Sam Harris (author)
Harris, pictured c. 2007
|Born||Samuel B. Harris
April 9, 1967
|Occupation||Author, philosopher, neuroscientist, non-profit executive|
|Alma mater||Stanford University (B.A. 2000)
UCLA (Ph.D. 2009)
|Subject||Religion, philosophy, neuroscience|
|Notable awards||PEN/Martha Albrand Award|
|Spouse||Annaka Harris (m. 2004)|
Samuel B. "Sam" Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason. He is the author of The End of Faith, which was published in 2004 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks. The book also won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2005. In 2006, Harris published the book Letter to a Christian Nation as a response to criticism of The End of Faith. This work was followed by The Moral Landscape, published in 2010, his long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014.
Harris is a contemporary critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the "New Atheism". He is also an advocate for the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the liberty to criticize religion. Harris has written numerous articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the journal Nature. His articles touch upon a diversity of topics including religion, morality, neuroscience, free will, terrorism, and self-defense.
In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science can help answer moral problems and can aid the facilitation of human well-being. He regularly gives talks around the United States and Great Britain, which include speeches at the University of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Caltech, Berkeley, Stanford University, and Tufts University, as well as TED, where he outlined the arguments made in his book The Moral Landscape. Harris has also made numerous television appearances, including interviews for Nightline, Real Time with Bill Maher, The O'Reilly Factor, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Last Word, among others. He also appeared in the documentary films The God Who Wasn't There (2005) and The Unbelievers (2013).
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Views
- 2.1 Religion as failed science
- 2.2 Religion and women
- 2.3 Conversational intolerance
- 2.4 Religion in the United States
- 2.5 Islam and Muslims
- 2.6 Judaism
- 2.7 Moderation
- 2.8 Morality and ethics
- 2.9 Spirituality
- 2.10 Support for Geert Wilders' rights
- 2.11 Organizational affiliations
- 3 Neuroscience
- 4 Writings and media appearances
- 5 Criticism
- 6 Books
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Early life and education
Harris grew up in a secular home in Los Angeles, son of actor Berkeley Harris and The Golden Girls creator and TV producer Susan Harris. His parents rarely discussed religion, though it was always a subject which interested him. Harris has been reluctant to discuss personal details such as where he now lives, where he grew up, or what his parents did, citing security reasons. In 1986, as a young student at Stanford University, Harris experimented with the drug ecstasy, and has spoken about the powerful insights he felt psychologically. Harris was a serious student of the martial arts and taught ninjutsu in college. After more than twenty years, he began practicing two martial arts again, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Harris became interested in spiritual and philosophical questions when he studied at Stanford University. He was fascinated by the idea that he might be able to achieve spiritual insights without the use of drugs. Leaving Stanford in his second year, he went to Asia, where he studied meditation with Hindu and Buddhist religious teachers, including Dilgo Khyentse. Eleven years later, in 1997, he returned to Stanford, completing a B.A. degree in philosophy in 2000. Harris began writing his first book, The End of Faith, immediately after the September 11 attacks.
He received a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 at the University of California, Los Angeles, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. His thesis was titled "The moral landscape: How science could determine human values", and his advisor was Mark S. Cohen.
Harris married in 2004. He and his wife Annaka are the parents of a daughter. Annaka Harris is co-founder of Project Reason and an editor of nonfiction and scientific books.
|Part of a series on|
|Criticism of religion|
|By religious figure|
Harris's basic message is that the time has come to freely question the idea of religious faith.p. 13–15 Harris consistently criticizes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism which he says tend to be monolithic and ready to harm others only for their religion. He feels that the survival of civilization is in danger because of a taboo against questioning religious beliefs, and that this taboo impedes progress toward more enlightened approaches to spirituality and ethics.
Although an atheist, Harris avoids using the term, arguing that the label is both unnecessary and a liability. His position is that "atheism" is not in itself a worldview or a philosophy. He believes atheists "should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, honest people, who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them".
Harris argues 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 insists that if that were the case, the book could "make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events". Instead, he notes, 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 suggests that religious dogma is flawed in that such beliefs are based on faith rather than on evidence and experience. He maintains that religion allows views that would otherwise be a sign of "madness" to become accepted or, in some cases, revered as "holy", citing as an example the doctrine of transubstantiation. Harris contends that if a lone individual developed this belief, he or she would be considered "mad", and 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 says the idea of free will is incoherent. According to Harris, humans are not free and no sense can be given to the concept that they might be.
Religion as failed science
Harris postulates that religion is essentially a failed science. He states that "religion was the discourse we had when all causes in the universe were opaque" such that religion developed as a consequence of humans' "cognitive imperative" to seek explanations coupled with an earlier obliviousness to the natural order of the environment.
|“||As a cognitive and behavioral imperative, we form descriptions of the world and we try to figure out what's going on. We tell ourselves stories about our origins, about where we are going and about causes in the world. Given our pervasive ignorance and our disposition to see agency in the world, these stories entail relationships with invisible friends and enemies.||”|
Harris believes that religion is "losing the argument" with science, given the escalating popularity of science within the past hundred years on almost all fronts. As an example he states that, given our knowledge of epilepsy, most parents today do not send their epileptic children to exorcists. Harris also predicts that science will one day truly be capable of understanding spirituality and feelings of otherworldliness commonly associated with religion.
