Sam Harris (author)

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Sam Harris
Sam Harris 01.jpg
Harris, pictured c. 2007
BornSamuel B. Harris[1]
(1967-04-09) April 9, 1967 (age 47)
United States
OccupationAuthor, philosopher, neuroscientist, non-profit executive
NationalityUnited States
EducationPhilosophy (B.A. 2000), Neuroscience (Ph.D. 2009)
Alma materStanford University
SubjectReligion, philosophy, neuroscience
Notable works
Notable awardsPEN/Martha Albrand Award
SpouseAnnaka Harris (m. 2004)

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Sam Harris
Sam Harris 01.jpg
Harris, pictured c. 2007
BornSamuel B. Harris[1]
(1967-04-09) April 9, 1967 (age 47)
United States
OccupationAuthor, philosopher, neuroscientist, non-profit executive
NationalityUnited States
EducationPhilosophy (B.A. 2000), Neuroscience (Ph.D. 2009)
Alma materStanford University
SubjectReligion, philosophy, neuroscience
Notable works
Notable awardsPEN/Martha Albrand Award
SpouseAnnaka Harris (m. 2004)


Samuel B. "Sam" Harris (born April 9, 1967)[2] is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason.[3] He is the author of The End of Faith, which was published in 2004 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks. The book also won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2005.[4] In 2006, Harris published the book Letter to a Christian Nation as a response to criticism of The End of Faith. This work was followed by The Moral Landscape, published in 2010, his long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014.

Harris is a contemporary critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the "New Atheism", and has singled out Islam for particular criticism. He is also an advocate for the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the liberty to criticize religion.[5] His writing and talks on religion have provoked debate, which he has actively encouraged. Some commentators have called Harris' forceful criticisms aggressive and intolerant, while others have praised his unapologetic directness as long overdue. In conjunction with world events involving violence and Islam, Harris has broadened his critical focus on Islam in society, which has resulted in death threats and outraged commentators equating his criticism with Islamophobia. Harris and others have ridiculed the misuse of the term and say such labeling is an attempt to silence criticism.[6] In 2015, Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim, began collaborating on a book titled Islam and the Future of Tolerance; a discussion of opposing viewpoints on "a topic of great importance."

Harris has written numerous articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the journal Nature. His articles touch upon a diversity of topics including religion, morality, neuroscience, free will, terrorism, and self-defense.[7] In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science can help answer moral problems and can aid the facilitation of human well-being.[5] He regularly gives talks around the United States and Great Britain, which include speeches at the University of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Caltech, Berkeley, Stanford University, and Tufts University. He also gave a shortened speech at TED, where he outlined the arguments made in his book The Moral Landscape.[8] Harris has also made numerous television appearances, including interviews for Nightline, Real Time with Bill Maher, The O'Reilly Factor, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Last Word, among others. He has also appeared in the documentary films The God Who Wasn't There (2005) and The Unbelievers (2013).

Early life and education[edit]

Harris grew up in a secular home in Los Angeles, son of actor Berkeley Harris[9] and The Golden Girls creator and TV producer Susan Harris.[10] His father came from a Quaker background and his mother is Jewish.[11] His parents rarely discussed religion, though it was always a subject which interested him.[12][13] Harris has been reluctant to discuss personal details such as where he now lives, where he grew up, or what his parents did, citing security reasons.[14] In 1986, as a young student at Stanford University, Harris experimented with the drug ecstasy, and has since written and spoken about the powerful insights he felt psychologically under the drug's influence.[15][16] Harris was a serious student of the martial arts and taught ninjutsu in college. After more than twenty years, he began practicing two martial arts again,[17] including Brazilian jiu-jitsu.[18]

