Sam Harris

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Photo of Sam Harris, 2010

Sam Harris is an American author and atheist. He has written several atheist advocacy books, including The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation. In 2009, Harris was awarded a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is an author in the new atheism movement.


Sam Harris believes that discussion of religious claims should not be taboo but should be evaluated in the same manner as any other belief. He also argues that beliefs have consequences. [1]

No religion is objectively true[edit]

Given the numerous religions and their different standards of avoiding hell, "every believer should expect damnation on mere, probabilistic grounds." He also criticises the evidential basis for religion as "terrible or nonexistent", pointing out the unreliability of testimony of miracles. [2]

Religion is harmful[edit]

Sam Harris considers religion's harmful qualities, such as terrorism, territorial claims and sexual anxiety, outweigh its positive aspects.

"Can anyone seriously argue that it is a good thing that millions of Muslims currently believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom?"

Religious believers give "tacit support to the religious differences in our world." [1]

Harris argues that even if religion provides morality or gives our lives meaning does not automatically imply the existence of God. [2]

He suggests that since it is impossible to coexist with Islamic states given the existence of disruptive technology, therefore there is no option by economic and military intervention to depose theocracies and impose western civil society or at least benign dictatorship around the world:

"It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else. [... Where this is not possible, it] seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key– and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives. We cannot wait for weapons of mass destruction to dribble out of the former Soviet Union to pick only one horrible possibility and into the hands of fanatics."

Harris argues that not all religions are equally harmful. He is particularly critical of Islam and commented that "We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas." In explaining this statement, he said:

"I think that we have an idea here that all of the religious are the same, that they are all equality wise, or equally empty or equally irrelevant. And obviously devout believers of various religions don't believe this but secular liberals believe this and it's just not true. Our religions are quite different and there are many cases in which Christianity is worse than Islam, if you are going to talk about something like opposition to embryonic stem cell research. [...] We have to acknowledge that Islam has doctrines like jihād and martyrdom and death to apostates which are central to the faith in which they aren't in other faiths."

— CNN, Harris: Islam is "mother lode" of bad ideas, 13 Oct 2014

Ethics and spiritual experience[edit]

Ethics discussions and spiritual experiences are important and are generally impeded by religious dogma.

"There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions-Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God-for us to do this.[3]"

Harris has argued for a scientific basis of morality based on concern for the well-being of conscious creatures. He has expressed these views in his book The Moral Landscape and talks.

"It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. We might even conceive of our moral differences in just these terms: not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth. [4]"

Racial profiling[edit]

"Granted, I haven’t had to endure the experience of being continually profiled. No doubt it would be frustrating. [...] We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.[5]"

Preference for Christian refugees[edit]

Harris argued that preferentially accepting Christian refugees over Muslims.

"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.[6]"

He seems to forget that Christians also sometimes demand for laws to be enacted or their government to be replaced by a theocracy based on their fundamentalist views.


Racism and Islamophobia[edit]

Chris Hedges claimed that Harris is generalising and demonising all Muslims as extremists and pre-modern to justify military occupation. The Qur'an, the Torah and the Bible all contain violence and intolerance, but Harris considers Islamic states to be a special threat while ignoring the possible threat of extremism from other Abrahamic religions. [1] However, most Muslims are not extremist. Glen Greenwald says this focus on Muslims is "irrational" and "disproportionate" and "unjustified".

"While they attempt to couch their language in the terms of pure critique of religious thought, in practice [the new atheists] exhibit many of the same tendencies toward generalisation and ethno-racial condescension as did their predecessors - particularly in their descriptions of Muslims. To be utterly clear, Islam itself does not denote a race, and Muslims themselves come from every racial and ethnic grouping in the world. However, in their ostensibly impartial critiques of "religion" - and through the impartation of ethno-cultural attributes onto members of a religious group - the most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable. [...] Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of "looking Muslim" which Harris makes. [...] Citing "Muslims" as a solid monolith of violent evil - whilst neglecting to include the countless Muslims who have lost their lives peacefully protesting the occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing of their homeland - Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of "Negroes". [7]"
"That said, what I did say in my emails with Harris - and what I unequivocally affirm again now - is not that Harris is a "racist", but rather that he and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism.[...] 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 [...][8]"

Harris argues against the accusation by saying Islam is not a racial label, that he also criticizes other religions and a belief system like Islam should not itself by protected from criticism. He thinks that it is obvious that not all Muslims are terrorists. Harris criticizes the liberal movement for not addressing the "menace of political Islam". [9]

