Let’s Talk About Sam Harris

And a larger social aversion to nuance

Few things are a better measuring stick of a society’s knowledgeability than its capacity to accept nuance. We need to observe nuance as a means of preventing ourselves from making potentially harmful generalizations. Subtle differences and details about our world matter, for upon them we build much larger, more general, and far more all-encompassing values and priorities. By this measuring stick, our societies have a long way to go before we can truly say that we accept perspectives that require even moderate amounts of nuance. Enter Sam Harris.

The Horsemen

Prior to any discussion of ideas from Harris that have stirred controversy can begin, it’s critical that context is provided regarding who he actually is.

Sam Harris is an author, neuroscientist, philosopher and co-founder of the non-profit Project Reason, which is dedicated to supporting scientific and secular principles in society at large. Dubbed one of the “Four Horseman” of what has been called “New Atheism” (the other three being Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens) Harris is highly critical of all world religions and an avid supporter of spreading secular ideas as ardently as possible. Harris argues that religious claims of institutional omnipotence and infallible teachings have misled many to believe that human morality is something that cannot be achieved absent religious doctrine. This is something that Harris asserts to be a great hinderance to human progress.

Harris argues, and exceptionally so, that individuals must not limit their intellectual development in life to the teachings of any holy book, especially in societies as diverse and technologically sophisticated as the ones of today. While art, science, and other secular institutions regularly subject themselves to the harshest of evaluations as a means of authentication, Harris’ concerns come mainly from what people do when they believe that their faith (or frankly anything belief system) is above criticism. Harris says that this is fundamentally very dangerous, and that secular people need to criticize religious principles that are at odds with modern values such as scientific inquiry, human rights, gender equality, or separation of church and state.

This in itself has not been seen as controversial outside of (of course) religious circles. Harris has debated theologians for years and has also been a very successful writer, lecturer, and podcast host by discussing many important social ideas that are not at all limited purely to talks about atheism. Harris’s arguments on whether or not humans have free will, for example, and the ways in which he supports his assertions with lab-based data about the human brain as well as simple thought experiments are impressively concise. But things grow more controversial from here on out.

The Contention

As the issue of fundamentalist terrorism has intensified within the West in recent years, Harris has begun to devote more attention and indeed criticism to the topic of Islam. On the whole, however, he has still written far more about Christianity (though that may change). In response, many have accused Harris of being a bigot, a racist, a right wing apologist, and even a charlatan. His most famous spat to date may have occurred with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher. Beyond that, the amount of Harris’ statements that have spurred controversy are too many to count, and are often built off of analogies that allow plenty of subjective interpretation. What I’m really saying is that if you want to read up on all of his feuds, you can google them yourself.

What makes Harris a particularly polarizing figure is that he refuses to say that all religious doctrine is either equally good or equally flawed. This is where his points become very nuanced, and to many, offensive. Where others might say it is the reader and not the book that brings violence or misconduct into a religion, Harris would say that doctrine matters quite a lot, especially when examining issues such as terrorism.

The catalyst of controversy for Harris is that this way of thinking also allows one to say that some religions are more violent or more socially dangerous than others. It is also a very nuanced point that secular westerners have largely not made up their minds about. Is it intolerant to declare some religious teachings or cultural customs to be unacceptable in Western society? Conversely, is it morally irresponsible NOT to criticize religious practices that have the potential to threaten human rights? How do you fight against intolerance without becoming intolerant yourself? It’s a difficult topic. It’s a nuanced topic. It’s hard.

It is also much more socially difficult to discuss some religions compared to others. In today’s political climate where Trump-types are calling for the deportation of Muslims, and the Muslim community at large is rightfully fed up with being constantly labelled as terrorists, Harris has often been unfairly grouped in with anti-Muslim declarations made by fundamentalist Christians and far right Republicans. This is ironic, given that besides being an atheist, Harris has argued that absent fair and secular criticism of all religions, Islam included, we are left only with the intolerant islamaphobia that many among America’s religious right are actively encouraging. To Harris, right wing intolerance has flourished because it has taken over an issue that could’ve been much better contextualized by the left, but wasn’t due to a fear among liberals of appearing intolerant of other cultures.

The Danger

Not wanting to encourage intolerance, however, is of course a legitimate concern. Everywhere from Paris to North Carolina we have seen hate crimes carried out by people so barbarically simple-minded that they see violently attacking anybody who is Muslim as some kind of anti-terrorist vigilante heroism. People on the left are not flawed in their worry about encouraging such intolerance. Still, the more fundamental problem (I think) is the inability of many voters and pundits alike on both the left and the right to differentiate the nuanced arguments of people like Sam Harris from the duality that permeates mainstream discussions of civic issues. You need not agree with Sam Harris about anything, religion or otherwise, but he is clearly a rational person making consistent arguments. To to make personal claims about him, either distortedly negative or positive, is to ignore the relevant complexity of the issues that this person is trying to address. And reimagining single statements out of context is a seductive opportunity in the internet age…

I for one am fascinated by Sam Harris’s arguments on an array of subjects ranging from mediation to gun control. I don’t agree with everything that he says, and when anyone is making complex arguments, why should I be expected to? Why would I be “for” or “against” a person, especially when that person is offering a multitude of perspectives on radically different subjects? Even when I disagree with Sam Harris, or frankly anyone else, I am interested in understanding the rationale that informs their points. From there, I can compare them with my own understandings and beliefs and learn something. This is simply how people develop intellectually. But as we all know, plenty of online articles encourage the exact opposite of this, and exploit visceral, knee-jerk perceptions of public figures in the same way that a travel publication might exploit a reader’s love for ethnic food and photos of exotic locations. Such articles don’t challenge a reader’s opinion, but show them what they already want to see. Worse yet, they pressure people into shrinking their understanding of a person, place, or idea into a “pro” or “anti” mentality.

The Need for Nuance

Thinking with such duality isn’t an acceptable method of handling modern systemic problems. Furthermore, what’s most fundamentally important about many of Sam Harris’ most contested declarations is that you need not agree with every conclusion he makes in order to intellectually benefit from the concepts that he brings to the forefront.

A religious person, however unlikely, theoretically should be able to agree with many of Harris’s critiques of religion. For whom are criticisms of religious interpretation more important than for people who actively live religious lives? Conversely, an atheist shouldn’t be expected to agree with everything that Harris says just because he too is an atheist.

People can come to different conclusions with the same information. People can have the same opinion for different reasons. We know this to be true, but are all too often discouraged by our astonishingly complex social lives from remembering it. The result, as 2016 campaign coverage already suggests, is that people with simplistic one-sided arguments are celebrated while more complex thinkers offering even the slightest bit of nuance are labeled as somehow manipulative, arrogant, or untrustworthy. Many of us are eager to believe that life’s problems must all have simple answers. But desiring that to be true at the cost of reason leads us to ostracize those who serve as a reminder of our world’s inherent multidimensionality.

We must not allow the opinions of others to snuff out our curiosity about the thought process that informs their understandings. Rationality matters. Detail matters. Nuance matters. Packing all of your thoughts, feelings, and ideas either to the left or the right of an imaginary line does not matter. In fact, nothing could be more pointless. Instead of declaring what we are for or against, it would do us all a great good to instead try and see things for what they truly are. And things truly are very, very, complicated.