[extropy-chat] Fwd: Sam Harris controversy

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Mon Jan 8 04:17:43 UTC 2007

January 6, 2006

Sam Harris writes to his mailing list:

Dear Readers,

Some of you may have noticed an article about me that is now running on
Alternet.org. The writer, John Gorenfeld, has taken a ninety minute
telephone interview, along with selective passages from my books, and made
of them a poisonous of mash of misquotation and paraphrasis for the purpose
of portraying me as an evil lunatic. While some level of innocent distortion
can be expected in print interviews, this case appears genuinely malicious.

You can find Gorenfeld's account of me here
Please feel free to post comments of
your own to the site.

If you want to alert the management at Alternet of your displeasure, the
contact page can be found here 

As you will see, Gorenfeld distorts my views on torture, spiritual
experience, and the paranormal. For the record, I have summarized my views
on these subjects on my website

All the best,


By John Gorenfeld
January 6, 2007


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

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, "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

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

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.


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:

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