Sam Harris -- End Of Faith

I saw a show on PAX called Faith Under Fire, and Sam Harris, who I had never heard of, expressed all the same views that I’ve expressed on this thread, but much better. I think he’s right about everything. Check out the show, and maybe even his book. Even if you disagree, its a good thing to be aware of. Anyone seen the show? It’s on once a week. Tivo it, friends.

Hi Gamer,
Just as an addition from Publishers Weekly:
In this sometimes simplistic and misguided book, Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Not only does such faith lack a rational base, he argues, but even the urge for religious toleration allows a too-easy acceptance of the motives of religious fundamentalists. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Moreover, innumerable acts of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. But Harris overstates his case by misunderstanding religious faith, as when he makes the audaciously naïve statement that “mysticism is a rational enterprise; religion is not.” As William James ably demonstrated, mysticism is far from a rational enterprise, while religion might often require rationality in order to function properly. On balance, Harris’s book generalizes so much about both religion and reason that it is ineffectual.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Hi Gamer,

On another note, I found this interview at: … 02-1676739

Interview with Sam Harris: The Mortal Dangers of Religious Faith
Not long before the birth of Christ, in an age of violence and turmoil, the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote an epic masterpiece titled De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). His goal, in part, was to liberate humankind from the religious superstitions that he believed stood in the way of true peace of mind and happiness. Author Sam Harris plays the role of a contemporary Lucretius in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is a doctoral candidate in the field of neuroscience. Well aware that a book about the inherent dangers of institutional, dogmatic religion would court controversy, Harris wrote The End of Faith out of a sense of urgency regarding what he argues constitutes perhaps the greatest threat we face today. He shared his thoughts about the character of dogmatic faith versus mysticism, the role of reason in civil discourse, and the hope that humans can overcome the propensity toward religious violence before it’s too late. Obviously there’s something in the makeup of humans that impels them toward a belief in a transcendent being. From your own work in neuroscience, how do you account for this?

Sam Harris: I don’t know of any result in neuroscience that speaks directly to this issue. But there are some general features of the human mind that are clearly relevant here. We are born ready to live in relationship to the world around us. We emerge from our mother’s wombs ready to see faces as faces, to learn language, and to gradually recognize that we are in the presence of minds like our own. The prevalence of animism among our primitive ancestors–as well as its persistence in certain tribes–demonstrates that we readily ascribe human qualities to processes in nature. It is only by gaining a deeper understanding of causal processes in the world (through science) that we come to realize that storm clouds are not angry gods and that diseases are not the result of demonic possession. It is difficult to say where we should draw the line between genetic endowment and cultural inheritance, and both are surely operative in the case of religious belief. But the basic fact is that, yes, we are deeply disposed to broadcast our own subjectivity onto the world. The biblical God is jealous, angry–deplorably neurotic, in fact. And the Greek gods were like teenagers left alone in their parents’ house for the weekend. The fact that we may be predisposed to conceive of the universe in anthropomorphic terms does not mean that we are condemned to do so, however. Can you clarify the mix of biology and culture involved in the above? For example, what do you think of the Dean Hamer The God Gene type of argument? If there is a biological drive toward faith, what accounts for the extraordinary cultural divide between the Western monotheisms and the mysticism of the East?

