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January 10, 2007

Gorenfeld interviews evangelical atheist Sam Harris

Investigative journalist John Gorenfeld explores the kookier side of Sam Harris, the self-appointed public face of atheism in contemporary America. Harris is the author of The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation.

As an atheist, I find Harris a continual source of annoyance. The guy's not doing our side any favors. I suspect that Harris is famous precisely because he confirms society's preconceptions about atheists: that they're dogmatic, intolerant, secretly religious, and amoral.

The late, lamented Carl Sagan was the "safe," charming, distinguished public atheist who captivated the public by defying their expectations. Sam Harris is the minstrel show of unbelief. Producers trot him out as a provocateur who makes religious people feel better about themselves, and worse about atheists.

Gorenfeld discusses Harris's sympathy for Eastern mysticism, parapsychology, and reincarnation. Without studying Harris's metaphysical arguments in detail, it's impossible to say whether any of these beliefs conflict with his brand of atheism. After all, secular devotees of Eastern philosophy abound. Few philosophers in the Western tradition presuppose that their favorite texts are divinely inspired. You can learn a lot from Thomas Aquinas, even if you don't believe that he was a saint who performed miracles. So, why not Lao Tzu, Confucius, or Buddha?

Unlike Harris, I think parapsychology has gotten a deservedly bad rap, but there's no a priori reason why an atheist couldn't believe in ESP, or telekinesis. Indeed, if the best scientific evidence shows that people can read minds or see through walls, then scientifically-mined atheists should accept that evidence.

Of all Harris's unusual beliefs, reincarnation seems the least congruent his stinging dismissal of other religious belief systems. Reincarnation requires souls that travel between bodies. Now, the existence of souls wouldn't imply the existence of God. On the other hand, if you're prepared to accept that disembodied minds can survive the deaths of their bodies, it's not so crazy to think that there might be other beings out there in the immaterial mind world, too--e.g., gods, or demons.

Gorenfeld also relates Harris's remarkably weak argument. Harris maintains that torture is okay because collateral damage is an acceptable part of war:

Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of air-strikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Harris elaborates more fully on his torture argument on his blog. I think he's arguing that secret, extra-judicial torture is okay in ticking bomb scenarios because the suffering of the torture victim is a fair tradeoff for saving innocent lives. The analogy is that the suffering of a waterboarding victim is just unavoidable "collateral damage" in the war on terror. This doesn't strike me as an argument so much as a restatement of the premise that torture is okay.

The whole bit about collateral damage is extraneous. Either the ticking bomb fantasy works on its own, or it doesn't. It's a non-sequitur to say that because you reluctantly accept the accidental killing of innocents in war, you must therefore accept the deliberate infliction of agony as general intelligence-gathering strategy.

Harris's enthusiasm for torture and the "compassionate killing" of Muslims concern me, not his mysticism. It seems that Harris is becoming a "useful atheist" who provides cover for would-be Muslim bashers.

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Comments

They don't make embarassing nutcase atheist extremists like they used to. I miss Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Yikes, how depressing. Thanks for the heads up.

I started "End of Faith" and, as an agnostic, was delighted to read that someone had the guts to say that "good" religion paves the way for the evils of religion.

My understanding of Harris' interest in meditation, etc. was that it was from the standpoint of a neuropsychologist trying to understand what believers are experiencing, why they find it positive, and whether there are non-supernatural ways of obtaining the same experience. Guess I didn't read enough.

I think Harris has some atheistically/naturalistically defensible reasons for meditating. It makes total sense for an atheist to practice meditation as a kind mental yoga (to relax, improve concentration, cultivate mental discipline, etc.), or as a reflective/"psychotherapeutic" process, or even as an enjoyable way to experience altered states of consciousness. I've tried meditating a few times, and I didn't get much out of it compared to just relaxing and listening to music--but I know lots of people who find that meditation enhances their lives in totally non-mystical ways.

Alan Bostick presents a more accurate view of Harris' views on meditation. Nor does Harris explicitely say that he believes in reincarnation, just that he personally can't offer an argument to refute claims that have been made. Perhaps it would have been better if Harris had left the whole mysticism section out of the book, but I definitely think the "End of Faith" has considerable merit.

