From the archives: Re-reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith

I linked to this post the other day. It inspired a good discussion thread when originally posted; here’s hoping it does so again. PS my comment about Seoul is really weird to re-read now that I live a half-hour’s drive from the city.

Sam Harris seems to catch a special kind of flak among atheists. Unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t just have people of the Chris Mooney variety complaining that he shouldn’t criticize religion, ever. And unlike Christopher Hitchens, it isn’t really about specific political positions Harris has taken, because Harris hasn’t actually said very much about specific political issues.

Rather, it’s… well, it’s stuff like this post by Taner Edis, which says

I think the popularity of Harris should be embarrassing for nonbelievers. This mainly because a common response to public criticism of religion is is that the critic has misunderstood religion in general, or is ignorant of the specific traditions criticized. In Harris’s case, the accusations are correct. And since Harris is in a position where he legitimately represents the attitudes of many nonbelievers in the US, it may well be fair to say that American nonbelief often proceeds from a misunderstanding of religion……I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask fellow academics not to dismiss what I call science-minded nonbelief out of hand, just because its most public representatives include very visible scholarly disasters such as Harris.)

So, let me revisit the case where Harris annoys me the most—when he portrays Islam as an essentially violent religion by quoting violent passages from the Quran.

First of all, even trying something like this betrays unfamiliarity with the scientific and scholarly literature on religion in general….

When I first started reading Edis’ criticisms of Harris regarding Islam, I was inclined to take them seriously. After all, Edis was born in Turkey, and has had a lot more first-hand experience with Islam than I have. But after hearing a lot of this and similarly-flavored criticism of Harris, it occurred to me that it might actually be worth reading the offending passages of The End of Faith. Now that I’ve re-read large chunks of the book, I’m convinced that this sort of criticism is mostly reading things into the text that aren’t there.

As far as I can tell, Harris’ big points in The End of Faith are first, that because it’s normal to base your actions on your beliefs, it’s really important for people’s beliefs to be grounded in reality, and second, that if you want to be a “moderate” Christian, Jew, or Muslim, you’re going to have to ignore significant chunks of what you’re holy book says. What Harris doesn’t do, though, is make the sort of claim Edis is criticizing him for, that any religion is “essentially” anything.

This is an important point. Edis makes a big deal about how the relationship between the text of the Quran and what actual Muslims believe is complicated. Harris never says otherwise. Harris isn’t saying that there are no moderate Muslims, but that moderate Muslims have to ignore some of what the Quran says, and can’t legitimately claim to represent “true” Islam. That actually requires relationship between text and beliefs to be at least a bit complicated. Furthermore, my impression is that Edis denies there is a “true” Islam. So it’s not clear that Edis and Harris disagree about anything.

When it comes to many of the things Harris has caught flak for from liberals–war, torture, and so on–I think the problem is that Harris provides an unusually frank discussion of questions where he fears we have no good options. As Harris himself notes, it’s quite likely that our brains just didn’t evolve to think well about many of these questions. So no surprise that Harris’ frankness would make some people uncomfortable, and mistake “all the options may be horrible” for “Yay! Let’s do something horrible!”

I do think, though, that Harris says one incredibly foolish thing in this area, when he says that “We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.” Counter-intuitive though this may be, we are actually living in a world that sometimes must tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.

For example, from what I can tell a lot of experts think war with North Korea would mean a lot of dead civilians in Seoul. To be charitable to Harris, maybe a war with North Korea wouldn’t be as bad as I think, or maybe there’s an interpretation of Harris’ statement that doesn’t require that war. But I’m skeptical that there’s a reading of Harris’ statement that wouldn’t require us to do something catastrophically foolish in some not-too-far-out situation.

Other than that, the biggest complaint I had on re-reading The End of Faith is that in a few places, Harris will carelessly use muddle-headed tropes that are easily turned back on him. In particular, there’s this quote:

Once a person believes–really believes–that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves my be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one.

Harris gets something importantly right here, that the belief that infidels are damned is very dangerous. But the way says it is just begging to have believers complaining about atheists being so certain and intolerant.

The right response to this sort of criticism is that it’s the content of the beliefs that matters, not the level of certainty with which they’re held. Better to be certain the Earth revolves around the Sun, than think that God probably wants you to kill infidels. And “tolerance,” sadly, has become a meaningless feel-good word that Harris would’ve been wise to avoid.

Consider this an open thread, especially for airing your likes/dislikes of The End of Faith.

  • Raging Bee

    Harris isn’t saying that there are no moderate Muslims, but that moderate Muslims have to ignore some of what the Quran says, and can’t legitimately claim to represent “true” Islam.

    If that’s what Harris really says, then he’s not only completely full of shit, but taking the side of the worst religious extremists to boot.

