Harris pictured c. 2007
|Born||1967 (age 42–43)
|Subjects||Religion, philosophy, neuroscience|
|Notable work(s)||The End of Faith
Letter to a Christian Nation
Sam Harris (born 1967) is an American non-fiction writer and a proponent of scientific skepticism. He is the author of The End of Faith (2004), which won the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), a rejoinder to the criticism his first book attracted. Scheduled to be released Fall 2010, his new book The Moral Landscape will explore how science will determine human values.
Harris is cautious about revealing details of his personal life and history. He has said that he was raised by a Jewish mother and a Quaker father, and he told Newsweek that as a child, he "declined to be bar mitzvahed." In an August 21, 2009 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher Harris stated that he grew up in a secular home and his parents never discussed God. However he has stated that he has always had an interest in religion.. Harris was married in 2004. His wife, Annaka Harris, is Co-Founder of Project Reason and an editor of scientific, nonfiction books. Mrs. Harris also works with children in schools to help increase their attention skills and self-awareness.
Sam Harris attended Stanford University as an English major, but dropped out of school. Harris has recently talked publicly about experimenting with MDMA as a student and the powerful insights he felt it gave him into spirituality and psychology. He also has studied with "several meditation masters" in the Buddhist traditions. After eleven years he returned to Stanford and completed a B.A. degree in philosophy. In 2009 he obtained his Ph.D. degree in neuroscience at University of California, Los Angeles, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.
Harris's basic message is that the time has come to freely question the idea of religious faith.p. 13-15 He feels that the survival of civilization is in danger because of a taboo against questioning religious beliefs. While highlighting what he regards as a particular problem posed by Islam at this moment with respect to international terrorism, Harris directly criticizes religion of all styles and persuasions. He sees religion as an impediment to progress toward more enlightened approaches to spirituality and ethics.
While an atheist by definition, Harris asserts that the term is not necessary. His position is that "atheism" is not a worldview or a philosophy, but the "destruction of bad ideas." He states that religion is especially rife with bad ideas, calling it "one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised." He compares modern religious beliefs to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, which were once accepted as fact but which are obsolete today. In a January 2007 interview with PBS, Harris said, "We don't have a word for not believing in Zeus, which is to say we are all atheists in respect to Zeus. And we don't have a word for not being an astrologer." He goes on to say that the term will be retired only when "we all just achieve a level of intellectual honesty where we are no longer going to pretend to be certain about things we are not certain about."
He also rejects the claim that the Bible was inspired by an omniscient God. He states that if that were the case, the book could "make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events." Instead, the Bible "does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century."
In The End of Faith, Harris devotes a chapter to "The Nature of Belief." His main suggestion is that all our beliefs, except those relating to religious dogma, are based on evidence and experience. He says that religion allows views that would otherwise be a sign of "madness" to become accepted or, in some cases, revered as "holy." He gives specific attention to teachings such as transubstantiation. Harris suggests that if a lone individual developed this belief, he or she would be considered "mad." He writes that it is "merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window."p. 72.
Harris suggests that he advocates a benign, corrective form of intolerance, distinguishing it from historic religious persecution. He promotes a conversational intolerance, in which personal convictions are scaled against evidence, and where intellectual honesty is demanded equally in religious views and non-religious views. He also believes there is a need to counter inhibitions that prevent the open critique of religious ideas, beliefs, and practices under the auspices of "tolerance."
Harris maintains that such conversation and investigation are essential to progress in every other field of knowledge. As one example, he suggests that few would require "respect" for radically differing views on physics or history; instead, he notes, societies expect and demand logical reasons and valid evidence for such claims, while those who fail to provide valid support are quickly marginalized on those topics. Thus, Harris suggests that the routine deference accorded to religious ideologies constitutes a double standard, which, following the events of September 11, 2001 attacks, has become too great a risk.