Harris: With most higher cognitive traits, the search for an explanation in terms of single genes is probably hopeless. But whatever the story is at the genetic level, biology only loosely determines culture in any case. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat pasta. We are prone to jealousy, but this emotion can play itself out in the manner of Cary Grant or in the manner of Mullah Omar. Same biology, different culture. Much of our behavior as human beings, while it may emerge from our biology, is perpetuated in its present form merely because we have not felt sufficient pressure to change it. Culture does not systematically improve the design of its products (neither does biology for that matter). So, while we should expect to see important differences across cultures, these differences may not reflect anything deeper about us than the fact that human communities tend to keep using the tools they’ve got for as long as these tools are serviceable. Consider the difference between Eastern and Western medicine.
Are they equivalently useful? No. Is Eastern medicine better for Easterners? No. While Eastern medicine may be applicable to certain health problems, and may even surpass Western medicine in a few areas, there is simply no comparison between these two disciplines. No one with an appendicitis, an aneurysm, or breast cancer would be wise to rush off to her acupuncturist before going to the hospital. This is true in New York, and it is just as true in Hong Kong.
With respect to spiritual practice, however, the disparity clearly runs the other way. While Eastern mysticism has its fair share of unjustified belief, it undoubtedly represents humankind’s best attempt at fashioning a spiritual science. The methods of introspection one finds in Buddhism, for instance, have no genuine equivalents in the West. And the suggestion that they do is born of a desperate attempt on the part of Westerners to make all religious traditions seem equally wise. They simply aren’t. When a Tibetan lama talks about “nondual awareness” (Tib. rigpa) and the Pope talks about God or the Holy Spirit (or anything else), they are not talking about the same thing; nor are they operating on the same intellectual footing. The lama is using some very precise terminology (albeit terminology that has no good English equivalent) to describe what countless meditators have experienced after very refined training in methods of introspection; while the Pope is merely reiterating unjustified and unjustifiable metaphysical claims that have been passed down to Christians in the context of a culture that has failed–utterly–to find compelling alternatives to mere belief. Such alternatives have existed for millennia, east of the Bosporus. This is not to ignore the Meister Eckharts of the world, but such mystics have always been the exception in the West. And it is important to remember that, being exceptions, they have been regularly persecuted for heresy. You basically characterize Western religion as dangerous and Eastern mysticism as full of promise. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

Harris: Mysticism, shorn of religious dogmatism, is an empirical and highly rational enterprise. Just as people do not burn their neighbors at the stake as a result of new insights in physics or biology, no one is likely to do so on the basis of genuine mysticism. Religion–especially in the West–is another matter entirely. Religious faith is a conversation stopper.
The only thing that guarantees a truly open-ended collaboration among human beings is their willingness to have their views (and resulting behavior) modified by conversation–by new evidence and new arguments. Otherwise, when the stakes are high, there is nothing to appeal to but force. If I believe that I can get to Paradise by flying a plane into a building, and I am content to believe this without evidence, then there will be nothing another person can say to dissuade me, because my leap of faith has made me immune to the powers of conversation. In other words, you are careful to distinguish between what you term “faith” and “spirituality.” In a nutshell, what is this distinction?

Harris: “Faith” is false conviction in unjustified propositions (a certain book was written by God; we will be reunited with our loved ones after death; the Creator of the universe can hear our thoughts, etc.). “Spirituality” or “mysticism” (both words are pretty terrible, but there are no good alternatives in English) refers to any process of introspection by which a person can come to realize that the feeling he calls “I” is a cognitive illusion. The core truth of mysticism is this: It is possible to experience the world without feeling like a separate “self” in the usual sense. Such a change in the character of one’s experience need not become the basis for making unsupportable claims about the nature of the universe, however. Why have earlier attempts at erasing faith through classical materialism resulted in a level of violence similar to what you believe faith itself has inspired (i.e., Communism)?

Harris: Communism was not an attempt to erase faith. It was a new faith, albeit one that did not look beyond this life. Communism was shot through with irrationality. Stalin’s repudiation of “capitalist biology” in favor of Lysenkoism (a rehash of the Lamarckian doctrine of acquired characteristics: The idea that giraffes got their long necks as a result of their ancestors striving to reach higher and higher branches) is but one example of the dogmatism that was the soul of Communism. Freethinking (that is to say rational) scientists were sent to the gulag for failing to support this ideology. Millions died from famine in both the Soviet Union and China due to their failure to implement sane agricultural practices informed by Mendelian genetics.
The kind of intolerance of faith that I am advocating in my book is not the intolerance that gave us the gulag. It is conversational intolerance. When people make outlandish claims, without evidence, we stop listening to them–except on matters of faith. I am arguing that we can no longer afford to give faith a pass in this way. Bad beliefs should be criticized wherever they appear in our discourse–in physics, in medicine, and on matters of ethics and spirituality as well. The President of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. Now, if he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ludicrous or more offensive. Following the terms of your argument about the dangers of faith, how was it possible then for Christianity, for example, to reach a state of relative “domestication” in the early modern period–without being derided out of existence as an absurdity?

