Friday 7 August 2009

sam harris - man of reason?

Sam Harris is rapidly making a name for himself - author of two books, outspoken atheist, critical of religion in the US, and now the founder of The Reason Project, a "nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society".

The project is definitely about the secular approach to reason, for which read "atheism", even militant atheism. Its advisory board includes a who's who of modern western militant atheism - Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Grayling, Weinberg, Coyne, Atkins, Pinker, Venter, and a few who may be presumed to be anti-religion - Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. With a cast like that, one expects intelligent, even intellectual content, and scathing attacks on religion and superstition.

But what sort of person is Sam, the main man?

Harris has a bachelor's degree in philosophy and is current researching for a PhD in neuroscience. Wikipedia reports that he follows some practices (mainly meditation and control of "self") of Buddhism and Hinduism, but of course he does not believe the spiritual or superstitious aspects of those religions. And he has some outspoken views. Here are a few I have gleaned from the web.

The starting point for any summary is his atheism and criticism of religion, especially as practiced in the US. He argues that all beliefs should be based on reason, but religious beliefs are based on dogma and are anti-reason. He says no sensible person can believe many doctrines of christianity, and if an individual made up such beliefs we would think them "mad". He believes there is a taboo against arguing against religious belief, which is given too much respect, and that modern western civilisation's survival is threatened by religion, especially militant Islam. (All this from Wikipedia.)

All this is pretty standard militant atheist rhetoric these days, but some other aspects of Harris's views are attracting more criticism.

  • In his book The End of Faith (page 52-53), he says: ”Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” He has been much criticised for this, on the grounds that he is advocating killing people not for what they have done, but simply for what they believe. He claims he has been interpreted wrongly, but also argues that there is a strong link between belief and action, suggesting he really does mean what he says.
  • In a chapter on Islam in the same book he says that if Islamic nations develop long range nuclear weapons, "the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own". He says (somewhat contradictorily) this would be "an unthinkable crime" but also "it may be the only course of action available to us" and calls such a pre-emptive strike "an unconscionable act of self-defense".
  • Again in The End of Faith (p 199), Harris defends the use of torture, which "in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary." He has copped a lot of criticism for this.
  • Harris is part of a growing movement among militant atheists to argue that science and faith are so opposed that it is not possible for a good scientist to be a believer. Thus he has joined a chorus of criticism of President Barack Obama's appointment of Francis Collins to a senior science post, not because anyone disputes Collins' scientific credentials, but because he believes that he can't be a true scientist while holding religious beliefs that cannot be verified by science.
  • In the same article, Harris suggests that it may be scientifically true that black Africans are less intelligent than other races, a view which has been labelled as both racist and scientifically in error.
  • These views lead him to be opposed to freedom of conscience in religious belief: "I hope to show that 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.” This too has drawn strong criticism even from his fellow atheists (e.g. Margaret Wertheim and Michael Shermer), who say his intolerance is as damaging as the religious fanaticism he opposes (Wikipedia).

Harris's critics also query his logic and his scientific basis, and some apparently contradictory statements.

  • His criticisms of religious belief as illogical and unproven seem inconsistent with his view of ethics: "the reliance on intuition, therefore, should be no more discomfiting for the ethicist than for the physicist." (EoF p. 183)
  • His embracing of some aspects of eastern religions, even the suggestion that "there may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation" (EoF p. 242) has been criticised by many.
  • Other critics argue that Harris doesn't apply scientific understanding in his criticisms of the harm done by religion ("scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically na├»ve, and counterproductive") and the motivations of suicide bombers (Harris's views are contradicted by research).

So those are some of the ideas of Sam Harris. They're perhaps less humanistic than one might expect and he seems to exhibit as much intolerance as reason. If I was an atheist, I wouldn't want Harris speaking on my behalf, but many people like him.


  1. Got to your blog by seeing your comments on Victor Reppert's space. I'm enjoying what I am reading so far...

  2. Thanks. I don't post much now. I've more or less given it up, just doing an occasional post when I feel moved, mainly for my own benefit. But I'm glad your finding something interesting.


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