In the 2007 PBS interview, Harris said, "The usefulness of religion, the fact that it gives life meaning, that it makes people feel good is not an argument for the truth of any religious doctrine. It's not an argument that it's reasonable to believe that Jesus really was born of a virgin or that the Bible is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. You can only believe those things or you should only be able to believe those things if you think there are good reasons to believe those things."
Harris focuses much of his critique on the state of contemporary religious affairs in the United States. Harris worries that many areas of American culture are harmed by beliefs that are driven by religious dogma. For instance, he cites polls showing that 44% of Americans believe it is either "certain" or "probable" that Jesus will return to Earth within the next fifty years, and suggests that the same percentage believe that creationism should be taught in public schools and that God has literally promised the land of Israel to the modern-day Jews.
When former President George W. Bush publicly invoked God in speeches regarding either domestic or foreign affairs, Harris invited us to consider how we might react if the President were to mention Zeus or Apollo in a similar vein.
While Harris criticizes all religions, he asserts that the doctrines of Islam are uniquely dangerous to civilization. Harris criticizes the general response in the West to terrorist atrocities such as the 9/11 attacks, i.e. the response of pronouncing Islam a "religion of peace" while simultaneously declaring a "war on 'terrorism'." Harris sees the first sentiment as demonstrably false, and the second as meaningless.p. 31, p. 28.
Instead, he asks for an acknowledgment that Western civilization is at war with Islam, which, he maintains, preaches a doctrine of religious and political subjugation, not a message of peace. He observes that the Koran and the hadith contain incitements to kill infidels and reward such actions with Paradise (including 72 virgins). Harris considers jihad, which he calls "metaphysics of martyrdom", as taking the "sting out of death" and a source of peril. He rejects arguments that suggest such behavior is a result of extremist Muslims, not mainstream ones. He argues that the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy erupted not because the cartoons were derogatory but because "most Muslims believe that it is a sacrilege to depict Muhammad at all." Harris maintains that the West is at war with "precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith."pp. 109-110.
Harris acknowledges that religions other than Islam can inspire, and have inspired, atrocities. In The End of Faith, he discusses examples such as the Inquisition and witch hunts. However, Harris believes that Islam is better suited to this purpose than most other religions. He summed up this argument in a 2005 blog post:
Anyone who imagines that terrestrial concerns account for Muslim terrorism must answer questions of the following sort: Why are there no Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal, and far more cynical, than any that Britain, the United States, or Israel have ever imposed upon the Muslim world. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim. The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.
Harris has called upon Muslim communities to practice open criticism of their faith and to offer assistance to Western governments in locating the religious extremists among them. He has argued that Muslims must be prepared to accept ethnic profiling as a tool in the fight against terrorism, if it can be shown that adherence to Islam is a statistical predictor of terrorist behavior.
Though Harris accepts that replacing religious extremism with religious moderation would be a positive step, he criticizes moderate theists. Harris avers that religious moderation gives cover to religious fundamentalism. He suggests that under the banner of moderation, respect and tolerance are sacred, thus preventing credible assaults upon extremism. Harris states:
To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world — to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish — is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.
Furthermore, Harris believes that it is absurd to continue to expect equal respect for all conflicting religious beliefs, as the claim to absolute truth is inherent in nearly all belief systems at some level. Any religion that claims that all other belief systems are false and heretical cannot foster genuine acceptance or tolerance of religious diversity. Harris concludes that religious moderation stands on weak intellectual ground.
Harris also says that moderation is bad theology because the extremists are, in a sense, right: he thinks that, if one reads the texts literally, God wants to put homosexuals to death or destroy infidels. Harris claims that religious moderates appear to be blinded to the reality of what fundamentalists truly believe. Moderates tend to argue that suicide attacks can be attributed to a range of social, political, and economic factors. Harris counters by noting that many suicide bombers come not from poverty but from mainstream Muslim society. He points to the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were "college-educated" and "middle-class" and suffered "no discernible experience of political oppression." Harris thus asserts that religion is a significant cause of terrorism.
How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in the year 2006 a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: They don't know what it is like to really believe in God.