I didn't get that he had exceptional enthusiasm for torture, but rather points out that the outcry against torture is far greater than that for "collateral damage" which seems at least an equivalent, if not greater, evil.

Hi Lindsay, Fellow Atheist!

I think Atheist are like a herd of cats. They don't have central instinct/theory to follow or merge into a common view or perspective of the world/landscape.

For me, if one accepts anything outside material existence, something intangible and unknowable then they are a theist of sorts. So for example D. Dennett who wrote a recent book about atheism has to me qualities of a deist.

His form of unknowable is deeply related to the Cartesian mind body concept. In Dennett's case his concepts of the mind as a sort of software is a disembodied or unknowable metaphysical concept of consciousness. The sort where Wittgenstein would have said "Awww Shut Up, don't speak about which you do not know".

Which I find it funny then Dennett wants to argue religion is gonna be superseded by Dennett's 'atheism'.

Which just leads back to my herd of cats cliche. Atheism has no central tenet and therefore not likely to get us Atheist together under the same tent shouting hurrah hurrah you atheist brethren. Show us Show us the way.
Doyle

Alan, do you have a link to your Sam Harris post handy? I'd love to read it.

I don't really care if Harris believes in the paranormal or not. He's not a scientist or an expert on paranormal research. He's entitled to his opinions, of course, but I don't expect him to be a go-to guy for arguments one way or the other. Belief in parapsychology isn't supposed to be a matter of religious faith. Parapsychologists don't tout mind reading as a miracle, but rather a fact of nature that is in principle open to empirical study.

If Harris does believe in Eastern mysticism of the common-or-garden variety, he opens himself up to some pretty harsh tu quoque arguments. But that's only a problem because he denounces other people's religions so vehemently as being stupid and dangerous. The burden is then on him to explain how his outlook is more solidly justified, without appealing to the same bad arguments that he criticizes from other religious thinkers.

Harris is awfully cavalier about violence towards believers. In the Gorenfeld passage that I quote above, he entertains the idea that some beliefs are so dangerous that it might be ethical to kill people just for espousing them! The combination of his religious war rhetoric, his embrace of torture on the down-low, and his willingness to consider KILLING PEOPLE for DANGEROUS THOUGHTS is truly disturbing.

Athiests have a side? I did not know that.

Lindsay writes;
In the Gorenfeld passage that I quote above, he entertains the idea that some beliefs are so dangerous that it might be ethical to kill people just for espousing them! The combination of his religious war rhetoric, his embrace of torture on the down-low, and his willingness to consider KILLING PEOPLE for DANGEROUS THOUGHTS is truly disturbing.

Doyle;
I agree Harris doesn't represent atheist any more than I do.

I don't think though atheism represents an ethical view. Some atheist are knowledgeable enough to make ethical statements, but some aren't. So to me what Harris says about the need for killing say fundamentalist of some sort is just his view.

The only sort of competition atheism gave to religions was via communism which organized and unified a body of atheist or pretenders/opportunists. That means to me that it doesn't matter what an individual spouts or espouses, it is the body of a group that matters. If a communist group thinks paranormal or public execution of religious fundamentalist comes along then there is a political danger in my view.
Doyle

Maybe "side" is a bad metaphor. Atheism isn't a movement or a competitive team. It's a characteristic shared by many disparate worldviews, not a worldview unto itself.

On the other hand, atheists are a moderately unpopular minority. There are a lot of misconceptions about what atheism entails and what atheists are like. Unfortunately, Sam Harris reinforces a lot of the worst stereotypes that people have about atheists.

Thanks for the post. My mom gave me The End of Faith for Chri -- er, Solstice, and then she read it and raved about it while I was home for the holidays.

I didn't know about the mysticism stuff, but what she told me about his views on Islam, and his determination to understand violence in the Middle East as stemming solely from conflicts of religion (and not having anything to do with, say, oil or historical colonialism), did sound pretty troubling.

Another atheist who studies eastern meditation techniques for neurological purposes is Susan Blackmore, certainly no advocate of the afterlife or ESP. What makes Harris especially egregious is not his advocacy of such, but his favorable citation of nutcases like Dean Radin and their "research" (which isn't research so much as a sack of soggy turds) into ESP and "anomalous cognition".

