activists are perceived as "unpleasantly critical, angry, [and] divisive," while he has found that "in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are." [14].

Sweeping one's own side of the street doesn't appeal to Harris and he has been known to adopt the not as bad as argument, saying that feminists must "agitate" and fight against Muslim oppression of women rather than focus so much on abortion rights at home[15]. Certainly Harris wants Western feminists to focus far more on his favorite boogeymen. This is best shown in a podcast with Kyle Kulinski, when he said western feminists "spend more time complaining about Gamergate" than actually pushing for women's rights. It doesn't seem to occur to Harris that feminists can address multiple problems at once, or that there might actually be serious problems in Western society involving the treatment of women.

[edit] Harris on Ted Cruz and Ben Carson

In a podcast with noted neocon Douglas Murray on the topic of Syrian refugees, Sam Harris demonstrated his exquisitely refined political judgment that leads him to approve of the clerical fascists GOP's religious loons.

While admitting that the man is a "religious nutjob," Harris said it's "totally unhelpful" to treat Ted Cruz as a bigot. He goes further, saying "Is it crazy to express, as Ted Cruz did, a preference for Christian [refugees] over Muslims in this process? Of course not."

Harris goes on to say, "What percentage of Christians will be jihadists or want to live under Sharia law? Zero. And this is a massive, in fact the only, concern when talking about security. We know that some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists inevitably... So it is not mere bigotry or mere xenophobia to express that preference." Thus our man Harris decrees that Cruz "is a quite reasonable concerned voice." The learned Harris seems unaware that some American Christians themselves are not only pushing their own version of Sharia law, but also are committing the most terrorist acts in the United States of America (along with right wing militias and sovereign citizens, where there is extensive overlap with Christians).

Harris's political acumen goes further still. "Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time," Harris stated. "Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile... the fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal, but at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.” [16]

[edit] Harris on foreign policy

Even some of Harris's fans question his foreign policy claims and views.

[edit] Debates about Islamic terrorism

Advocating that adherence to religious belief is a powerful indicator of the propensity to commit terrorism, Harris got into a public debate with Scott Atran, a French-American researcher who has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists. Harris warned of religious dogma that called for its followers to practice suicide bombing as martyrdom. Atran countered with data and statistics that show religious belief is not a predictor of radicalization and terrorism. [17] [18] Further, Harris has rhetorically asked: "Where are the Christian or Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers?" apparently not understanding that the Hindu Tamil Tigers have undertaken some 400 suicide bombings. Moreover, Harris "never quite stoops to articulate why suicide bombing is objectively worse than more common variants of homicide like the monopoly enjoyed by Christians and Jews on aerial bombing which rubbles entire nations with far more loss of life than a semtex in a rucksack." Harris strongly endorses bombing Muslims, declaring that both drones or units of Navy Seals mean: "you’re going to kill some number of innocent people and that’s terrible; and the terrible truth is there is no alternative to that."[19]

Noam Chomsky and Harris engaged in a testy email exchange over foreign policy, in particular about the "intent" of western powers when they commit war crimes as well as about Harris's misstatements about Chomsky's writing. [20] Harris argued that Bill Clinton had "good intent" in destroying a pharmaceutical facility he believed was an Al Qaeda base; it was not. For Harris, "intentions are everything," to the point where he sometimes discounts instances where Western intent is just as bad as that of the terrorists. Chomsky, moreover, insists that Clinton is an example of indifference rather than malice; Clinton simply didn't care about the civilian casualties and so should not be absolved from moral responsibility for this crime. For his part, Harris refuses to believe that Clinton could have had anything but noble reasons for the bombing.

[edit] Israel and the Palestinians

While Harris has said that Zionist settlers should be "dragged by their beards" from the illegally occupied Palestinian territories, he spends more time criticizing the radicalization of the victims Palestinian population. Harris either doesn't recognize or downplays the impact on the Palestinians of the myriad appalling aspects[21] of Israel's history[22] and occupation.[23] Instead, he focuses almost solely on what's wrong with Hamas rather than what's also wrong with Israel. This behavior is no doubt why Harris's book, The End of Faith, was blurbed by the rabidly anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel Alan Dershowitz; in the same work Harris heavily draws on Dershowitz's book, The Case for Israel.