Harris: Well, it has suffered some important moments of derision, especially in Europe (think Voltaire or Hume), which may account for why modern Europeans are not content to wander quite so far down the path of biblically inspired irrationality as we are. More importantly, Christianity has suffered a relentless and uncelebrated winnowing as a result of the progress of science and secular culture in the West. Priests would still be diagnosing demonic possession if it were not for the advances made in the last 200 years by medical science. The situations in which prayer now seems an adequate (or even sane) first response to human suffering have been gradually (but radically) diminished.
Another important feature of Christianity–which, unfortunately, Islam does not share–is that it provides a loophole into “domestication.” “Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s …” really does make a difference when it comes time to find a rationale for separating Church and State. Islam is far more problematic in this sense. Given the doctrine of Islam, as it is set forth in the Koran and the Hadith, it is extremely difficult for Muslims to justify keeping religion out of politics. Regarding readers’ reactions to the book–do you fear that this could simply become a matter of “preaching to the converted”? Or do you hope to jump-start the necessary conversation through a certain shock value?

Harris: I certainly hope to start a conversation. And I’m not sure who the “converted” are, in any case. My book seems to offend liberals and conservatives equally. Conservatives love what I have to say about the dangers of Islam but recoil at my attack upon Christianity. And liberals hate the case I make against Islam (due to its political incorrectness) but love my argument against the intrusions of Christian fundamentalism into social policy. Both sides seem poised to resist my core argument against faith itself. Perhaps the dedication in my book is more literal than most. I may have written The End of Faith only “for my mother.” She, at least, agrees with me. What are some of the most unexpected reactions to your arguments you’ve come across–both pro and con?

Harris: I have been quite surprised to find some Christians celebrating my argument against moderate religion. One Baptist minister more or less endorsed my book as the final nail in the coffin of religious moderation, claiming that I have proven that there are only two viable choices, secularism or fundamentalism. His rebuttal to my thesis was also the most surprising criticism I’ve encountered–he simply offered no rebuttal at all. He spoke about my book for 40 minutes on the radio, with very few distortions, and left my argument against faith entirely unchallenged–as though any process of reasoning that put faith in question would be so obviously unacceptable to his listeners that it need not even be addressed. Listening to him essentially pitch my book, while damning it implicitly, was really a through-the-looking-glass experience.
Generally speaking, however, I am continually surprised to find that even secular intellectuals believe that faith is necessary for other people. “We’ll never get rid of religion. It’s just too important to people,” is perhaps the most common rejoinder of all. How is it that anyone thinks he knows this to be the case? Surely the first half of the 19th century was filled with people who said things like, “We’ll never get rid of slavery. It’s just too important for the economy…” Of course, this was a similar, seemingly sensible claim. But it was the product of intellectual and moral laziness, and it was wrong. Dostoevsky’s famous phrase “without God, everything is permitted” (from The Brothers Karamazov) is often used by theists as a warning about the dangers of living without a transcendent moral certitude. In your view, is it safe to say that “it’s with God that everything is permitted” (murder, genocide, etc.)?

Harris: Yes, but I would broaden the scope of the claim: With false certainty, anything is possible. This covers the Hitlers and the Stalins of the world as well. What’s the single most practical thing that people who agree with your conclusions could do starting now to change the overall consensus about religious faith?

Harris: Once again, it comes down to new rules of conversation–not new laws or demonstrations in the street. Just imagine how different it would be if every time a person in a position of power used the word “God,” the press responded as though he had just used a word like “Poseidon.” Our conversation with ourselves would change very quickly and very dramatically. Imagine someone opposing stem-cell research on the floor of the Senate with a statement like, “life is a gift from Zeus himself. No man should meddle with it.”
Of course, criticism and the demand for intellectual honesty are not enough. On the positive side, we need to find creative approaches to ethics, spiritual experience, and the building of strong communities. The scientific study of positive human experience–joy, love, compassion, meditative states, etc.–will undoubtedly play a role here. But this will take time. It need take no time at all, however, for us to realize that the people who invoke God in public discourse are either speaking in empty platitudes or making some very suspect claims about the nature of the world, or about the character of their own experience. We should demand that they start making sense, and if they fail to make sense, we should stop listening to them. In what sense is your book a kind of “prayer”? Do you think ultimately that humans will be able to avoid the apocalypse that you argue is the greatest threat of religious faith?