I agree, Harris is more of a liability to atheists than anything else. He's a great rhetorician, but advocates more cookiness than he's worth. His foray into mid-east politics and cribbing arguments from Israel sycophant Alan Dershowitz is a good example.

It was fun and informative to watch Scott Atran, who's done a shitload of research (with Ara Norenzayan, among others) on religion, both from the cognitive side and to its social aspects, including things like suicide bombings, take Harris to task in the "Beyond Belief" talks a few months ago (primarily at the beginning of Session 8, which you can watch here). Harris seemed to be impervious to the facts, replying with statements that amounted to, "Uh, yeah, well so what?" Harris' commitment to the idea that religion, especially Islam, is directly related to certain evil acts, is very religious-like.

As someone who has commented against fundamentalist atheism in the recent blog interchanges on that topic I applaud the choice of taking into account empirical evidence, wherever it may lead, instead of relying overmuch on rationalist deductions from given premises. I don't think many of the big 'public atheists', Sam Harris excluded, would be that enthusiastic about letting the facts tell the story about things like parapsychology.

While that may be a sensitive issue, other issues that the big public atheists condemn are less so, for instance alternative medicine. Acunpunture has come under fire from atheists in an almost racist way as being non-scientific and therefore invalid, while studies have proven its effectiveness in some areas. But they don't pay attention to that kind of thing.

Btw, most meditation in the sense of being connected to Eastern Religion is more complex than just sitting someplace and collecting your thoughts.

As someone who has commented against fundamentalist atheism in the recent blog interchanges on that topic I applaud the choice of taking into account empirical evidence, wherever it may lead, instead of relying overmuch on rationalist deductions from given premises.

Rationalist deductions? Where does modern science rely on such in lieu of empirical evidence. Are we living in the 17th. century again?

Acunpunture has come under fire from atheists in an almost racist way as being non-scientific and therefore invalid, while studies have proven its effectiveness in some areas. But they don't pay attention to that kind of thing.

That sounds like a claim, care to back it up?

I'm still deeply confused as to why anyone would listen to Sam Harris at all. Sagan, Dennett, Dawkins, Russell, and the like all got to the position of "popular atheist spokesperson" by accomplishing other things that demonstrated their intelligence and communication skills. Sam Harris has done what exactly?

I guess you could call me an agnostic-deist, because:

1. I try to live most of the teachings of Jesus (e.g., trying my hardest to be peaceful, loving, and forgiving of others), though I don't believe he was God.
2. I'd love there to be an afterlife where I can be reunited with lost loved ones, yet I strongly but not completely disbelieve that the afterlife exists.
3. If there is a God I hope he/she/it isn't so damn insecure that he/she/it constantly needs to be praised and reminded that we're all scared of he/she/it.
4. I find evangelicals of ALL religions to be so goddamn annoying.

I know that Lindsay and many others here have trouble with the label "agnostic", so nail me to a cross of secular humanism if you think it's necessary. I will still ask our Heavenly Father/Mother/Neuter to forgive you, but only after he/she/it lets me waterboard you for a few days first. You'll have it coming, you dirty atheist assholes.

And Tyler:

Just because you're an intellectual and probably familial heir of the Italian Renaissance, don't forget you have an English first name. Or should I call it your "Christian" name?

Militant Islam is due to "colonialism" or "poverty"?

You've got to be kidding.

So then why doesn't South America have a brand of militant Catholicism?

So why does honor killing, gay stoning, killing the beardless and other 'sharia'-based Islamic law still continue? Because of poverty and colonialism?

Harris is spot on. Islam is anti-human and despicable in any form as it subjects its adherents to a permanent chain around their neck. My fellow liberals/humanists would never allow such practices to exist in the US, why coddle this rancid belief system elsewhere?

Alcohol is prohibited in some countries and shopowners are killed by the Islamic "righteous". I fought the fundie blue laws here and I would fight for humanism there. Humanism cannot exist when it is silenced by God's soldiers in any country.