To a great extent, Harris regurgitates what the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims, taking it as true without a hint of even-handed skepticism. For example, Harris uncritically repeats Israel's claim that Palestinians use human shields, even though human rights groups have found no evidence of this. To compound this failure of skeptical praxis, easily obtained evidence -- from Israel's highest court -- shows that Israel has used Palestinian civilians as human shields at least 1200 times;[24] the Israeli military almost certainly continue to do this.[25][26] Harris seems either remarkably incurious about such war crimes or does not treat them with the same level of harshness as he does with Islamic crimes.

[edit] Project Reason

See the main article on this topic: Project Reason

Project Reason is described on its website as "..a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The foundation draws on the talents of prominent and creative thinkers in a wide range of disciplines to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world." Its advisory board is a mixed bag of various scientists, skeptics and atheists, including;

[edit] The End of Faith

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Harris argues that unjustified beliefs, specifically religious beliefs, need to be challenged. He describes a belief as a "lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life."[28]p. 12

He dedicates a section of the book to what he sees as the problem with Islam.[28]p. 109 He considers Islam to be a special case, due to the amount of text in the Qur'an that would need to be ignored for it to be a truly peaceful religion, of course whether he's giving a pass to the Bible or just doesn't want to tread a well worn path is up for debate. He uses the results of a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Center which posed a question to Muslims of whether they felt suicide bombing or other violence against civilian targets could be justified in the defense of Islam, which revealed shockingly high support in many countries.[28]p. 125

Elsewhere he sees Islam as violent, anachronistic and opposed to important Western values, notably free speech. Harris accuses Western liberals of being more concerned with political correctness and with avoiding accusations of racism than with defending Western freedom.[29] Given some statements Harris has made, even within the book, it's possible he may actually have some sort of bias, but he is surely not a bigot, because everyone is only taking his statements out of context! Statements like:

We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. [30]


We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come. [31]

We have to be monsters because, writes Harris, we are fighting Islam, and thus fighting Muslim monsters. But, no doubt, it is unfair -- an exercise in political correctness -- to treat Harris's text as if plain words carry plain meaning.

At the end of the book Harris seems to show a greater respect for Eastern religions than for Western religions. He admits that Asia has had a fair share of "false prophets and charlatan saints," but that Asian cultures have also developed some wondrous insights into consciousness by direct experimentation with meditation.[28]p. 215-217 He also argues that this spirituality or mysticism does not need to be attached to a single dogma and can be experienced and experimented with in a scientific manner.[28]p. 217 This is part of a larger argument which he makes in the book: it needs to be acknowledged that spiritual experiences can be experienced regardless of religious belief, and they are not evidence of any claims other than the experiences themselves. This makes mysticism a rational enterprise that can make claims about subjective experiences and consciousness without attempting to attach them to claims about the universe as a whole.[28]p. 221 YMMV on if it goes too far into woo territory.

[edit] The Moral Landscape

In The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that all moral claims are in principle scientific claims, his contention being that all moral claims are claims about the well-being or suffering of conscious creatures and so there must be facts about the experiences of these creatures whether we know these facts or not.[32] He was notably savaged for this, within both the philosophical and the atheist communities. Many criticisms focused on the perceived totalitarianism inherent in science telling people how to achieve wellbeing as articulated in the novel 'Brave New World'. Other criticisms claimed that defining wellbeing in scientific terms to be an impossible task in principle because wellbeing is subjective and different for all. In philosophical circles, he was criticized for breaking Hume's law and straw manning ethical and moral philosophies, or rather for denigrating the debates that occur in within moral philosophy as "boring".[33] Harris has responded to these criticisms by stating that Hume's law is not an actual law of the universe and that it does not stand up to deeper scrutiny, and by comparing the abstract definition of 'wellbeing' to that of 'health' such that the words do not need rigorous definition to be practical. His full response to many different critics has been posted to his website.[34]