Harris became interested in spiritual and philosophical questions when he studied at Stanford University. He was fascinated by the idea that he might be able to achieve spiritual insights without the use of drugs.[19] Leaving Stanford in his second year, he went to India, where he studied meditation with Hindu and Buddhist religious teachers,[19][20] including Dilgo Khyentse.[21] Eleven years later, in 1997, he returned to Stanford, completing a B.A. degree in philosophy in 2000.[13][22] Harris began writing his first book, The End of Faith, immediately after the September 11 attacks.[13]

He received a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 at the University of California, Los Angeles,[13][23][24] using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.[13][24] His thesis was titled "The moral landscape: How science could determine human values", and his advisor was Mark S. Cohen.[25]

Harris married in 2004. He and his wife Annaka are the parents of two daughters.[26] Annaka Harris is a co-founder of Project Reason and an editor of nonfiction and scientific books.


On religion[edit]

One of Harris' central messages is that the time has come to freely question the idea of religious faith.[27] Harris criticizes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, which he says tend to be monolithic and provoke adherents to harm others only for their religion. He feels that the survival of civilization is in danger because of a taboo against questioning religious beliefs, and that this taboo impedes progress toward more enlightened approaches to spirituality and ethics.

Although an atheist, Harris avoids using the term, arguing that the label is both unnecessary and a liability.[28] His position is that "atheism" is not in itself a worldview or a philosophy. He believes atheists "should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, honest people, who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them".[28]

Harris argues that religion is especially rife with bad ideas, calling it "one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised."[29] He compares modern religious beliefs to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, which were once accepted as fact but which are obsolete today. In a January 2007 interview with PBS, Harris said, "We don't have a word for not believing in Zeus, which is to say we are all atheists in respect to Zeus. And we don't have a word for not being an astrologer". He goes on to say that the term will be retired only when "we all just achieve a level of intellectual honesty where we are no longer going to pretend to be certain about things we are not certain about".[30]

He also rejects the claim that the Bible was inspired by an omniscient god. He insists that if that were the case, the book could "make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events". Instead, he notes, the Bible "does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century".[31]

In The End of Faith, Harris suggests that religious dogma is flawed in that such beliefs are based on faith rather than on evidence and experience. He maintains that religion allows views that would otherwise be a sign of "madness" to become accepted or, in some cases, revered as "holy", citing as an example the doctrine of transubstantiation. Harris contends that if a lone individual developed this belief, he or she would be considered "mad", and that it is "merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window".[27]

Harris states that he advocates a benign, noncoercive, corrective form of intolerance, distinguishing it from historic religious persecution. He promotes a conversational intolerance, in which personal convictions are scaled against evidence, and where intellectual honesty is demanded equally in religious views and non-religious views.[32] He also believes there is a need to counter inhibitions that prevent the open critique of religious ideas, beliefs, and practices under the auspices of "tolerance".[33]

Unlike some of the New Atheists who are less outspoken when challenged, Harris prefers to engage his critics rather than "let sleeping dogs lie".[6] He has invited his most vocal critics to debate him on his blog; offered monetary rewards for the best rebuttals to his arguments; challenged critics to put their assertions to the test. For example, when he proposed a cartoon contest with Glenn Greenwald where he could use his Guardian blog to solicit cartoons about Islam, while Harris would use his website to solicit entries for any other faith on earth. In response to some of the most frequent criticisms of his work—many of which he says are unfair and which misunderstand or distort his true positions—Harris maintains a long and frequently updated post on his personal website where he addresses and rebuts each claim.[34]

For example, columnist Madeleine Bunting quotes Harris in saying "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them", and states this "sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition".[35] Quoting the same passage, theologian Catherine Keller asks, "[c]ould there be a more dangerous proposition than that?" and argues that the "anti-tolerance" it represents would "dismantle" the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.[36] Writer Theodore Dalrymple described the passage as "quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist".[37] Harris repudiated his critics' characterization, showing that this sentence has been taken wildly out of its original context. "Some critics have interpreted (this sentence) to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs," he writes, "but such a reading remains a frank distortion of my views.".[34] In a later article, he described the same quote as "the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith", pointing out that it takes place within the "absolutely essential" larger context of "a philosophical and psychological analysis of belief as an engine of behavior", and that "nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes."[38]

