Sam Harris

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Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, author, proponent of scientific scepticism, Ben Stiller look-alike, and founder of Project Reason, a charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and values in society.[1] He is best known for his books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape. Harris is a prominent face in the so-called new atheism movement, along with fellow atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, the "four horsemen."


[edit] Religion

Harris advocates being conversationally intolerant of religious belief, specifically faith claims, and has a strong stance against Islam in particular. He believes that ending religion would do more good than ending rape.[2]

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).

Ending religion would, in Harris' view, not only reduce the incidence of rape worldwide (as some "corrective" rapes are religiously motivated) but would also eliminate all religiously motivated crimes (such as Islamic terrorism and honor killings), 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 imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy, and religiously motivated bigotry against gay people and women would disappear as well. Eliminating rape would not, in Harris' view, increase overall human wellbeing as much as eliminating religion.

[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 includes many well known scientists, sceptics and atheists, including the following:

[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 defines a belief as a "lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life."[4]p. 12

He dedicates a section of the book to what he sees as the problem with Islam.[4]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. 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.[4]p. 125</ref>

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.[5]

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.[4]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.[4]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.[4]p. 221

[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 wellbeing or suffering of conscious creatures and so there must be facts about the experiences of these creatures whether we know these facts or not.[6] 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".[7] 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.[8]

[edit] Neuroscience

Harris has conducted research on the neuroscience of religious belief.[9]

[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.)[10]

[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:

  • "We have alienated even our allies. Intelligent people could disagree about whether it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq. But one thing is pretty clear, going in we should have gone in with everybody. We need a truly international effort. We need to convince civilized democracies everywhere that civilization itself has genuine enemies. These totalitarian, theocratic, tribal eruptions on many parts of the globe on a hundred fronts. Many, if not most of them, are Muslims. Part of the reason we are so isolated from the rest of the world is our own religioscity" [11]
  • "Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking." (The End of Faith, p. 198)
  • "It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. Not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth."
  • "most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith." (Letter to a Christian Nation, 27)
  • "The Iraqi people have been traumatized by this war and by decades of repression. But this does not explain the type of violence they wage against us on a daily basis. War and repression do not account for suicidal violence directed against the Red Cross, the United Nations, foreign workers and Iraqi innocents. War and repression would not have attracted an influx of foreign fighters willing to sacrifice their lives merely to sow chaos. We are now mired in a religious war in Iraq, and elsewhere. Our enemies, as witnessed by their astonishing willingness to slaughter themselves, are not principally motivated by political or economic grievances. Anyone who imagines that terrestrial concerns account for terrorism by Muslims must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They, too, suffer the ordeal of the Israeli occupation. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers for that matter? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal than any we or the Israelis have imposed on the Muslim world. The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific doctrines about martyrdom and jihad that directly inspire Muslim terrorism. [12]
  • "The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists."[13]
  • The "Ground Zero mosque" will be viewed as a "sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice."[14]
  • "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with 'terrorism.' We are at war with Islam."[15]
  • "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."
  • "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it."[16]
  • "They (Muslims) must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling". answer
  • if you ask me what our policy on torture should be, I think it should be illegal. 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.I say somewhere in The End of Faith that 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. There are people who are intending to destroy the lives of millions, render cities uninhabitable - that's what's scary, frankly.
  • “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 couldwell multiply in the coming years". 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
  • "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
  • "Zakaria observes that Muslims living in the West generally appear tolerant of the beliefs of others. Let us accept this characterization for the moment—though it ignores the inconvenient reality that many Western countries now appear to be "hotbeds of Islamic militancy." Before we chalk this up to Muslim tolerance, however, we should ask ourselves how Muslim intolerance would reveal itself in the West. What minority, even a radicalized one, isn't generally "tolerant" of the majority for most of its career? Even avowed terrorists and revolutionaries spend most of their days just biding their time. We should not mistake the "tolerance" of political, economic, and numerical weakness for genuine liberalism".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
  • After Anders Behring Breivik's 2011 terror attack: "As I have only read parts of this document, I cannot say whether signs of a deeper religious motive appear elsewhere in it. Nevertheless, the above passages would seem to undermine any claim that Breivik is a Christian fundamentalist in the usual sense. What cannot be doubted, however, is that Breivik’s explicit goal was to punish European liberals for their timidity in the face of Islam." 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
  • "If oil were to become worthless, the dysfunction of the most prominent Muslim societies would suddenly grow as conspicuous as the sun. Muslims might then come to see the wisdom of moderating their thinking on a wide variety of subjects. Otherwise, we will be obliged to protect our interests in the world with force—continually. In this case, it seems all but certain that our newspapers will begin to read more and more like the book of Revelation". answer

Harris claims that these quotations have been taken out of context.[17] We've linked them in the footnotes, you can judge for yourself.

[edit] Bibliography

  • The End of Faith (2004)
  • Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)
  • The Moral Landscape (2010)
  • Lying (2011)
  • Free Will (2012)
  • Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (September 2014)

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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