John Gorenfeld

A Controversy over Sam Harris’s Atheist Views

Sam Harris’s Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture

Sam Harris’s books The End Of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation have established him as second only to the British biologist and author Richard Dawkins in the ranks of famous 21st century atheists. The thrust of Harris’s best-sellers is that with the world so crazed by religion, it’s high time Americans stopped tolerating faith in the Rapture, the Resurrection and anything else not grounded in evidence. Only trouble is, our country’s foremost promoter of “reason” is also supportive of ESP, reincarnation and other unscientific concepts. Not all of it is harmless yoga class hokum — he’s also a proponent of waterboarding and other forms of torture.

“We know [torture] works. It has worked. It’s just a lie to say that it has never worked,” he says. “Accidentally torturing a few innocent people” is no big deal next to bombing them, he continues. Why sweat it? I wanted to interview Harris to find out why a man sold to the American public as the voice of scientific reason is promoting Hindu gods and mind reading in his writing. But we spend much of our time discussing his call for torture and his Buddhist perspectives on “compassionately killing the bad guy.”

In 2004, Sam Harris’ award-winning first book said society should demote Christian, Muslim and Jewish belief to an embarrassment that “disgraces anyone who would claim it,” in doing so catapulting him from obscure UCLA grad student — the son of a Quaker father — to national voice of atheism. The End of Faith may be the first book suitable for the Eastern Philosophy shelf at Barnes & Noble that somehow incorporates both torture and New Age piety, and offers pleas for clear scientific thinking alongside appeals to “mysticism.” The old-fashioned brand of atheist, like the late Carl Sagan, argued eloquently against religion without supporting rituals and ghosts. Harris, however, argues that not just Western gods but philosophers are “dwarfs” next to the Buddhas. And a Harris passage on psychics recommends that curious readers spend time with the study 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.

Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to being won over by accounts of “xenoglossy,” in which people abruptly begin speaking languages they don’t know. Remember the girl in The Exorcist? “When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what’s going on,” Harris tells me. It’s hard to believe what I’m hearing from the man the New York Times hails as atheism’s “standard-bearer.” Harris writes: “There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science.” On the phone he backpedals away from the claim.

“I’ve received a little bit of grief for that,” he says. “I certainly don’t say that I’m confident that psychic phenomena exist. I’m open-minded. I would just like to see the data.”

To see the “data” yourself, The End of Faith points readers to a slew of paranormal studies.

One is Dr. Ian Stevenson’s Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy. The same author’s reincarnation book presents for your consideration the past life of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who introduced the Beatles to the Maharishi. He was born with a birthmark, it says, right where his past self was knifed to death, aged two.

Making the case for the “20 Cases” researcher, Harris sounds almost like Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis, who said Jesus could only be a liar or the Son of God.

“Either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on,” Harris says. “Most scientists would say this doesn’t happen. Most would say that if it does happen, it’s a case of fraud. … It’s hard to see why anyone would be perpetrating a fraud — everyone was made miserable by this [xenoglossy] phenomenon.” Pressed, he admits that some of the details might after all be “fishy.”

Another book he lists is The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. “These are people who have spent a fair amount of time looking at the data,” Harris explains. The author, professor Dean Radin of North California’s Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is not accredited for scientific peer review, proclaims: “Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments.”

Harris has spent the past two years doing “full-time infidel” duty, in his words. His second book, Letter to a Christian Nation, takes the infidel persona and runs with it, lashing back at Christians for their intolerance toward his first book.

In a versatile turn, however, Harris moonlights as inquisitor as well as heretic. Without irony, he switches hats between chapters of The End of Faith. Chapter 3 finds him complaining that the medieval Church tortured Jews over phony “blood libel” conspiracies. Then in chapter 6, of A Science of Good & Evil, he devotes several pages to upholding the “judicial torture” of Muslims, a practice for which “reasonable men and women” have come out. Torture then and now: The difference, he tells AlterNet, is that the Inquisition “manufactured” crimes and forced Jews to confess “fictional accomplices.”

But if the Iraq War hasn’t been about “fictional accomplices,” what has? “There’s nothing about my writing about torture that should suggest I supported what was going on in Abu Ghraib,” says Harris, who supported the invasion but says it has become a “travesty.” “We abused people who we know had no intelligence value.”

