Essays by Sam Harris
Response to Controversy
A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. The purpose of this article is to address the most consequential of these distortions.
The Power of Bad Incentives
The Edge Annual Question — 2013
WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?
The Free Will Delusion
The atheist author and neuroscientist on why we’re not as free as we think.
Faith No More
Earlier this year, Andrew Zak Williams asked public figures why they believe in God. Now it’s the turn of the atheists. Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose, and others respond.
Honesty: The Muslim World’s Scarcest Resource?
Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape
Among the many quandaries a writer must face after publishing a controversial book is the question of how, or whether, to respond to criticism…
We are Lost in Thought
The Edge Annual Question — 2011
WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?
A New Year’s Resolution for the Rich
American opposition to the “redistribution of wealth” has achieved the luster of a religious creed. As with all religions, one finds the faithful witlessly espousing doctrines that harm almost everyone, including their own children.
Can there be a science of good and evil?
The Science of Good and Evil
The Moral Landscape: Q & A with Sam Harris
Sam Harris answers 12 questions about his forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape.
Silence is not moderation
The true scandal here is that Muslim moderates have been so abysmally lacking in candor about the nature of their faith and so slow to disavow its genuine (and growing) pathologies—leading perfectly sane and tolerant people to worry whether Muslim moderation even exists.
Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself….
Bringing the Vatican to Justice
I confess that, as a critic of religion, I have paid too little attention to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. But I have been awakened from my unconscionable slumber on this issue…
Toward a Science of Morality
Over the past couple of months, I seem to have conducted a public experiment in the manufacture of philosophical and scientific ideas…
Moral confusion in the name of “science”
Sam Harris responds to some of the criticisms he has received on his recent TED Talk.
The Upload Has Begun
HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?
The Edge Annual Question — 2010
The God Fraud
Sam Harris pushes back against Karen Armstrong’s sympathetic take on religion.
Reply to Stanislas Dehaene
This was a very interesting talk, and Dehaene and colleagues are doing fascinating neuroscience. But as is often the case with neuroscientists engaged in fascinating research, Dehaene seems impatient with related problems in philosophy. Finding such problems boring is not the same as solving them, however. Dehaene may have added a few bars to the tune, but he is still whistling past the graveyard on the deeper problem of consciousness….
Reply to Nicholas Wade
The tension between atheism and biology suggested in the article does not exist. In fact, there is no logical space in which it could exist…
The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief
Sam Harris, Jonas Kaplan, and colleagues publish the first study to compare religious faith to ordinary belief at the level of the brain.
The Strange Case of Francis Collins
My recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which I questioned the appointment of Francis Collins as head of the NIH, inspired a fair amount of discussion in the media and on the Internet. As many of Collins’ defenders do not seem to be fully acquainted with his beliefs, or take it for granted that others won’t be, I have written a longer essay on the subject.
Science Is in the Details
Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?
It’s All True
Jerry Coyne has published another wonderful demolition of religious faith in The New Republic:
Sam Harris has contributed a satirical response to the discussion about it on Edge.org.
True Lie Detection
The Edge Annual Question — 2009
WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?
“What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”
In Defense of Elitism
Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin’s performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin’s speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.
Brain Science and Human Values
Jonathan Haidt’s target article:
Sam Harris: Sexist Pig and Liberal Shill
I’ve received more than the usual amount of criticism for my recent opinion piece on Sarah Palin, most of it alleging sexism and/or an unseemly infatuation with Barack Obama. For those who care, I’d like to briefly respond:
Palin: Average Isn’t Good Enough
By Sam Harris
September 3, 2008
So let us ask the question that should be on the mind of every thinking person in the world at this moment: If John McCain becomes the 44th president of the United States, what are the odds that a blood clot or falling object will make Sarah Palin the 45th?
Survey: What Do Atheists and Christians Believe (and How Strongly Do They Believe It)?
On May 5, 2008, I posted links to four online surveys on this website, seeking the opinions of atheists and committed Christians on a wide variety of topics. Results can be found here.
The Boundaries of Belief
According to a recent Pew survey, 21 percent of atheists in the United States believe in “God or a universal spirit,” and 8 percent are “absolutely certain” that such a Being exists. One wonders if they were also “absolutely certain” they understood the meaning of the term “atheist.”
Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks
In a thrillingly ironic turn of events, a shorter version of this essay was originally commissioned by the opinion page of the Washington Post and then rejected because it was deemed too critical of Islam.
