Lears reviews Harris

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

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

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

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

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