[edit] Neuroscience

Harris has conducted research, and by research we mean three papers, on the neuroscience of religious belief.[35] Harris has ceased to do major work in neuroscience to focus on his career in philosophy and on the New Atheism circuit, which is all fine and good because some other neuroscientists apparently regard him as something of a crank.[36]

[edit] Paranormal

Harris apparently takes a range of alleged paranormal phenomena more seriously than do most scientists (links added by RW);

My views on the paranormal: ESP, reincarnation, etc.

My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson's 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists. (Here, I am making a point about gradations of certainty: Can I say for certain that a century of experimentation proves that telepathy doesn’t exist? No. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree about the statistical data. Can I say for certain that the Bible and the Koran show every sign of having been written by ignorant mortals? Yes. And this is the only certainty one needs to dismiss the God of Abraham as a creature of fiction.)[37]

[edit] Let's play "Harris or Malkin?"

Harris' stance on Islam is often indistinguishable from certain batshit ideologues See if you can tell the difference;

  • "The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed." answer
  • "In the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals—the jihadists, the murderers of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel—are the best examples of the doctrine in practice".answer
  • "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas."answer
  • "The Israelis are confronting people who will blow themselves up to kill the maximum number of noncombatants and will even use their own children as human shields. They’ll launch their missiles from the edge of a hospital or school so that any retaliation will produce the maximum number of innocent casualties. And they do all this secure in the knowledge that their opponents are genuinely worried about killing innocent people. It’s the most cynical thing imaginable. And yet within the moral discourse of the liberal West, the Israeli side looks like it’s the most egregiously insensitive to the cost of the conflict." answer
  • "I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror."answer
  • On the Taliban, al Qaeda, and al Shabab: "These groups have as good a claim as any to being impeccable Muslims" answer
  • "The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization."answer
  • "The 'Ground Zero mosque' will be viewed as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice..."answer
  • "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with 'terrorism.' We are at war with Islam. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us."answer
  • "Insofar as there is a crime problem in Western Europe, it is largely the product of immigration. Seventy percent of the inmates of France's jails, for instance, are Muslim.[answer
  • "I think we should say we don't torture, it's illegal, there are good reasons never to do it. Yet I can well imagine an interrogator being in a situation where clearly the ethical thing to do is to make someone uncomfortable until they talk. ...if you can't imagine any situation in which depriving someone of sleep, playing loud music, water-boarding them - doing something which leaves no lasting physical damage other than making them exquisitely uncomfortable for the moment so that they talk - if you can't imagine a situation in which you'd be willing to do that or sanction that, then you're just not thinking hard enough. "answer
  • “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost—demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques. Political correctness and fears of racism have rendered many secular Europeans incapable of opposing the terrifying religious commitments of the extremists in their midst.”answer
  • “And one of the problems we have is that many Muslims, for understandable reasons and some for really deplorable reasons, are playing hide the ball with the articles of faith, and are eager to have the conversations of the sort you have had from a very cynical and manipulative perspective. We’re just going to keep having big families, and eventually it’s going to be Eurabia, and the war will be won. There are people who really think in those terms, and they’re not necessarily just the people in the center of the bull’s-eye of Islamic infatuation.”answer
  • "Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies."answer
  • "In fact, there is a doctrine of deception within Islam called taqiyya, wherein lying to infidels has been decreed a perfectly ethical way of achieving one’s goals."answer
  • "When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls just as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I expect that epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years".answer
  • "We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come".answer
  • "It seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers".answer
  • "Give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root. We should not for a moment lose sight of the possibility that they would curtail our freedoms as well, if they only had the power to do so".answer
  • "It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key—and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude:they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives."answer
  • "If you get a truly ethical despot in charge—a benevolent despot—that may be the necessary transitional mechanism to democracy. It should be pretty clear that much of the Muslim world is not ready for democracy, and we have to confront that reality. Many Muslims are prepared to tear out their freedoms by the root the moment they are given a chance to decide their destiny. How we transition to a democracy in the Middle East—a true democracy—is a very difficult problem. We should consider the examples of Muslim communities living in Western Europe, and their failure to assimilate democratic values. If ever there were a test case for how immune a community can be to the charms of democracy, just look at the Muslim communities in Holland or France or Denmark. Look at the crowds of people who want newspaper editors and cartoonists decapitated. These are people who are living in Western Europe. Many of them have lived their whole lives there."answer
  • "This is a terrible truth that we have to face: the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect. This situation must be remedied, but we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century".answer
  • "I suspect that Muslim prosperity might even make matters worse, because the only thing that seems likely to persuade most Muslims that their worldview is problematic is the demonstrable failure of their societies. If Muslim orthodoxy were as economically and technologically viable as Western liberalism, we would probably be doomed to witness the Islamification of the earth".answer
  • "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it." answer
  • "[Muslims] must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling."answer
  • "In fact, there is a doctrine of deception within Islam called taqiyya, wherein lying to infidels has been decreed a perfectly ethical way of achieving one’s goals." answer

