Lears reviews Harris

Historian Jackson Lears has a damning review of all Sam Harris’s books in The Nation magazine: “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

It’s not a perfect takedown. Lears can’t resist reaching into the liberal religious apologetic bag of tricks (oh, he’s not addressing real religion, which is the more sophisticated and more experiential stuff), plus indulges in traditional humanities-based suspicion of science (which manifests itself as bashing “positivism” and “reductionism”).

But if you can get beyond the obligatory 10% posturing-content, it’s 90% on target. Harris has been consistently producing work that is intellectually shoddy.

It is discouraging that Harris has become so popular among American nonbelievers. This means, unfortunately, that Harris cannot be set aside as an unrepresentative crank. His popularity shows that a large part of the US atheist population is far from its self-image as defenders of science, reason, and secular liberal values.

It is more than just carelessness that has resulted in Harris—a terrible example of scholarship and a consistent producer of dubious reasoning—becoming a legitimate atheist icon. He threw red meat to the flock of nonbelievers, aggressively telling us what we wanted to hear. In return, too many of us responded as uncritically as the fundamentalists we love to scorn.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03125711244980154445 Bradley C.

    That's a really good review. Harris has always struck me as somebody who stepped too far out of his area of expertise, and I have been surprised at how popular his writings are. For a long time it was people like Harris and his positivist straw man version of atheism that kept me from seeing the actual strength of the case against God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02877111630003823406 Jim Thompson

    Maybe a post with some specifics?

    I've seen this complaint before but I'm not clear what you mean

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11311185717138876809 urbster1

    I agree with Jim, maybe you can point out exactly where Harris is wrong? I don't want to disagree, but your post was hardly informative. I'll read the review but am still interested in hearing more about what's wrong with Sam's ideas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    This article is atrocious. He makes mistakes about positivism that would have him laughed out of any serious discussion. Here is, yet another, example of someone speaking outside of his area of specialization and butchering the ideas expressed by experts within the field.

    I am no fan of Sam Harris, and I agree with the general conclusion that Harris should not be taken seriously, but anyone who writes, "positivists assumed that science was also the only sure guide to morality," and, "But it did undermine the positivist faith in science as a source of absolute certainty and moral good," has no idea what he is talking about.

    Positivists thought moral questions were meaningless.

    His proclamations about the "naive" view of moral realism demonstrates his naivete about philosophy, thus making his statement about Harris that "This conviction [against moral relativism] stems from a profound ignorance of philosophy" delightfully ironic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis


    Lears's "positivism" is not intended to refer to, say, the Vienna Circle.

    He's a historian. And a broader "positivism" in the sense he uses in this review is a term in common use in the humanities. I don't particularly like the way it's often used; it has a tendency to become a generic insult-term like "scientism." But there is nothing particularly strange (or technically mistaken) about how Lears uses the term.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01967495224042661202 The Seanman

    I would like to see a good humanist/atheist review of Harris' ideas. So far the religious don't like him because of his secularism. Some humanists/atheists don't like him for his strong language. If there are problems with his ideas let's get specific about what those problems are.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10548071704344622360 Solan

    I agree with the above posters and would like to see at least a little summary of which good points you think Jackson Lears has against Harris. As it stands, your post is just a link to a well-known article with some very generic comment tgged on.

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