What Barack Obama Could Not (and Should Not) Say
Like every candidate, Obama must appeal to millions of voters who believe that without religion, most of us would spend our days raping and killing our neighbors and stealing their pornography.
Mother Nature is Not Our Friend
The Edge Annual Question — 2008
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?
Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”
Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty
Sameer A. Sheth, MD, PhD
Mark S. Cohen, PhD
: The difference between believing and disbelieving a proposition is one of the most potent regulators of human behavior and emotion. When we accept a statement as true, it becomes the basis for further thought and action; rejected as false, it remains a string of words. The purpose of this study was to differentiate belief, disbelief, and uncertainty at the level of the brain.
: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 14 adults while they judged written statements to be “true” (belief), “false” (disbelief), or “undecidable” (uncertainty). To characterize belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in a content-independent manner, we included statements from a wide range of categories: autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual.
: The states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty differentially activated distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia.
: Belief and disbelief differ from uncertainty in that both provide information that can subsequently inform behavior and emotion. The mechanism underlying this difference appears to involve the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the caudate. While many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true,” or its rejection as “false,” seems to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions might actually disgust us.
Response to Paul C. Davies
November 28, 2007
I have long thought that someone should perpetrate a Sokal-style hoax on the New York Times opinion page…
Response to Theodore Dalrymple
First, let me confess that I have long enjoyed Theodore Dalrymple’s writing. This only became an inconvenience yesterday, in fact, when I learned that Dalrymple had subjected my first book, The End of Faith, to especially malicious treatment in the pages of this magazine.
The Future of the American Idea
As The Atlantic celebrates its 150th anniversary, scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: abandoned to fanatics
By Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie
October 9, 2007
As you read this, Ayaan Hirsi Ali sits in a safe house with armed men guarding her door…
Response to My Fellow “Atheists”
October 8, 2007
As several prominent atheists have now criticized the speech I gave at the Atheist Alliance conference in DC—without, apparently, understanding it—I thought I would take a moment to clarify the point I was making about the use of the term “atheist.”
The Problem with Atheism
We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
Religion as a Black Market for Irrationality
Faith enables a person to fool himself into thinking that he is maintaining his standards of reasonableness, while forsaking them… As is well known, such cognitive gymnastics can be greatly facilitated by the presence of others, similarly engaged. Sometimes, it takes a village to lie to oneself.
Response to Jonathan Haidt
September 12, 2007
[R]eligion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith…
The Sacrifice of Reason
Mother Teresa’s response to her own bewilderment and hypocrisy (her term) reveals just how like quicksand religious faith can be…
Scientists should unite against threat from religion
It was genuinely alarming to encounter Ziauddin Sardar’s whitewash of Islam in the pages of your journal (‘Beyond the troubled relationship’ Nature 448, 131-133; 2007). Here, as elsewhere, Nature’s coverage of religion has been unfailingly tactful—to the point of obscurantism…
In Defense of Witchcraft
Imagine that the year is 1507, and life is difficult. Crops fail, good people suffer instantaneous and horrifying turns of bad luck, and even the children of royalty regularly die before they have taken their first steps. As it turns out, everyone understands the cause of these calamities: it is witchcraft.
The Empty Wager
The coverage of my recent debate in the pages of Newsweek began and ended with Jon Meacham and Rick Warren each making respectful reference to Pascal’s wager…
March 15, 2007
PETE STARK, a California Democrat, appears to be the first congressman in U.S. history to acknowledge that he doesn’t believe in God. In a country in which 83% of the population thinks that the Bible is the literal or “inspired” word of the creator of the universe, this took political courage.
For millennia the world’s great prophets and theologians have applied their collective genius to the riddle of womanhood. The result has been polygamy, sati, honor killing, punitive rape, genital mutilation, forced marriages, a cultic obsession with virginity, compulsory veiling, the persecution of unwed mothers, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse so kaleidoscopic in variety as to scarcely admit of concise description.
Beyond the Believers
...While at Salk, I witnessed scientists giving voice to some of the most unctuous religious apologies I have ever heard. It is one thing to be told that the pope is a great champion of reason and that his opposition to embryonic stem cell research has nothing to do with religious dogmatism; it is quite another to be told this by a Stanford physician who sits on the President’s Council on Bioethics…