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“”The very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.
Samuel Benjamin "Sam" Harris (b. 1967) is a neuroscientist, author and philosopher.[note 1] 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.
Harris is a vocal critic of religion, a proponent of scientific skepticism and one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheist movement (alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens). He is also an advocate for the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the liberty to criticize religion. Some critics argue Harris's writings are profoundly bigoted against Muslims and extremist vis-a-vis torture and civil liberties. Harris and his supporters, however, reject that he is an "Islamophobe", claiming that such labeling is an attempt to silence criticism.
- 1 Anti-Islam or Islamaphobe?
- 2 The poor misunderstood Sam Harris
- 3 Feminists are slackers
- 4 Paranormal
- 5 Project Reason
- 6 Books and professional writing
- 7 External links
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
Anti-Islam or Islamaphobe?
Some of Harris's fans feel his obsession with Muslims has taken him to some pretty bad places; others argue that modern Islam is so horrible that essentially any anti-Islam arguments are valid.
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 in itself a predictor of radicalization and terrorism, but that empirical data show that belonging to social networks such as neighbourhood assistance groups or sports teams are more reliable predictors of whether individuals engage in violent terrorist activity. Harris missed this point, insisting that Atran's argument was that jihadists have no ideology and are radicalised by playing soccer with each other, which is an uncharitable misreading, to say the least. 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, or that the Japanese Kamikaze were Shinto/Buddhists or that Christians have carried out suicide attacks on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (or that Robert F. Kennedy was murdered by a Christian Palestinian). 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." In ironic fashion, Harris endorses bombing that will almost surely result in casualties of innocent Muslims (in Muslim-majority countries that is), 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."
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 of Israel's history and occupation. Instead, he focuses almost solely on what's wrong with Hamas rather than what's also wrong with Israel.[note 2] 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 that work Harris heavily draws on Dershowitz's book, The Case for Israel.[note 3]
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; the Israeli military almost certainly continue to do this. Harris also claims the IDF acts with great restraint and does not target civilians, notwithstanding many reports from human rights organizations and dissident IDF soldiers debunking that illusion. Harris seems either remarkably ill-informed about Israel's atrocities or is willfully ignorant of evidence that doesn't support his depiction of well-intentioned, noble military operations undertaken by a Western army -- to such an extent one might even call him an apologist for these crimes.
Debating the Importance of Intent
In mid 2015, Harris and radical linguist Noam Chomsky held a public conversation “about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics.” Harris posted the email exchange, characterizing it as an “unpleasant and fruitless encounter.” The core disagreement was about the role of intent when cataloging the crimes committed by the West. For example, Chomsky argues that "the U.S. government has conferred upon itself the right and freedom to murder and exterminate people for their own good" and that therefore the intent of the West is just as bad, if not sometimes worse, than the intent of its enemies. Harris maintains otherwise, insisting that "we are, in many respects, just such a 'well-intentioned giant,'" and that "what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us." It certainly doesn't seem to especially appall him, since Harris often dismisses or excuses western crimes against humanity.
Not surprisingly, Harris claimed that "delusional liberals" felt he lost the debate.
On Ted Cruz and Ben Carson
In a podcast with noted neocon Douglas Murray on the topic of Syrian refugees, Sam Harris actually considered an idea put forth by one the
clerical fascists GOP's religious loons. On Ted Cruz, Harris debated Cruz' "accept only Christians" line and argued that it was not xenophobic:
Take the personalities of the people on the right out of the equation. Is it crazy to express, as Ted Cruz did, a preference for Christians over Muslims in this process? Of course not. 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. I hope you understand that I am expressing no sympathy at all with Ted Cruz’s politics or with Ted Cruz. But it is totally unhelpful to treat him — though he actually is a religious maniac — like a bigot on this point. This is a quite reasonable concern to voice.
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. Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile[.] [...] [T]he 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.
Despite Harris' fundamental alignment with progressives, irresponsible adventures like these lend false credence to the right wing, reactionaries, and true regressives. Naturally, this is not because Harris criticizes Islam (which tends to be politically conservative), but rather because Cruz' confused motion that "Muslims need not apply" amounts to nothing but an intellectualized version, not just of anti-immigrant xenophobia, but of overt bigotry on the basis of faith.