Religion and women
Harris cites examples of women and girls abused in the name of various different types of religion. Iraqi Kajal Khidr was tortured and threatened with death after she was suspected of adultery. Perpetrators were released without trial because they allegedly acted in defense of family honor. The Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army forces girls into marriage and gives their husbands complete control allowing rape and other violence. In Utah Mary Ann Kingston was forced at 16 to marry her uncle. When she ran away her father beat her to the point of unconsciousness.
Harris is strongly critical of the way religion is used to excuse the patriarchy, in the teachings of fundamentalist Christianity and Judaism woman was the last to be created and the first to sin. Harris condemns the religious idea that women should be subservient to men. Harris feels the Bible treats girls and women as the property of men, before marriage girls are the property of their fathers and after marriage women become the property of their husbands.
|“||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).||”|
|“||According to God, women have been placed on earth to service men, to bear their children, to keep their homes in order, and above all to not betray them by becoming the object of another man’s sexual enjoyment. And so it falls to every man to shield his women from the predations of his rapacious brothers and oblige them, until death or decrepitude, to fulfill their most sacred purpose—as incubators of sons. If we ever achieve a civilization of true equity, respect, and love between the sexes, it will not be because we paid more attention to our holy books.||”|
Harris states that he advocates a benign, noncoercive, 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 suggests that, just as a person declaring a belief that Elvis is still alive would immediately make his every statement suspect in the eyes of those he was conversing with, asserting a similarly non-evidentiary point on a religious doctrine ought to be met with similar disrespect. 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.||”|
Religion in the United States
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. Harris often travels with bodyguards because he receives death threats from both Muslims and Christians.
When then-President George W. Bush publicly invoked God in speeches regarding either domestic or foreign affairs, Harris questioned how people might react if the president were to mention Zeus or Apollo in a similar vein.
Islam and Muslims
While Harris is "extremely critical of all religious faiths", he asserts that the doctrines of Islam are uniquely dangerous to civilization, stating that unlike Jainism, Islam "is not even remotely a religion of peace". Harris denounced New York mayor Bloomberg's and President Obama's support of allowing the Park51 Islamic center to be built. In an opinion piece to The Washington Post, Harris claims that allowing the Islamic center to be built would be seen as liberal "cowardice", arguing that "Islam simply is different from other faiths" and should be changed "for the better". In the same piece, Harris states that there is no legal basis for stopping the community center from being built, nor should there be one.
Harris criticizes the general response in the West to terrorist atrocities such as the 9/11 attacks: to Harris the "war on 'terrorism'" is meaningless.p. 31, p. 28. Harris said in 2004: "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam."
Suggesting that the Qur'an and the hadith incite Muslims to kill or subjugate infidels, and reward such actions with paradise (including 72 virgins), Harris believes Islam is a religion of violence and political subjugation. He asserts that the liberal argument of stating that the phenomenon of religious extremism is a consequence of fundamentalism in and of itself is false, and that many other religions such as Jainism have not experienced the same trends Islam and Christianity have. Harris considers 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 the most evil.
Harris has called upon Muslim communities to criticize their faith, and assist Western governments in incarcerating any religious extremists among them. He demands that Muslims "must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling" in the fight against terrorism.
Harris has stated that Israel holds the "moral high ground" compared to Muslims and Islamist groups in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict:
|“||For instance, [liberals] ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal. ... Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah.||”|
Harris was raised by a secular Jewish mother and a Quaker father, but has publicly stated that his upbringing was entirely secular. Writer and friend Christopher Hitchens once referred to Harris as a "Jewish warrior against theocracy and bigotry of all stripes", though it remains unclear whether Harris approves of such a comment.
In The End of Faith, Harris is critical of the Jewish faith and its followers:
|“||The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. [...] the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. [...] Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their "freedom of belief" on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East.||”|
Though Harris accepts that replacing religious extremism with religious moderation would be a positive step, he criticizes moderate theists. Harris argues 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, as well as a poor understanding of theological issues.
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.'"
Morality and ethics
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 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".(p 158) 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 this 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 those 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.[page needed]
Science of morality
In his third book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris argues that "Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics." He contends that humanity has reached a point in time when, thanks to scientific flourishing and inquiry, many sciences can "have an impact on the well-being of others". Harris argues that it is time to promote a scientific approach to normative morality, rejecting the idea that religion determines what is good. He believes that once scientists begin proposing moral norms in papers, supernatural moral systems will join "astrology, witchcraft and Greek mythology on the scrapheap".