Harris: I am not as optimistic as I’d like to be. It is an interesting state to be in, psychologically speaking, because I feel very motivated to make the case against religion, but I don’t see any real basis for hope that anything will change for the better. It seems very likely that we have spent too long in the company of bad ideas to now arrest our slide toward the brink. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I would not be surprised if the human experiment runs radically off the rails in our lifetime.
The people who have their hands upon the tiller of civilization are just not thinking, speaking, or allocating resources in the ways they must if we are to avoid catastrophe. The fact that we elect presidents who waste time on things like gay marriage, when the nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union lie unsecured (to cite only one immediate threat to our survival), is emblematic of how disastrously off course we are (it is also emblematic of the role faith plays in forcing us off course). So I am not hopeful. But still, each of us has to try to contribute positively to the world as we find it. What alternative is there?


I just ordered his book through my local B&N bookstore.

He seem’s to be wrestling with any number of issues we have been throwing around the last month or so.


In comparing the review by Publisher’s Weekly and the interview conducted by it seemed to me that whoever wrote the PW review either failed to read the book or simply missed the point. I found nothing that attacked the mystery, just the irrational lethal dogmatic practices of the various religions.

Perhaps a full reading of his book will reveal something sinister, but it doesn’t look like it.


Get a copy of his book. It looks like it could be the basis for some healthy discussion. For instance, I have been questioning how Christianity could have grown less violent and Islam couldn’t avoid the extremist violence we are witnessing each day. Harris stuck his finger right on the soft spot: Christianity has found a way of co-existing with the secular world and Islam has yet to find it’s way. This aim’s right at the religious tolerance thread. Food for more thought.


sam harris is awesome I’m buying that book asap.


reading this interview I actually understand your “I or we” statement a little better. but

I think you need to back off the socialism approach. we can all agree religion in it’s current form is bad and still be individuals.

I ordered it, too. Let’s talk soon.

Gee, do you think Bob might have had an agenda behind using a couple of gigabytes to post those reviews? :laughing: Pretty sneaky, Bob.



I just received my copy of Harris’ book. I haven’t even finished the 1st chapter and I’m already saying yes, yes, and yes…

I’m sure that the maybes and the no’s will show up in due time, but there is already enough material to discuss for a month or so. This is going to be fun. Hell, I might even learn something useful!


To Mr. Sam Harris

With Just a Plain Piece of Paper, Please Show and Tell, the World The Truth

Nothing written but it can contain words, nothing spoken that isn’t reveal with the Paper.

How about Jack in the Box Babies, instead of the 9 month method.


Hey, my girlfriend exercises to pilates! :stuck_out_tongue:

I bought Harris’ book, and like tentative, I am also finding myself agreeing more and more with his views.

My favorite point of his was that religious moderation betrays both rationality and God. Good stuff.



I am new here, so please be gentle if you must mock me … that being said, I have yet to purchase Mr Harris’ book, but I have heard a couple radio interviews and read a good deal online.

In his book does Harris offer a clear deliniation between religious faith and everyday irrational faith that each of us operates by?

For example it is quite irrational to think that turning flipping a switch will make a room light up, or that everyone will actually stop when a traffic light changes (in both cases the exception happens somewhere every minute I am sure), however my experience along with some empirical data causes me to act as though both situations are absolutes.

Harris seems to lump all Western faith into an extreme belief system. I know many Chrisitians who think on an extemely high level, were not raised in an environment that caused them to inherit their faith, and who would point to much archeology, history, science, etc. on which they base their belief system. Much in the same way we would base our trust in our light switch to work … they have percieved experience, as well emperical evidence.

I do not see Harris taking this into account at all … but like i said i still need to read the book. Can anyone who has read it in its entirety give me some insight?

Also, does he admit to any good offered through religious faith? If not it seems his dogma is as strong and poisoned as anyone elses.