Criticism of Islam — or any religion — is always warranted. Plain wrong, however, is Harris' tentative support of conservative hysteria about any worthwhile percentage of refugees posing an immediate danger to your community (either as a top secret fifth column of radicalized ISIS sleeper agents, or as an omniously ticking demographic time bomb).
Everyone knows that jihadist terrorists are both real and scary — especially the civilians who haven't just seen the devastation on TV, but have personally dodged shrapnel from ISIS. It may be easy to sometimes forget that these refugees, driven from their homes by war, exist for the simple reason that the vast majority of functioning adults — be they arab or not and Muslim or not — would want to get themselves and their children as far away from ISIS as humanly possible.
As such, trumped-up notions of most native-born Muslims being 'spies' and every individual Muslim a 'potential jihadi' who needs to be locked away (a la the disgraceful treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII) are both ridiculous and reprehensible. What more could you expect from the addled mind of Ted Cruz?
Now, while Harris was just trying to make a point by entertaining ideas not originally his own, having done so in this context — even for the sake of argument — mistakenly feeds into the wordviews of (the already completely unreasonable) religious fundamentalists of both Islamic and Christian varieties, by giving Islamic extremists more fodder and Christian whackjobs a supposed 'atheist ally' in their primitive scapegoating of the other.
The poor misunderstood 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."
Glenn Greenwald, in a livestream with Kyle Kulinski, claimed that Harris is one of the only public intellectuals who does not own what he says. Rather, according to Greenwald, Harris publishes provocatively titled articles littered with equally provocative assertions and when people criticize him for it, he then insists not only that you didn't understand what he said, you're lying about it. Harris follows that up with "clarifications" that, according to Greenwald, are comparatively banal. Given that Harris is quite intelligent and must know what he's doing, it's reasonable to consider that he may be being intentionally controversial for the publicity.
Cenk Uygur has particularly received flak for his criticism of Harris, receiving a relentless barrage of negativity on Twitter and Youtube. Some Harris disciples accuse Uygur of not understanding Harris or, as some sort of personal vendetta, of intentionally misrepresenting him. When Uygur received word that Harris would honestly vote for "an imbecile" like Ben Carson rather than Noam Chomsky, and that he defended Ted Cruz's preferring Christian refugees over Muslim ones from Syria, Uygur completely took off the gloves.
He denounced Harris for packaging what he considers to be heinous arguments as "thought experiments," focusing specifically on Harris's suggestion that the West's only option against certain Islamists "may be" a nuclear first strike that would entail killing "millions of innocent civilians in a single day." Uygur rhetorically inquired how this thought experiment would sound if those civilians were in the State of Florida or the city of Tel Aviv. After showing what he thought of as the moral depravity of Harris's "non-endorsement" of such a position, Uygur addressed the Harris fans who contact him every time he covers Harris and his views:
On the other hand, what Uygur failed to mention was that Harris described the idea of nuking predominantly-Muslim parts of the world as "an unthinkable crime" and "perfectly insane". More specifically, Harris said that a preemptive nuclear strike would likely be one of the only reasonable courses of action, given what might happen if extremists who believe in "religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns" obtain deadly nuclear weapons, to use against people who believe in different fairy tales (or don't believe in fairy tales at all).
“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.”
Feminists are slackers
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. Harris admonishes Western feminists to instead join him against his primary obsession. 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
walk and chew gum simultaneously address multiple issues or that there might actually be serious problems in Western society involving the treatment of women. Of course, in the end it might just be an example of his more rightward leanings.
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.)
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." One of its earliest and most notable contributions was funding Sam Harris' own PhD.  Its advisory board is a mixed bag of various scientists, skeptics and atheists, including;
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali (known for some slight miscommunication in the Netherlands, holder of some wingnut beliefs and often guilty of accommodationism of Christians, including a desire to see Christians proselytize and convert Muslims)
- Richard Dawkins (unfortunately becoming increasingly well known for his... distrust... of Muslims rather than anything else)
- Christopher Hitchens (until he popped his clogs)
- Bill Maher (Quite a rational man, if one overlooks his denial of germ theory and his notion that Louis Pasteur recanted it on his death bed, and his anti-vaccination stance)
Books and professional writing
Harris is the author of the 2004 book The End of Faith.[note 4] 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, published in 2010, in which Harris argues that science can help answer moral problems and can aid the facilitation of human well-being. He subsequently published a long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014 and Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue in 2015.