In positive book reviews of The End of Faith, Nina Burleigh agrees with Harris' premise that religious "faith" is leading humanity into ruin, and the world would be better off without the three major religions,[39] and Richard Dawkins cheers the fact that while the book won't "change the minds of idiots", it will encourage other intelligent people to come out and raise their voices.[40] Fellow contributor at The Huffington Post, R. J. Eskow, has cautioned Harris, "in your zeal to end the harms caused by religion, don't be driven by blind faith down a course of intolerance."[41][42]

Regarding the level of treatment or criticism Harris applies to various religions, he has stated, "My criticism of faith-based religion focuses on what I consider to be bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behavior. Because I am concerned about the logical and behavioral consequences of specific beliefs, I do not treat all religions the same. Not all religious doctrines are mistaken to the same degree, intellectually or ethically, and it is dishonest and ultimately dangerous to pretend otherwise. People in every tradition can be seen making the same errors, of course—e.g. relying on faith instead of evidence in matters of great personal and public concern—but the doctrines and authorities in which they place their faith run the gamut from the quaint to the psychopathic."[34]

On Islam[edit]

Compared to some other major world religions, Harris considers Islam to be "especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse". He asserts that the "dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend one’s faith, both from within and without" to varying degrees, is a central part of the doctrine of Islam not found in many other religions, "and this difference has consequences in the real world." Harris has cautioned his critics, "If you will not concede this point, you will not understand anything I say about Islam. Unfortunately, many of my most voluble critics cannot clear this bar—and no amount of quotation from the Koran, the hadith, the ravings of modern Islamists, or from the plaints of their victims, makes a bit of difference."[34] In addition to his criticisms applicable to all religions, Harris has made assertions about Islam which have sparked critical response and resulted in death threats.[43] In 2006, after thousands gathered throughout the Muslim world and burned European embassies, issued threats, and took hostages in protest over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Harris wrote, "The idea that Islam is a 'peaceful religion hijacked by extremists' is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It now appears to be a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognize why this is so—it is so because the Muslim world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism. In confronting the religious literalism and ignorance of the Muslim world, we must appreciate how terrifyingly isolated Muslims have become in intellectual terms."[6][44][45][46] In February 2015, the Washington Post asked Sam Harris for a statement on his position on Islam, which he provided only on the condition that it be printed in full:

Anthropologist Scott Atran has criticized Harris for what he believes unscientifically highlights the role of belief in the psychology of suicide bombers. Atran later followed up his comments in an online discussion for, in which he criticized Harris and others for combating religious dogmatism and faith in a way that Atran believes is "scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share".[47]

After two columns, one in Al Jazeera and one in Salon, accused Harris and the New Atheists of expressing irrational anti-Muslim animus under the guise of rational atheism, Glenn Greenwald wrote a column saying he agreed: "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 ... Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy proscriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims." Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that "we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam." He has also decreed that "this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda." "We" - the civilized peoples of the west - are at war with "millions" of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between "civilized" people and Muslims: "All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth." [48]

Harris has written extensively in response to these criticisms, and also been the subject of an aired debate hosted by The Huffington Post on whether critics of Islam are unfairly labeled as bigots.[49] Harris writes that Greenwald has "worked very hard to make himself my enemy."[50] Harris rejects the term "Islamophobia", with which his criticism of Islam is sometimes equated. He emphasizes that his criticism of Islam is aimed not at Muslims as people, but at the doctrine of Islam as an ideology, acknowledging that not all Muslims subscribe to the ideas he is criticizing. "My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences," he wrote following a controversial clash with Ben Affleck in October 2014 on the show Real Time with Bill Maher, "but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people."[51] "[Islamophobia] is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it."[6][46]