While our soldiers are waging war on Islam in our detention centers, according to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to “modern spiritual practice,” he writes. “[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise,” he writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists “uncover genuine facts about the world.” And he tells AlterNet there are “social pressures” against research into ESP.

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 airstrikes 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.”

Playing his part in last year’s War Over Christmas, Harris plays it safe with Letter to a Christian Nation. The book lumbers under a title so heavy, you’d think Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it from prison. While keeping the Christian Nation on notice that Harris remains disdainful of “wasting time” on Jesus, he now calls for something of an alliance with the Right against Muslim Arabs and the “head-in-the-sand liberals” he denounced in a recent editorial. “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living,” he writes.

Thus praising the hard Right for its “moral clarity” in the War on Terror, Harris reserves much of his wrath for nonfundamentalist Christians, whom he considers enablers of a virgin-birth sham.

Fine, but the alternative to Jesus that Harris recommends in The End of Faith is a menu of messiahs. There is Shankara, an avatar of the god Shiva whose water pot could stop floods. There is the first Buddha and his 8th-century successor Padmasambhava. After materializing on a lotus leaf at age 8, Padmasambhava cast a spell that changed his friend into a tiger. “That is objectively stupider than the doctrine of the virgin birth,” Harris says in the interview, however.

Like any religious moderate, he has picked and chosen what he likes from a religion. On the one hand, there’s an obligatory swipe in The End of Faith against Pakistan and India for threatening to nuke each other over “fanciful” religious disputes. The equal-offender pose doesn’t slow Harris from claiming the supremacy of Shankara and other oracles over Europe’s entire secular brain trust. For thousands of years, “personal transformation […] seems to have been thought too much to ask of Western philosophers”, he complains petulantly, as if finding the entire Enlightenment short on self-help tips.

He likes that Buddhism will make you relax. And “dial in various mental states,” he says. In the classic case, he says, “you see various lights or see bliss.” And like a Scientologist cleric promising you the state of Clear, evicting alien ghosts ruining your life, Harris expresses a faith that his own style of pleasurable mental exploration ushers in good deeds. Meditation, he says, will drive out whatever it is “that leads you to lie to people or be intrinsically selfish.”

So it purges your sins? “You become free to notice how everyone else is suffering,” he says. Well, some more than others.

We all need our illusions. But doesn’t his, a mishmash of Buddhism and “Time-Life Mysteries of The Unknown,” weaken his case against Christians? His answer is that Buddhism is a superior product for including the doctrine of “non-dualism,” or unity. “The teachings about self-transcending love in Buddhism go on for miles,” he says. “There’s just a few lines in the Bible.” And hundreds in Dostoyevsky and the Confessions of St. Augustine, but never mind: Harris’s argument that “belief is action” rests on treating works like the Old Testament not as complex cultural fables but something akin to your TiVo instruction manual.

Though it lapses in skepticism, Harris’s work has won a surprising following among nonmystics. Times science writer Natalie Angier felt “vindicated, almost personally understood” reading it, she wrote in a review. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has practically adopted Harris as the American Robin to his Batman in confronting unreason wherever it may lurk in the hearts of men. The End of Faith should “replace the Gideon Bible in every hotel room in the land,” blurbs Dawkins.

When that happens, Muslims will check into the Best Western and find a text cheering their torture.

Legendary for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, American attorney Clarence Darrow wrote of his admiration for his forbearer Voltaire, the original 18th-century renegade against the church. He thanked Voltaire for dealing superstition a “mortal wound” — and for an end to torture. “Among the illustrious heroes who have banished this sort of cruelty from the Western world, no other name will stand so high and shine so bright.” And then among those who want to bring it back, there stands Sam Harris. “They’re not talking,” Harris is telling me, imagining a torture scenario where the captives clam up, “quite amused at our unwillingness to make them uncomfortable.”

No, it’s not the sticky (and real) case of Jose Padilla, the detainee who may have been reduced by his treatment to mind mush, possibly ruining his trial. Instead he’s sketching out a kind of Steven Seagal action movie scenario in which we lasso Osama or his gang, maybe on the eve of a terror plot. What to do?