    If a large chunk of believers in a particular religion selectively disregard certain bits of their holy writ, for whatever reason, how can Harris say those believers don’t represent their faith? He’s taking the side of religious extremists who try to discredit their opponents by making “purity” the sole test of true belief. And I can’t help but suspect that Harris is doing this for no reason other than to legitimize his own simpleminded extremism and pretend he doesn’t have to recognize the diversity and humanity of people he’s laballed his enemies.

    I haven’t read any of Harris’s books, but the things he’s said in interviews make him sound like an ignorant bigot. Events in Afghanistan, a war-torn backwater, are “the true face” of a religion followed by a billion people from Morocco to Indonesia? How does he get that? And why does a nonbeliever get to say who is or is not “the true face” of a religion he doesn’t even believe and clearly knows next to nothing about? What’s next, a Pope elected by Muslim clerics?

    • David Hart

      “I haven’t read any of Harris’s books”.

      Well, this may be a good time to do so if you are going to criticise them. Even if you don’t agree with him, he’s still one of the best prose stylists in the atheist movement. At any rate, his point is simply that, given the contents of the Koran, and given that it is a mainstream tenet of many Muslims’ beliefs that the Koran is the literal word of God, it is not at all surprising that Muslim terrorists justify their violence by reference to the Koran. If Christians and Jews are less likely to be terrorists today than Muslims are, this is because mainstream Christianity and Judaism have learned to ignore the vast majority of the contents of their holy books, in a way that mainstream Islam has not.

      And I will grant you that a lot of his chapter on Islam in The End of Faith comes across as deeply alarmist (for an opposing view, I would recommend the relevant chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which presents statistics to show that all forms of terrorism, including Islamist terrorism, have on average been in decline over the last several decades, and that the Muslim world is simply lagging behind everyone else on the same trajectory) – but Harris is making an honest attempt to explain the observed phenomenon of greater violence in the Muslim world compared to the West by examining what many Muslims actually believe to be true about the world.

    • Chris Hallquist

      “Taking the side of the worst religious extremists”? What a completely ridiculous thing to say. Harris *obviously* opposes religious extremism. I suspect what you really mean by that is “agreeing with religious extremists on anything” (or anything they disagree with liberals on), but on that definition we’re all going to have to “side with religious extremists” sometimes, if we care at all about the truth and not just signaling tribal loyalties.

      For example, imagine a liberal Christian dismisses all the horrible stuff in the New Testament as being the product of a forgery committed by the Council of Nicaea at the order of Constantine, and a fundamentalist Christian responds that this is impossible because (1) we have mostly-complete NT manuscripts from about a century before Constantine and Nicaea and (2) all our historical records indicate the Council of Nicaea didn’t have anything to do with deciding what would be in the Bible. In this case, I’d have to “side with the fundamentalist,” because this is a situation where all informed people would know that the fundamentalist is correct.

      And the point is that moderate Muslims can’t represent Islam, it’s that they can’t claim to represent “true” Islam, i.e. they can’t claim with any justification that they have the real version of Islam and other people don’t, and therefore we should pay no attention to the people who find plenty of justification in the Quran for violence.

  • Daniel Engblom

    When I first read Sam Harris, he seemed reasonable and rational – starting from End of Faith, then Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and now Free Will, but more on these two latest books soon – He seemed to really spell out in a clear, obvious way on the issues with religion.

    I’ve become skeptical about my original assessments of Harris’ critical thinking skills. He seems to rely too much on intuitive, common sense types of argumentation, something of a touchy issue for a man who claims to advance scientific rationality in society.

    I liked The Moral Landscape, but there were a few issues in them, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that as his latest, “Free Will”, is a new low – though, reading his blog, there were signs of sloppy thinking (I’m thinking of the meditation, “The Mystery of Consciousness” and other similar things about his subjective experience)

    I feel like I need to revisit his End of Faith to see if there has truly been a decline in his thinking, or whether I was even more stupid back then to swallow it.

    His Free Will was full of contradictions, sloppy assumptions and appeals to intuition. I have put some of my thoughts of it in the link below:

  • piero

    I’ve read all of Harris’s books, except his latest one, and I’ve found them well-written and well-argued. Daniel complains that Free Will is full of assumptions; well, I defy anyone to construct a worldview that assumes nothing at all. For a start, we assume reality exists, we assume we are not virtual entitites in a computer simulation, we assume induction is reasonable, we assume other people feel pain when we hit them, we assume different minds can agree on the meaning of “meaning”, etc.