Harris' comments have received support from Gad Saad, who wrote in Psychology Today that "Sam Harris and countless other true liberals are at the forefront of that discussion. This hardly makes them hateful bigots. Rather, they are courageous defenders of Western liberal values."[52] Amongst those who have endorsed Harris' theory that the term "Islamophobia" has been used to silence critics of Islam are: Nina Burleigh,[53] Ronald A. Lindsay,[49] Lawrence M. Krauss,[54] Josh Zepps,[49] Jerry Coyne and Andrew Zak Williams of the New Statesman.[55] Writing in the New York Post, Rich Lowry defended Harris and Maher by arguing that their liberals critics are unable to "talk frankly about the illiberalism of much of the Muslim world" as "[i]t entails resisting the reflex to consider any criticism of the Third World as presumptive racism."[56]

On Christianity[edit]

Harris has roundly criticized Christianity, and has reserved additional and particular derision for specific branches. He has described Mormonism as less credible than most Christianity, "because Mormons are committed to believing nearly all the implausible things that Christians believe plus many additional implausible things", such as Jesus returning to earth in Jackson County, Missouri. Harris has referred to Catholicism as "ghoulish machinery set to whirling through the ages by the opposing winds of shame and sadism", and criticized the Catholic Church for spending "two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other institution, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo." Harris has also criticized the Catholic Church's structure and forced celibacy within its ranks for attracting pedophiles, and blames its opposition to the use of contraception for poverty, shorter lifespans, and proliferation of AIDS.[57]

On Judaism[edit]

Harris was raised by a secular Jewish mother and a Quaker father, and has stated that his upbringing was entirely secular. Fellow religion critic Christopher Hitchens once referred to Harris as a "Jewish warrior against theocracy and bigotry of all stripes".[58]

In The End of Faith, Harris is critical of the Jewish faith and its followers:

Harris has said he holds somewhat paradoxical views about Israel and Judaism, and is still genuinely undecided on some things. "I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible. Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable."[59]

On spirituality, mysticism, and the paranormal[edit]

Despite his anti-religion sentiments, Sam Harris also claims that there is "nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have."[19] Similarly, Margaret Wertheim, who claims to be an atheist, contends that Harris's account of religious faith as the source of many social evils should be viewed "with considerable skepticism". "I would like to stand up for religion and the value of faith", she said, and concluded after her mother told her it was Catholicism which motivated her extensive charitable works, "that the left hand of God is also one of the greatest powers for social change on this planet."[60]

In January 2007, Harris received criticism from John Gorenfeld, writing for AlterNet.[61] Gorenfeld took Harris to task for defending some of the findings of paranormal investigations into areas such as reincarnation and xenoglossy. He also strongly criticized Harris for his defense of judicial torture. (Harris has stated that he believes torture should be illegal, but that it in certain extreme circumstances it may be ethical to break the law.)[62] Gorenfeld's critique was subsequently reflected by Robert Todd Carroll, writing in the Skeptic's Dictionary.[63] On his website Harris disputed that he had defended these views to the extent that Gorenfeld suggested.[64]

Science of morality[edit]

Sam Harris speaking in 2010 at TED

In his third book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris argues that "Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics." He contends that humanity has reached a point in time when, thanks to scientific flourishing and inquiry, many sciences can "have an impact on the well-being of others".[65] Harris argues that it is time to promote a scientific approach to normative morality, rejecting the idea that religion determines what is good.[66] He believes that once scientists begin proposing moral norms in papers, supernatural moral systems will join "astrology, witchcraft and Greek mythology on the scrapheap".[66]

Some reviewers of The Moral Landscape criticized various arguments advanced by Harris.[67][68][69][70][71][72] Soon after the book's release, Harris responded to some of the criticisms in an article for The Huffington Post.[73] In The National Interest, Scott Atran argued against Harris's thesis in The Moral Landscape that science can determine moral values. Atran adds that abolishing religion will do nothing to rid mankind of its ills.[74]