Harris discounts the idea that Jesus' teachings, and the New Testament in general, serve to moderate the more extreme laws set forth in the Old Testament. He points out that the Old Testament prescribes death as the punishment for — among other things — breaking any of the Ten Commandments, including heresy against Yahweh and the act of adultery. He asserts that Jesus and his followers never repudiated such teachings in the New Testament. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris cites several quotations in the New Testament attributed to Jesus himself that clearly do uphold adherence to the Old Testament prophets. Speaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2005, Harris said, "I've got news for you — I've read the books. God is not a moderate.... There's no place in the books where God says, 'You know, when you get to the New World and you develop your three branches of government and you have a civil society, you can just jettison all the barbarism I recommended in the first books."
In regard to morality, Harris considers the time long overdue to reclaim the concept for rational secular humanism. Harris describes the supposed link between religious faith and morality as a myth, unsupported by statistical evidence. He notes, for instance, that the highly secular Scandinavian countries are among the most generous in helping the developing world.
Harris goes further and posits that, far from being the source of our moral intuition, religion can yield highly problematic ethical positions. He cites several examples, including the Catholic prohibition against condom use allegedly aggravating the global AIDS epidemic, the attempts made by the American religious lobby to impede funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and the punitive nature of the American "war on drugs." He sees in these examples the tendency of religion to decouple moral judgments from focus on real human suffering. Harris also sees the influence of religion in most of America's "vice" laws. He writes that most of the laws outlawing pornography, sodomy, and prostitution are actually intended to combat "sin" rather than "crime."
Harris suggests that morality and ethics can be studied, and improved, without "presupposing anything on insufficient evidence." He states that humans "decide what is good in the Good Books," rather than deriving our moral code from scriptures. He praises the Golden Rule as one moral teaching that is "great, wise and compassionate." He contrasts that with biblical edicts directing that acts such as premarital sex, disobedience of one's parents, and the worship of "other gods" should be punished by death. Harris states that we have evolved in our thinking such that we understand that the Golden Rule is worth following while some commandments in other sections of the Bible are not. He also points out that even the Golden Rule is not unique to any one religion and was taught by such figures as Confucius and the Buddha centuries before the New Testament was written.
More controversially, Harris has put forward an argument questioning the relative morality of collateral damage and judicial torture during war. He reasons that, if we accept collateral damage when bombs are used in warfare, we have no reason to reject the use of torture. Indeed, Harris argues that the former, involving the killing of innocent civilians, should be much more troubling to us than the torture of, for instance, a terrorist suspect. He claims that it is merely a function of our biological intuitions that suffering appears disproportionately unimportant when enacted impersonally. Harris notes that the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan were both foreseeable and inevitable consequences of bombing the countries. However, the civilian casualties were seen as unfortunate but not so unacceptable as to prevent the attacks. Any suffering caused by the torture of people such as Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Osama bin Laden, Harris argues, should pale in comparison to the deaths and injuries of comparatively innocent citizens. In a response to the controversy caused by this argument, Harris stated, "[I]f you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to "water-board" a man like Osama bin Laden." Ultimately, Harris maintains that torture should remain illegal, and that comparing torture with collateral damage does not cause him to see torture as "acceptable." However, he believes that discussion is needed on the coherence of our beliefs regarding the two.
Harris wishes to incorporate spirituality in the domain of human reason. He draws inspiration from the practices of Eastern religion, in particular that of meditation, as described principally by Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. By paying close attention to moment-to-moment conscious experience, Harris suggests, it is possible to make our sense of "self" vanish and thereby uncover a new state of personal well-being. Moreover, Harris argues that such states of mind should be subjected to formal scientific investigation, without incorporating the myth and superstition that often accompanies meditation in the religious context. "There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than our current beliefs about God," he writes.p. 214.