“We should say we don’t do it,” Harris says of torture. “We should say it’s reprehensible.” And then do it anyway, he says.

So there it is. In Harris’s vision of future America, we will pursue “personal transformation” and gaze into our personal “I-we” riddles, while the distant gurgles of Arabs, terrified by the threat of drowning, will drift into our Eastern-influenced sacred space, the government’s press releases no more than soothing Zen koans.

– John Gorenfeld

Response to Gorenfeld by Sam Harris

A few of the subjects that I raised in The End of Faith continue to inspire an unusual amount of malicious commentary, selective quotation, and controversy. I’ve elaborated on these topics here:

My position on torture:

In The End of Faith, I argue that competing religious doctrines have divided our world into separate moral communities, and that these divisions have become a continuous source of human violence. My purpose in writing the book was to offer a way of thinking about our world that would render certain forms of conflict, quite literally, unthinkable.

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 certain extreme circumstances in which I believe that torture may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary. I am not alone in this. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most U.S. senators would support torture to find out the location of a ticking time bomb. While rare, such “ticking-bomb” scenarios actually do occur. As we move into an age of nuclear and biological terrorism, it is in everyone’s interest for men and women of goodwill to determine what should be done when a prisoner clearly has operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity, but won’t otherwise talk about it.

My argument for the limited use of torture is essentially this: if you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to torture a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk torturing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the practices of torturing high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, many of us tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to even speak about the possibility of practicing torture. It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make travesties like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. Indeed, I considered our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to have been patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders to occur in the last century of U.S. foreign policy.

It is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws will create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we can’t control ourselves. While I am opposed to capital punishment, I can readily admit that we are not suffering a total moral chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month. It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.

I may be true, however, that any legal use of torture would have unacceptable consequences. In light of this concern, the best strategy I have heard comes from Mark Bowden in his Atlantic Monthly article, “The Dark Art of Interrogation.” Bowden recommends that we keep torture illegal, and maintain a policy of not torturing anybody for any reason. But our interrogators should know that there are certain circumstances in which it will be ethical to break the law. Indeed, there are circumstances in which you would have to be a monster not to break the law. If an interrogator finds himself in such a circumstance, and he breaks the law, there will not be much of a will to prosecute him (and interrogators will know this). If he breaks the law Abu Ghraib-style, he will go to jail for a very long time (and interrogators will know this too). At the moment, this seems like the most reasonable policy to me, given the realities of our world.

While my discussion of torture spans only a few pages in a book devoted to reducing the causes of religious violence, many readers have found this discussion deeply unsettling. I have invited them, both publicly and privately, to produce an ethical argument that takes into account the realities of our world — our daily acceptance of collateral damage, the real possibility of nuclear terrorism, etc. — and yet rules out the practice of torture in all conceivable circumstances. No one, to my knowledge, has done this. And yet, my critics continue to speak and write as though a knock-down argument against torture in all circumstances is readily available. I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of innocent civilians ever does. Until someone actually points out what is wrong with the “collateral damage argument” presented in The End of Faith.. I will continue to believe that my critics are just not thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.

My views on the paranormal – ESP, reincarnation, etc.:

My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists.

My views on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, etc.:

My views on “mystical” or “spiritual” experience are extensively described in The End of Faith and do not entail the acceptance of anything on faith. There is simply no question that people have transformative experiences as a result of engaging contemplative disciplines like meditation, and there is no question that these experiences shed some light on the nature of the human mind (any experience does, for that matter). What is highly questionable are the metaphysical claims that people tend to make on the basis of such experiences. I do not make any such claims. Nor do I support the metaphysical claims of others.

There are several neuroscience labs now studying the effects of meditation on the brain. While I am not personally engaged in this research, I know many of the scientists who are. This is now a fertile field of sober inquiry, purposed toward understanding the possibilities of human well-being better than we do at present.

While I consider Buddhism almost unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. My criticism of Buddhism as a faith has been published in essay form, to the consternation of many Buddhists. It is available here: “Killing the Buddha”.

– Sam Harris