"My condemnation applies to the doctrines of Islam and to the ways in which they reliably produce these 'bad acts.' [...] My criticism of the logical and behavioral consequences of certain ideas (e.g. martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, honor, etc.) impugns white converts to Islam—like Adam Gadahn—every bit as much as it does Arabs like Ayman al-Zawahiri. [...] I am also in the habit of making invidious comparisons between Islam and other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. [...] And, unlike a person’s racial characteristics or gender, beliefs can be argued for, tested, criticized, and changed. In fact, wherever the norms of rational conversation are allowed to do their work, beliefs must earn respect.[...] Am I saying that Islam is the worst religion across the board? No. Again, one must always focus on the specific consequences of specific ideas.[9]"

Security and Militarism[edit]

Sam Harris responded to criticism of his justification of torture in extreme circumstances in The End of Faith: [9]

"In one section of the book (pp. 192−199), I briefly discuss the ethics of torture and collateral damage in times of war, arguing that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board. Rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, some readers have mistakenly concluded that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like “water-boarding” may be not only ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary. This is not the same as saying that they should be legal [...]"

However, this stance is condemned by those who consider torture to be unacceptable in any situation.

In this book The End of Faith, Sam Harris wrote that there may be no alternative but for the West to pre-emptive nuclear attack any Islamist state that gains long distance nuclear weapons but such an action by the West would be "an unthinkable crime" and "an unconscionable act". [10]Based on this, Harris likely regards pre-emptive nuclear attack as a "necessary evil". Harris calls for the scenario to be avoided altogether by moderate Muslim countries to prevent it, presumable by discouraging nuclear proliferation. Chris Hedges responded to Sam Harris: [11]

"I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture."

Perhaps because Hedges did not include all Harris's qualifications that any nuclear target must be a long-ranged nuclear armed Islamist state, Harris says Hedges is misrepresenting his writing: [12]

"After my first book was published, the journalist Chris Hedges seemed to make a career out of misrepresenting its contents—asserting, among other calumnies, that somewhere in its pages I call for an immediate, nuclear first strike on the entire Muslim world."

However, Hedges is not criticising Harris for calling for an "immediate, nuclear first strike on the entire Muslim world" but rather for considering the use of nuclear weapons in any military capacity.

Harris has also been criticised for supporting racial profiling for airport security checks. Harris has defending his views as being practical: [9]

"My position on profiling is very simple: We should admit that we know what we are looking for (suicidal terrorists) and that certain people obviously require less scrutiny than others. [...] But given scarce resources, we can’t afford to waste our time and attention pretending to think that every traveller is equally likely to be affiliated with al Qaeda."

What triggers religious extremism?[edit]

The Qur'an, the Torah and the Bible all contain violence and intolerance and have been available for centuries. His critics point out that if religion was the cause of extremism, it would be uniformly occurring in time and place thoughout areas that follow Abrahamic religion. This uniformity of extremism is not observed. Harris responded by saying religions in the West have been attenuated by modernity. He compared the Islamic world to medieval Europe. [1] However, most people still profess religious belief in the majority in most "modern" countries.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Religion and Politics: The End of the World? A Truthdig Debate, Royce Hall, UCLA, May 22, 2007 [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 [2]
  3. Sam Harris, The End of Faith, 2004
  4. Sam Harris, The Limits of Discourse, May 1, 2015
  5. [3]
  6. [4]
  7. [5]
  8. [6]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Response to Controversy, Version 2.3, Sam Harris blog (April 7, 2013) [7]
  10. Sam Harris, The End of Faith, pages 128-129
  11. Charly Wilder, I don’t believe in atheists, Salon, Mar 13, 2008 [8]
  12. Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges, Sam Harris Blog, July 26, 2011 [9]

Presentations and writings[edit]

v · d Atheism
Terminology   Etymology of the word atheist · Weak atheism · Strong atheism · Agnosticism · Atheist vs. agnostic · Tenets and dogma
Contemporary literature   The End of Faith · The God Delusion · God: The Failed Hypothesis · Letter to a Christian Nation · God Is Not Great · Irreligion · 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
Classic literature   Why I Am Not a Christian
Atheist and secular groups   Atheist groups · Secular charities · How American Non-Atheists view Atheists
Contemporary authors   Richard Dawkins · Daniel Dennett · A. C. Grayling · Sam Harris · Guy P. Harrison · John Allen Paulos · James Randi · Victor Stenger
Internet non-believers   Reginald Vaughn Finley · PZ Myers
Writers and philosophers   David Hume · Robert Ingersoll · Friedrich Nietzsche · Bertrand Russell · Carl Sagan · Voltaire · Jean-Paul Sartre · John Stuart Mill · Karl Marx · Heraclitus