In August 2013, three years after the book's original publication, Harris announced "The Moral Landscape Challenge'". On his blog, he invited readers to submit essays arguing against the positions he had put forth in The Moral Landscape, offering a $2,000 prize to the author of the (independently judged) best entry. He also stipulated that, if the winning essay ultimately persuaded him that the arguments he'd put forth in The Moral Landscape were, in fact, wrong, he would award an extra $20,000 of prize money. Explaining his rationale for the contest, he expressed his frustration with the criticism the book had received up until that point, saying: "I haven’t encountered a single significant criticism of The Moral Landscape that has made any sense to me. ... And yet I’m continually confronted by people who believe that there is a knock down argument against my thesis that is well known to everyone. This has been frustrating, to say the least. ... My goal with this contest is to elicit the hardest challenge I can find and to deal with it, or fail to, once and for all."[75] In May 2014 it was announced that the $2,000 prize had been won by Ryan Born, a philosophy teacher at Georgia State University.[76]

Free will[edit]

Commenting on Harris's book Free Will, Daniel Dennett disagrees with Harris' position on compatibilism, and asks if Harris is directing his arguments against an unreasonably absolute or "perfect freedom" version of compatibilism, which Dennett would describe as an incoherent, straw man version.[77][78]

Social and economic politics[edit]

Harris describes himself as a liberal, and states that he supports raising taxes on the wealthy, decriminalizing drugs, and the rights of homosexuals to marry. He has been critical of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, fiscal irresponsibility and treatment of science.[79]

Organizational affiliations[edit]

In 2007 Sam and Annaka Harris founded Project Reason, a charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.[80] He is also a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America,[81] a national lobbying organization representing the interests of nontheistic Americans.


Building on his interests in belief and religion, Harris completed a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA.[20][24] He used fMRI to explore whether the brain responses differ between sentences that subjects judged as true, false, or undecidable, across a wide range of categories including autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual statements.[82]

In another study, Harris and colleagues examined the neural basis of religious and non-religious belief using fMRI.[83] Fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers were scanned as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. For both groups, statements of belief (sentences judged as either true or false) were associated with increased activation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in emotional judgment, processing uncertainty, assessing rewards and thinking about oneself.[24] A "comparison of all religious trials to all nonreligious trials produced a wide range of signal differences throughout the brain," and the processing of religious belief and empirical belief differed in significant ways.[83] The regions associated with increased activation in response to religious stimuli included the anterior insula, the ventral striatum, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the posterior medial cortex.

Writings and media appearances[edit]

Harris's writing focuses on neuroscience and criticism of religion, for which he is best known. He blogs for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and formerly for Truthdig, and his articles have appeared in such publications as Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the British national newspaper The Times.[84]

Harris has made numerous TV and radio appearances, including on The O'Reilly Factor, ABC News, Tucker, Book TV, NPR, Real Time, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show. In 2005, Harris appeared in the documentary film The God Who Wasn't There. Harris was a featured speaker at the 2006 conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival. He made two presentations and participated in the ensuing panel discussions. Harris has also appeared a number of times on the Point of Inquiry radio podcast. Harris engaged in a lengthy debate with Andrew Sullivan on the internet forum Beliefnet.[85] In April 2007, Harris debated with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine.[86] In April 2011, he debated William Lane Craig on the nature of morality.[87][88]

In September 2011 Harris's essay Lying was published as a Kindle single.[89]

Harris has appeared as a guest on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast three times, most recently in September 2014. The conversations have each lasted around three hours and have covered a variety of topics related to Harris's research, books, and interests.

On September 28, 2012, Harris spoke at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia.[90] His speech was on the delusion of Free Will,[90] which is also the topic of his book of 2012.[91]

On April 7, 2013, Harris revealed on his blog his forthcoming book, Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, Spirituality, which describes his views on mystical experience.[92]



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