Thanks, Aaron

Hi Seaside Thinker. I will not mock you.

You’re right to point out that there are everyday faiths we all have in order to function.

But believing a light will go on is not as absurd as believing in the virgin birth, or astrology. To illustrate this point, consider that there is a hierarchy of justified belief. My cousin is a doctor is more justified than my cousin is a chair. In other words, some propositions have more empirical evidence, more background data supporting the claim. Your post doesn;t demonstrate that you accept the different categories of belief.

Once you accept that there are different categories, and that, yes, belief if causality, space, time, gravity, light switches, etc., are also, inevitably reduced to faith, (these beliefs are of an altogether different kind of faith, given the properties of justification) then you can move on to gathering data that can be used as justification. This is a very important part of belief formation, not to be taken lightly. In analysing the data supporting most religious faith, I believe the faith is a very unjustified kind, almost tenaciously unjustified; as if religion itself is the embodiment of a very ugly breed of denouncement: the denouncing of justification of propositions, and propositional truth and logic in general. I believe the light switch belief you mentioned is a far more justified faith, given the empirical hard data and universal repeatability.

Sam Harris clearly makes this distinction in this book, and he clearly says that, yes, some religion can yield some good. But guns can also yield some good if used correctly. I think his point is that religion yields more harm than good, aside from being a distasteful and craven denouncement of the actual universe in favor of a deeply flawed, desparate, primitive mythology; regardless of what it yields in a pragmatic or utilitarian sense, an argument can also be made that it’s just plain deceptive and that this deception lacks poetic grace when held up to perennial standards of virtue and self-actualization, i.e. “Know thyself,” “The unexamined life is not worth living…,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” etc.

Well check out this, Sam Harris will be online December 5th for the launch party of

A friend just emailed this to me. Yet another opportunity to sift through Harris’ ideas. … 01324.html


Greetings. I am new to this board, but as someone always thinking about these issues, I do plan to participate in the conversation. I am glad to see a thread about Sam Harris’ book. For many years, I had been vaguely planning to write a book making nearly the exact points Harris makes here. Needless to say, the writing of that book took a back seat to other day-to-day concerns, so I am absolutely thrilled to see a book that comes to the conclusions that I believe a rigorous examination of the sum of our current knowledge should arrive at. I am also greatly enthused at the number of writers on this thread who apparently shared my sense of “finally- someone has written this!”

I look forward to continuing this discussion, and will enjoy adding my thoughts about more specific elements of the book at a later time.


Gamer, are you not just a little blinded here? Do you not condone this book, which promotes the very sort of attacks you accuse, and condem Christains of?

Also, it seems to be your contention , that the spread of true knowledge/logical reasoning would be the most effective method in rooting out unjustified beliefs.

Is not the evolution of knowledge progressing to a point, in which knowledge structures become so accessable as to be transparent, thereby nullifing the use of any unjustified propositions?

It seems to me that rather than launch an all out attack on Christians, simply promoting the spread of knowledge would be a better agenda.

D of E,

I don’t want to put words in Gamer’s mouth, but he wasn’t ‘attacking’ christians. His comments were aimed at non-rational beliefs regardless their source. As for the spread of ‘true knowledge/logical reasoning’ I think you will find that those who would demand that you adhere to their non-rational beliefs are convinced that they, and they alone, are the possessors of ‘true knowledge’. After all, God told them so. Logical reasoning is dismissed as a flawed man-made ‘tool of the devil’.

You may be correct in asking for the promotion of public rationality, but convincing a ‘true believer’ of any stripe is easier said than done.


but who’s knowledge shall we spin D of E?

as tentative said →

promoting the spread of knowledge is not the ultimate goal, spreading the tools to acquire knowledge of your own free will, and not rely on any previous source of “said” knowledge.

The first step is admitting you know nothing.

the second step after dumping all of your forefathers knowledge is to learn how to learn. Learn to discern relative truth from subjective truth.

The third step is to realize that while all opinions are relative it’s still important to have commitment towards (edit) positive ideals.

so plug away I shall:

sign the one campaign to help those who are far far worse off than yourself.

that’s a good start I’d say to being committed towards a good cause.