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. He regularly gives talks around the United States and Great Britain, including a speech at TED. Harris has also made numerous television appearances and appeared in the documentary films The God Who Wasn't There (2005) and The Unbelievers (2013).
In his book 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."p. 12
He dedicates a section of the book to what he sees as the problem with Islam.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.p. 125 Though the context of this support for Suicide bombings was under occupation according to polls.
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. 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.
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.
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.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.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.p. 221 YMMV on if it goes too far into woo territory.
Another Harris book, The Moral Landscape, argues that all moral claims are in principle scientific claims, Harris's 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. 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". 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 his idea deeper scrutiny (you could argue that Harris' own arguments fall apart with scrutiny, but don't tell him that), 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.
has conducted scientific research wrote a research paper, and by research we mean three poorly written papers that used fMRI scans and was based on the experiments done by people who weren't Sam Harris and interpreted by people who were Sam Harris, on the neuroscience of religious belief. Statiscian William Briggs  has pointed out the flaws of the study, concluding with;
“During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously.”
As science has advanced, more doubt has been cast on the papers Harris wrote due to the high false-positive readings of fMRI. Harris has ceased to do major work in neuroscience to focus on his career in philosophy and on the New Atheism circuit. Harris has since done very little actual publications on neuroscience.
A brief bibliography:
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004). ISBN 0-393-03515-8
- Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). ISBN 0-307-26577-3
- The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010). ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9
- Lying (2011) ISBN 978-1940051000
- Free Will (2012). ISBN 978-1451683400
- Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014) ISBN 978-1451636017
- Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015) ISBN 978-0674088702
- But as Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian, Harris is among the vast majority of New Atheists who do not "study psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration." http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2008/dec/29/religion-new-atheism-defined
- This fixation on the role of Hamas and Islam in Israel/Palestine is particularly misguided when one realizes that Hamas has only been a factor since the early 90's, and prior to their rise, Islamist organizations were a non-factor in the Israel/Palestine conflict; the major Palestinian organizations, and Arab nations opposing Israel, were nominally secular Arab nationalists.
- Dershowitz's book plagiarized large swaths of text from a psuedohistorical book written by Joan Peters called From Time Immemorial http://normanfinkelstein.com/2003/02/08/alan-dershowitz-exposed-what-if-a-harvard-student-did-this/
- The book appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks and won the PEN Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.
- The End of Faith (2004), page 15
- "About Sam Harris". July 5, 2010. http://www.samharris.org/site/about/. Retrieved July 5, 2010.
- Don, Katherine (October 17, 2010). "'The Moral Landscape': Why science should shape morality." Salon.
- Taylor, Jerome (April 12, 2013). "Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris face Islamophobia backlash". The Independent.
- Not to be confused with Islamophobia.
- This being a perfectly reasonable thing to desire, especially with the utmost desperation.
- I.e., ISIS recruiters going "See? Not even those of you who would rather die than join us, and risk your lives fleeing the caliphate (against our orders), are trusted by the west. They still believe you to be us. All Muslims are considered the enemy in America! Don't you see?"
- video clip of segment included: http://www.rawstory.com/2015/11/cenk-uygur-sam-harris-anti-muslim-thought-experiments-are-like-repubs-actual-policy-ideas/
- Segal, David (October 26, 2006). "Atheist Evangelist". The Washington Post.
- Harris, Sam (November 5, 2011 ). "The Truth about Violence: 3 Principles of Self-Defense". Sam Harris.
- Harris, Sam (2010). "Science can answer moral questions." TED. February 2010.
- Harris, Sam (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. W.W. Norton & Company.
- The Reality of Islam
- The End of Faith, p. 109
- The End of Faith, p. 203
- The TED talk based on the book
- 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
- Harris's Response to Critics
- Harris et al. The Neural Correlates of Religious and Non-Religious Belief. PLoS ONE 4(10)