Keep fighting Sam Harris! No man can be free when his mind is chained by religious dogma.

Apropos of absolutely fucking nothing, hot human-on-lion action. Guess Senator Cornyn was right about gay marriage after all

I like the idea that "not killing"="coddling."

Thanks for the comments and criticism, everyone. BTW, Alan the Madalyn Murray O'Hair murder story is astonishing. Also, please let me recommend philosopher Meera Nanda's dissection of Harris's metaphysics.

I agree that reincarnation leaves open the possibility for gods. Does telepathy? I asked Harris if ESP meant Muslims could be making psychic contact with Allah. He replied he doesn't believe mystics can reach "historical truths."

Also, I agree that meditation and Eastern philosophy are worthwhile pursuits for a secular person.

What I found weird about The End Of Faith's "mysticism" was how low-rent its vision was. The great Eastern themes aren't really here: the sadness at the impermanence of all life, etc. Instead the concerns are petty: Is personal transformation possible? Can I feel one with the universe? Are toddlers speaking languages from past lives? Will I be killed by Islamofascists? If I die, will I be reincarnated?

It kinda reminded me of theosophy or other early 20th century sects that explained ghosts and other miracles using the latest science jargon. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan points out how banal ESP revelations are when compared with the grandeur of the natural universe. An ancient god from Atlantis talks through a "channeler," Ms. J.K. Knight of Yelm, WA, and has only dull things to say, Sagan says: "I have come to help you cross the ditch...the ditch of limitation."

(3 degrees of Knight: Her hit pseudoscience film "What The Bleep Do We Know?" featured, and was promoted by, ESP researcher Dean Radin, whose "stigmatized" studies Sam Harris cites in his book and in public appearances.)

The dull, literal-minded search for perks in Buddhism brings Mr. Harris way too close to the ticket-to-heaven territory of the Christians and Muslims whom he literally demands we laugh at. One of his favorite themes is that there is a taboo against laughing at the on-its-face absurdity of a talking snake, a virgin birth, and a book read to Muhammad. As you say, the bar this sets is pretty high.

So when telling scientists that 2-year-olds may be speaking in tongues, it's stunning that he isn't even self-deprecating about it, doesn't even say "don't laugh, I know this is gonna sound nuts, but bear with me here..."

About the image of atheists: Yes, it's a good point. Sam Harris is many people's first exposure to atheism. If you're sending the message that after an "End Of Faith" we'll become a world of Nitzchean, Arab-torturing pricks, it's a hard sell.

Finally, you're absolutely right about the "useful athiest." Being a secularist for torture is like the pundits who are on hand to say, "You know, Bill [O'Reilly], I'm a lifelong feminist Democrat, but these liberals are crazy!"

Shrike, you've already inspired me to waterboard Nick, the Muslim at the deli downstairs, until he stops oppressing humanity. Thank you for your courageous moral clarity.

Just because you're an intellectual and probably familial heir of the Italian Renaissance, don't forget you have an English first name. Or should I call it your "Christian" name?

I'm like Dawkins, I consider myself a post-Christian atheist. My immediate family is the only branch of my extended family that no-longer attends mass, in fact.

So I have no problem with the fact that my name likely has Christian roots. I just hate the way it sounds. :(

P.S. Well, oneness with the universe is a great theme too. I shouldn't put it down. But Harris lectures the reader on it with the most unbearable sanctimony possible, making you wonder what ever happened to the great Buddhist theme of losing the ego.

CORRECTION: My father's closest brother (in age) no longer attends mass either. So two branches of my extended family have disassociated themselves with the Catholic Church.

This useless information was brought to you by DiPietro Inc.

I'm glad you're comfortable with your Christian roots, Tyler, or else it's the hellfire for you, bucko.

Besides, Tyrannosaurus Rex ended all religious debates a couple of days ago. Didn't any of you get the memo!? Sheesh! On to the next topic already! Let's say we first discuss and then subsequently end all suffering for all living organisms. I think one comment thread should do the trick, so let's get started right now because I've got other things to do real soon. Those brown people aren't going to waterboard themselves now, are they?!

The Nanda essay is a very good exegesis/critique of Harris' metaphysics.

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