Harris's arguments in The Moral Landscape were widely criticized by reviewers. Soon after the book's release, Harris responded to some of the criticisms in an article for The Huffington Post.
|“||..the difference is unmistakable: Buddha, Shankara, Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Longchenpa, and countless others down to the present have no equivalents in the West. In spiritual terms, we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs.||”|
He states that for spirituality he draws inspiration from the practices and philosophies of Eastern religions, as described principally by the teachings of Buddhism (e.g., the Dzogchen teachings of the Vajrayana) and Hinduism (e.g., the teachings of Advaita Vedanta).p. 293. Although he doesn't support the metaphysical claims that people tend to make in those traditions, and on the basis of their spiritual experiences. In the fourth chapter of Waking Up after quoting Ramana Maharshi he describes his views on the philosophy of Advaita as following,
|“||While the philosophy of Advaita, and Ramana’s own words, may tend to support a metaphysical reading of teachings of this kind, their validity is not metaphysical. Rather, it is experiential. The whole of Advaita reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions: Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.||”|
While Harris doesn't consider himself a Buddhist, he considers Buddhism to be almost unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom. His criticism of Buddhism as a faith has been published in an article called "Killing the Buddha". In his 20’s, Harris also spent 2 years on meditation retreats, ranging in length from one week to three months.
Despite his anti-religious sentiments, Sam Harris also claims that there is "nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have."
Support for Geert Wilders' rights
Harris wrote a piece in which he voiced his support for the rights of Dutch politician Geert Wilders to release his movie Fitna which received an outcry from the Muslim world, stating that Wilders has become the latest projectile in "the zero-sum conflict between civil society and traditional Islam".
In 2007 Sam and Annaka Harris founded Project Reason, a charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobbying organization representing the interests of nontheistic Americans.
Building on his interests in belief and religion, Harris completed a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA. He 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. A "comparison of all religious trials to all nonreligious trials produced a wide range of signal differences throughout the brain," and the processing of religious belief and empirical belief differed in significant ways. The regions associated with increased activation in response to religious stimuli included the anterior insula, the ventral striatum, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the posterior medial cortex.
Writings and media appearances
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 formerly for 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, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show. 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. In April 2011, he debated William Lane Craig on the nature of morality.
On March 8, 2012, he was the guest on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. The conversation lasted nearly three hours and covered a variety of topics related to Harris's research and personal experiences.
Harris has been criticized by some of his fellow contributors at The Huffington Post. In particular, R. J. Eskow has accused him of fostering an intolerance towards Islam, 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 Richard Dawkins.
Journalist Chris Hedges' book When Atheism Becomes Religion (originally published as I Don't Believe in Atheists) targets Harris and Dawkins as its two examples of the worst atheism has to offer. Early in the book, Hedges quotes a statement from Harris's The End of Faith advocating a nuclear first strike as arguably "the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe" in the event of an Islamist regime such as Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Harris has responded to Hedges' repeated mentions of the quotation (throughout the book and in subsequent articles and interviews) by reprinting the passage in question with sections highlighted to stress his "personal horror" not only at the likely immediate casualties of a first strike but also at the probable ultimate consequences for Westerners, and his call for Muslim nations to police each other's weapons development so as to prevent the scenario from arising. Hedges' comment has also drawn counter-criticism, as other atheists and even a few theologians have come to Harris' defense, accusing Hedges of taking the quote out of context. As of 2011 both the quote and the criticism continue to influence the public perception of both parties.
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 The National Interest, Atran argued against Harris's thesis in The Moral Landscape that science can determine moral values. Atran adds that abolishing religion will do nothing to rid mankind of its ills.
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. On his website Harris disputed that he had 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 this "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. Writer Theodore Dalrymple described the passage as "quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist". Harris repudiated his critics' characterization, stating they "have interpreted the second sentence of this passage to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs. . . . but such a reading remains a frank distortion of my views." Harris goes on to argue that beliefs are only dangerous to the extent that they can influence a person's behavior, and to the extent that the behavior is violent. As Harris explains in the End of Faith, "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." He believes that pre-emptively attacking known dangerous fanatics (e.g. Osama Bin Laden) is justified. Harris also claims, however, that "Whenever we can capture and imprison jihadists, we should. But in most cases this is impossible."
After two columns, one in Al Jazeera and one in Salon, accused the New Atheists of expressing irrational anti-Muslim animus under the guise of rational atheism, Glenn Greenwald wrote a column saying he agreed: "The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening ... Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy proscriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims."
|“||Is it really true that the sins for which I hold Islam accountable are “committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially [my] own”? ... The freedom to poke fun at Mormonism is guaranteed [not by the First Amendment but] by the fact that Mormons do not dispatch assassins to silence their critics or summon murderous hordes in response to satire. ... Can any reader of this page imagine the staging of a similar play [to The Book of Mormon] about Islam in the United States, or anywhere else, in the year 2013? No you cannot—unless you also imagine the creators of this play being hunted for the rest of their lives by religious maniacs. Yes, there are crazy people in every faith—and I often hear from them. But ... At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame.||”|
Commenting on Harris's book Free Will, Daniel Dennett disagrees with Harris' position on compatibilism, saying that Harris directs his arguments against an unreasonably absolute or "perfect freedom" version of compatibilism, which Dennett describes as an incoherent, straw man version.
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- Official website
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- Sam Harris at the Internet Movie Database