    Given those assumptions, we must accept that there is a real world independent of our minds, that people dislike suffering, that the universe behaves subject to constraints we call “the laws of physics”, and so on. Within this framework, I find Harris’s arguments unassailable. Of course, anyone can come up with metaphysical entitities which “disprove” Harris’s analysis, but that’s obviously cheating: if no evidence is provided, there’s no reason to take such rebuttals seriously.

    Concerning Islam, it should be obvious that Harris does not think of every Muslim as a potential terrorist. The real issue is that the Bible contains as many horrifying passages as the Koran, but most Christians never read the Bible, and don’t care about the atrocities contained therein. In fact, most Christians should not call themselves Christians at all: they probably believe Jesus existed, but most of them would dismiss the virgin birth and the resurrection as myths or metaphors. Most Christians can’t even list the ten commandments, let alone lead their lives by them. Islam is very different. For a start, the Koran is required reading,even for those who don’t understand Arabic. Muslims are much less inclined to tolerate blasphemy and desecration, even the intelligent ones. And Harris makes it very clear that his main preoccupation is the possibility that a fundamentalist Islamic regime could get hold of nuclear weapons. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stated in no uncertain terms that he intends to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. In that sense, modern Islamism is comparable to Nazism: it is an irrational, fanatic, faith-based ideology that could acquire enough power to pose a danger to any civilized country (and by civilized country I mean one where the delaration of human rights is taken seriously).

    As to Chris’s biggest complaint about The end of faith , I really don’t see what the problem is. If I say that certain religious beliefs are dangerous, it is obviously the case that those holding such beliefs will accuse me of intolerance and unjustified certainty. If I say to a fundamentalist Christian that the story of Lazarus’s resurrection is abysmally stupid, I wont’t expect him or her to agree; it just happens to be the case that the story is abysmally stupid, and there’s nothing I can do about it, because every rational analysis of the story leads to that conclusion.

    I disagree with Harris on many things, particularly on his take on meditation and altered staes of mind. I don’t see the point of forcing your brain to enter states which can actually be harmful or distressing, as he himself has described. But after reading Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is the clearest thinker, much as I might admire the rest.

    Of course, I’m not a “believer”. I can change my opinion through reasonable and reasoned argument. All it would take for me to change my appraisal of Harris would be for someone to demonstrate with reasonable and reasoned arguments that:

    - a fundamentalist Islamic regime with access to nuclear weapons is not really a problem

    - moderate Muslims are actually so moderate that they will prevent the fundamentalists to carry out any atrocities, because they conceive of Islam as the religion of peace

    - the Christian faith evolved into a tame version of its former self through internal forces, and not through societal pressure and the ideas that sprung during the Enlightenment

    - free will actually exists, and id the result of some as yet unknown metaphysical influence.

    Good luck.

    • Daniel Engblom

      “Daniel complains that Free Will is full of assumptions; well, I defy anyone to construct a worldview that assumes nothing at all.”

      Red Herring: I said Harris makes poorly thought-out assumptions, which is evident if you bother to read his latest.

      “–I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is the clearest thinker–”

      Appealing to intuition is easy to confuse with clarity of thought.

      “- free will actually exists, and id the result of some as yet unknown metaphysical influence.

      Good luck.”

      Compatibilitists don’t argue that free will exists because of some unknown metaphysical influence, so I don’t need to answer that. And your tone speaks of you being hostile to conflicting data to your preconceived notions.

      • piero

        Thank you for your reply.

        I have, however, some doubts I hope you can clarify:

        I did not understand what you mean by “appeal to intuition”. I said I’ve read most of the books written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, and in my opinion Harris is the clearest thinker (and probably the second best writer, after Hitchens). Where does intuition come into it?

        I find compatibilism incoherent. The matter has been extensively (and intensely) discussed at Jerry Coyne’s blog, so I won’t repeat the whole argumentation here. In fact, I feel no need to answer your refusal to reply here.

        As I said, I haven’t read Harris’s book on free will, but I’ve read his other writings on this issue, including the relevant chapter in The Moral Landscape. I found no poorly thought-out assupmptions in them, so I don’t expect him to blunder on a book wholly dedicated to examining the matter. Of course, I might be wrong, but I think it unlikely. Maybe it would help your case if you actually mentioned at least one specific poorly thought-out assumption by Harris. You know, arguments usually consist of something more pithy than the mere assertion that you opponent is wrong. Of course, I might be wrong, and you might actually be a complete idiot, but I think it unlikely.

        Also, I don’t understand what you mean by “my tone”. I put forward my thoughts as clearly and as neutrally as I could. Is there some more polite expression you’d like me to use instead of “I disagree with you”?

        Finally, your whole post contained no argument at all, but merely name-calling and dismissive statements with no rational justification.

