What is wrong with Sam Harris

I regularly gripe about Sam Harris here. When I’ve had more lengthy pieces to write, I’ve written against his ignorant approach to Islam, and expressed ambivalence about those aspects of the “New Atheism” associated with Harris.

But if I’m going to keep griping, it might not be a bad idea to rehash specifically why I think the popularity of Harris should be embarrassing for nonbelievers. This mainly because a common response to public criticism of religion is is that the critic has misunderstood religion in general, or is ignorant of the specific traditions criticized. In Harris’s case, the accusations are correct. And since Harris is in a position where he legitimately represents the attitudes of many nonbelievers in the US, it may well be fair to say that American nonbelief often proceeds from a misunderstanding of religion.

(There is some irony here. The New Atheists often say they are justified in their focus on conservative, even fundamentalist beliefs, since these are the most popular. They wave away defenses of religion that represent liberal views and traditions with more intellectual depth. But I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask fellow academics not to dismiss what I call science-minded nonbelief out of hand, just because its most public representatives include very visible scholarly disasters such as Harris.)

So, let me revisit the case where Harris annoys me the most—when he portrays Islam as an essentially violent religion by quoting violent passages from the Quran.

First of all, even trying something like this betrays unfamiliarity with the scientific and scholarly literature on religion in general. Violence is almost never some direct manifestation of the “plain meaning” of religious texts. Most fundamentally this is because religious texts are very often exceptionally unstable in meaning. If there is a theological orthodoxy, this is enforced by means that make a mockery of any naive claims to context-free plain meaning. And even when there is an orthodoxy, most ordinary believers are theologically incorrect. That is, their actual (often tacit) beliefs in everyday contexts, especially when unreflective action is called for, usually diverge very markedly from official beliefs about the supernatural agents of their tradition. I don’t see how anyone who is a serious student of religion could get away with naively predicting violent behavior by examining the ancient texts of a religion. That sort of thing gets beaten out of you as a graduate student, if you even make it that far.

Second, Harris is not just making sweeping general pronouncements about the evils of faith. He is making sweeping claims about a specific tradition, Islam. And few of his pronouncements about Islam are such that they could be taken seriously by a student of that religion. In particular, he shows no awareness of the different and competing processes in today’s varieties of Islam that impose a context on the Quran and thereby render the text meaningful. Simply, how Harris imagines the Quran “says” things has little to do with the many ways Muslim communities interpret texts and conceive of sanctified political action. Ugly and often dangerous as Muslim-associated violence is today, Harris provides no analysis of it that is even superficially plausible. Again, this is because he is demonstrably ignorant of the relevant scholarly literature on what is hardly an obscure subject.

Criticism of religion has to demonstrate some minimal level of competence in the context of religious studies to deserve being taken seriously at all. Harris’s work just does not make the grade.

This is not a one-off thing. In his latest book, Harris makes a big deal of some neuroimaging studies that he interprets as collapsing the fact-value distinction. But that line of argument is not new. I remember philosophers who paid close attention to neuroscience in the late 1990’s debating the matter then; and even with the poorer quality data back then, it was obvious that moral reasoning had a strong cognitive component. And it was already pretty clear that a naive monistic moral realism a la Harris was not the most plausible way to understand out moral perceptions and moral lives. A moral pluralism that deploys metaphors such as a “moral ecology” was the better option then, as it is now. But again, Harris shows no awareness of the most relevant debates: he charges in as if his naive, half-assed view was somehow obviously correct.

All this is enormously frustrating for those of us who bother to do our homework. Worse, it makes it more difficult for those of us who want to see closer connections forged between the natural sciences and the humanities, and who argue that a naturalistic, scientific picture of us being-in-the-world is far better at making sense of human experience than a more traditional, transcendence-seeking picture. Ham-handed attempts like Harris, especially when they get a lot of attention, makes our lives more difficult, because we have to persuade our colleagues that we are not just less loud proponents of a fundamentally flawed approach. Certainly, looking at Harris’s work, it would not be hard to conclude that scientific naturalism is not yet another attempt to shove the world into an ideological straightjacket.

There is more that bears repeating. The self-image of many nonbelievers todays is that of people who reject supernatural beliefs after a process of reasoned criticism. If that is not just empty self-congratulation, we should be demanding at least awareness of the relevant science and scholarship among those who we put in a position of intellectual leadership. Again, Harris does not make the grade. The most dominant note I see in his work is moral posturing. And while that has fed a kind of righteous anger against faith-based nonsense among nonbelievers, I’d be a lot happier if we were more careful to demand intellectual quality alongside the righteous anger.