Harris claims that these quotations have been taken out of context.[38] (We've linked them in the footnotes, you can judge for yourself.)

[edit] Nobody understands poor Sam Harris!

In a post titled The saga of Slippery Sam, PZ Myers derides Harris and his acolytes, writing: "Sam Harris has an amazing talent: he can say the most awful things, and a horde of helpful apologists will rise up in righteous fury and simultaneously insist that he didn’t really say that, and yeah, he said that, but it only makes sense." Myers also observes about the constant demand for a Talmudic approach to Harris, "you must parse his words very carefully, one by one, and yet also his words must be understood in their greater context."[39]

Cenk Uygur has also had enough of Harris and his disciples denouncing "taking him out of context" and supposedly failing to grasp that some of his more heinous statements are mere "thought experiments." Focusing specifically on Harris's vile proposal mere ponderings that the West's only option against certain Islamists "may be" a nuclear first strike that would, so sadly, entail killing "millions of innocent civilians in a single day," Uygur asked how this thought experiment sounded if those civilians were in the State of Florida or the city of Tel Aviv. After showing the moral depravity of Harris's "non-endorsement" of such a position, Uygur adressed the Harris fans who contact him every time he covers Harris and his views:

“Even though I’ve given you full context, tell me how the beloved Dr. Harris is once again misrepresented by his own words, and misunderstood by feeble minds like Noam Chomsky.” [40]

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. "About Sam Harris". July 5, 2010. Retrieved July 5, 2010. 
  2. The book appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks and won the PEN Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.
  3. Segal, David (October 26, 2006). "Atheist Evangelist". The Washington Post.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Don, Katherine (October 17, 2010). "'The Moral Landscape': Why science should shape morality." Salon.
  6. Taylor, Jerome (April 12, 2013). "Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris face Islamophobia backlash". The Independent.
  7. Harris, Sam (November 5, 2011 ). "The Truth about Violence: 3 Principles of Self-Defense". Sam Harris.
  8. Harris, Sam (2010). "Science can answer moral questions." TED. February 2010.
  10. God’s Hostages
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 28.5 Harris, Sam (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. W.W. Norton & Company.
  29. The Reality of Islam
  30. The End of Faith, p. 109
  31. The End of Faith, p. 203
  32. The TED talk based on the book
  33. See the reviews by Kwame Anthony Appiah; Scott Atran; Ophelia Benson; Russell Blackford; Robert Todd Carroll; Troy Jollimore; Jackson Lears; Kenan Malik; Thomas Nagel; H. Allen Orr; Massimo Pigliucci; Josh Rosenau
  34. Harris's Response to Critics
  35. Harris et al. The Neural Correlates of Religious and Non-Religious Belief. PLoS ONE 4(10)
  38. RESPONSE TO CONTROVERSY, Sam Harris, blog
  40. video clip of segment included:
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