        • Daniel Engblom

          See my original post again, notice that I provided a link, which directs you to my more complex review of Harris’ book “Free Will”. So I’m not merely asserting, as you put it.

          By Appeal to intuition, I mean arguments that try to make things seem obvious for subjective reasons – For instance, Harris keeps taking up the point that you do not know where your thoughts pop up from (A perfectly legitimate point; though I never assumed that I can will something out from nothing: I cannot will the next mathematical truth to pop in my head anymore than I can will myself to become a frog, which is why Compatibilitists do not take it into account in their reasoning, only the milieu that you bathe yourself in, as in visiting atheist forums forms a landscape of thoughts about religion, society, rationality and the like, which is molded by different external and internal forces). He also keeps bringing up how we feel intuitively about free will, and how he dedicated his conclusion to his thought experiment in showing you how it’s obvious that you have no free will. Notice how subjective this all is? He put the science in the end in the notes of the book.
          Have you read any cognitive and social psychology? Kahneman? Gilovich? Nisbett? Daniel Simons? Michael Shermer? Dan Ariely? Daniel Gilbert? Herbert Simon? Ulric Neisser? Leon Festinger? Amos Tversky? Paul Slovic? Richard Wiseman? I can go on… The Point is that science shows that intuition fails often and in systematic ways. Duncan Watts made the point in his book Everything is Obvious, by showing how common sense is actually intuition in the guise of clear thinking.

          “When every answer and its opposite appears equally obvious (once you know the answer) then something is wrong with the entire argument of ‘obviousness’.” (He was quoting Paul Lazarsfeld)

          Now why did I put that quote here? It is actually very fitting: In the book Harris argues that the fault of compatibilitism is it ignores the feeling people have of free will. BUT when he has glossed over compatibilitism, he goes on to argue that it’s obvious intuitively how free will is an illusion! Contradictory indeed.

          From Free Will: “But the deeper truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us—and introspection soon proves as hostile to the idea as the laws of physics are. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.” Notice the emphasis on subjectivity and introspection.

          I won’t touch Jerry Coyne as I have read his blog and found him too polarized and dismissive – Have you actually read, for instance, Dennett’s Freedom Evolves? He accuses compatibilitism of falling into dualism but the language of people arguing how free will is an illusion falls into “My brain made me do it”- types of retoric. You’ll see it in Harris’ Free Will as well. Though there are a few places in which he contradicts himself on that too.

          Like I point out in the link I put up in the first place, the contradictory assumption I noticed in Harris’ argument was the nature of the self– On the one hand he can write things like “You are the storm in the skull” (Implying that part and influence of the self being the whole, something he, however, argues against) and on the other he writes stuff like this: “–your brain has already determined what you will do.” – So see that there’s a contradictory notion of the self used on by Harris.

          You accusing me of name-calling is silly, see the link in my post – In other words; Read what I write before responding to my writings.

          • piero


            What you write and what you link to are different entitities.
            I could post a thousand links to sites and articles and books that support my viewpoint. But I regard such an attitude as bad manners. This is a comments thread, not Wikipedia. If you have something to say, say it. If you think an article may be interesting to the discussion, by all means post the link, but don’t expect others to read a rather long and technical article as if it was equivalent to a reply. For a start, I have no way to ascertain that you actually read or understood the linked article.

            I must say, however, that I welcome the rather more polite tone of your latest reply (except the last paragraph, of course, where you less-than-perfect upbringing unmistakably shows hrough).

            Fianlly, I’m not accusing you of name-calling: I’m merely stating a fact:

            And your tone speaks of you being hostile to conflicting data to your preconceived notions

            In any case, I have no interest in pursuing this discussion. It has become obvious that I can learn nothing from it, so I would suggest we leave it at that (unless you consider that wasting your time is a worthwhie endeavour).

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I have a lot of trouble with the term “tolerance”. Consider this: I lost my very well-paying job almost two years ago and have either been on unemployment or working for less than I used to make. The air conditioner in my car is broken. I live in a very hot climate. I am entering my second sumer with out AC. I sure wish I could fix it, but for now, I tolerate not having AC.

    So you see, tolerance is something negative. Not something positive. If I had more confidence in my financial situation, I would NOT tolerate not having AC in my car. Tolerance is something we do out of lack of power.

    So, in that sense, I am tolerant of religion. Sure, I don’t like pointlessly antagonizing people, but I do wish I could be more open about my positions on religious matters. The main reason I am not more open is that I they are powerful and I am weak. Thus I am forced into the position of tolerance, just like with my car’s air conditioner.

    And what if I had my Gyges Ring? Seems to me I would not have to be tolerant any more, and I wouldn’t be. Would you? Come on now, be honest.

    Tolerance is not good in itself, but is something we praise out of of our lack of ability.