Harris has been criticized by some of his fellow contributors at The Huffington Post. In particular, RJ Eskow has accused him of fostering an intolerance toward faith, potentially as damaging as the religious fanaticism that he opposes. Margaret Wertheim, herself an atheist, also weighed in, contending that liberals should view Harris's account of religious faith "with considerable skepticism." On the other hand, Harris has received backing from Nina Burleigh and fellow atheist Richard Dawkins. In May 2006, Harris came under sustained attack in a featured article by Meera Nanda for New Humanist, in which she claimed that his analysis of religious extremism was flawed, and suggested that he was criticizing religion "for what seems to be his real goal: a defense, nay, a celebration of Harris' own Dzogchen Buddhist and Advaita Vedantic Hindu spirituality." Nanda stated that Harris failed to apply the same critical analysis to the eastern traditions as he applied to western religions, and she argues that the detachment from the self in Dharmic spirituality is part of the recipe for authoritarianism.
Anthropologist Scott Atran has criticized Harris for using what Atran considers to be an unscientific approach towards highlighting the role of belief in the psychology of suicide bombers. In the 2006 conference Beyond Belief, Atran confronted Harris for portraying a "caricature of Islam." Atran later followed up his comments in an online discussion for Edge.org, in which he criticized Harris and others for using methods of combating religious dogmatism and faith that Atran believes are "scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share."
In January 2007, Harris received criticism from John Gorenfeld, writing for AlterNet. Gorenfeld took Harris to task for defending some of the findings of paranormal investigations into areas such as reincarnation and xenoglossy. He also strongly criticized Harris for his defense of judicial torture. Gorenfeld's critique was subsequently reflected by Robert Todd Carroll, writing in the Skeptic's Dictionary. In response, Harris clarified his stance on his own website, denying that he had ever defended these views to the extent that Gorenfeld suggested. Shortly afterward, Harris engaged in a lengthy debate with Andrew Sullivan on the internet forum Beliefnet. In April 2007, Harris debated with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine.
Madeleine Bunting quotes Harris in saying "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them," and states "[t]his sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition." Quoting the same passage, theologian Catherine Keller asks, "[c]ould there be a more dangerous proposition than that?" and argues that the "anti-tolerance" it represents would "dismantle" the Jeffersonian wall between church and state. Harris has said in response that the passage has been misconstrued. Specifically, he says that "[s]ome critics have interpreted the second sentence of this passage to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs. . . . I am not at all ignoring the link between belief and behavior. The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous."
Building on Harris's interests in belief and religion, he has completed a PhD in neuroscience at UCLA. He has used fMRI to explore whether the brain responses differ between sentences that subjects judged as true, false or undecidable, across a wide range of categories including autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual statements. Statements that were judged as "true" (belief) led to greater activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex than did statements that were judged as "false" (disbelief) both when examined across all categories, and when examined for mathematical judgments alone and for ethical judgments alone. Conversely, disbelief led to greater activation of left inferior frontal gyrus,right middle frontal gyrus, and bilateral anterior insular cortex. When certainty (belief and disbelief) was compared against uncertainty, a widespread network of sub-cortical regions, including the head and tail of the caudate were activated. Uncertainty activated anterior cingulate cortex and superior frontal gyrus more than certainty did. In another study, Harris and colleagues examined the neural basis of religious and non-religious belief using fMRI. Fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers were scanned as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. For both groups, statements of belief (sentences judged as either true or false) were associated with increased activation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in emotional judgment, processing uncertainty, assessing rewards and thinking about oneself.
Harris's writing focuses on neuroscience and criticism of religion, for which he is best known. He blogs for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Truthdig, and his articles have appeared in such publications as Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the British national newspaper The Times.
Harris has made numerous TV and radio appearances, including on The O'Reilly Factor, ABC News, Tucker, Book TV, NPR, Real Time and The Colbert Report. In 2005, Harris appeared in the documentary film The God Who Wasn't There. Harris was a featured speaker at the 2006 conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival. He made two presentations and participated in the ensuing panel discussions. Harris has also appeared a number of times on the Point of Inquiry radio podcast.
Critiques by Other Atheists