Sam Harris

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Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations. - Sam Harris, 2012

Sam Harris (born 1967) is an American author, philosopher, public intellectual, and neuroscientist, as well as the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason. He is the author of The End of Faith (2004), which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2005 and appeared on The New York Times best seller list for 33 weeks, Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), The Moral Landscape (2010), and, most recently, Free Will (2012).

See also:
The End of Faith (2004)


  • It is time we admitted that we are not at war with "terrorism". We are at war with Islam.
    • Washington Times commentary (2 December 2004).
  • Unreason is now ascendant in the United States—in our schools, in our courts, and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.
  • It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum. There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R. Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.
  • We are now in the 21st century: all books, including the Koran, should be fair game for flushing down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal.
The treatment of women in Muslim communities throughout the world is unconscionable.
  • The treatment of women in Muslim communities throughout the world is unconscionable.
  • The principal tenet of Jainism is non-harming. Observant Jains will literally not harm a fly. Fundamentalist Jainism and fundamentalist Islam do not have the same consequences, neither logically nor behaviorally.
    • Q&A with Sam Harris (2005) [1]
  • Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.
  • I've read the books. God is not a moderate. There's no place in the books where God says, "You know, when you get to the New World and you develop your three branches of government and you have a civil society, you can just jettison all the barbarism I recommended in the first books."
    • Lecture at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (16 November 2005) [2]
  • If Jesus does come down out of the clouds like a superhero, Christianity will stand revealed as a science. That will be the science of Christianity.
    • Lecture at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (16 November 2005)
  • The problem with faith, is that it really is a conversation stopper. Faith is a declaration of immunity to the powers of conversation. It is a reason, why you do not have to give reasons, for what you believe.
    • "The View From The End Of The World" (9 December 2005)
  • Religious faith is the only area of discourse where immunity through conversation is considered noble. It's the only area of our lives where someone can win points for saying, "There's nothing that you can do to change my mind and I'm taking no state of the world ultimately into account in believing what I believe. There's nothing to change about the world that would cause me to revise my beliefs."
    • "The View From The End Of The World" (9 December 2005)
  • The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so.
  • The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.
  • One could surely argue that the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. In a world that has long been terrorized by fratricidal Sky-God religions, the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development.
  • There are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison.
  • The Bible ... does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.
  • The dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.
  • If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario.
Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.
  • If religion were the only durable foundation for morality you would suspect atheists to be really badly behaved. You would go to a group like the National Academy of Sciences. These are the most elite scientists, 93 percent of whom reject the idea of God. You would expect these guys to be raping and killing and stealing with abandon.
  • We have Christians against Muslims against Jews. They're making incompatible claims on real estate in the Middle East as though God were some kind of omniscient real estate broker parsing out parcels of land to his chosen flock. People are literally dying over ancient literature.
  • Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.
  • Let’s just grant the possibility that there is a creator god, who’s omniscient, who occasionally authors books. And he’s gonna give us a book - the most useful book. He’s a loving god, he’s a compassionate god, and he’s gonna give us a guide to life. He’s got a scribe, the scribe’s gonna write it down. What’s gonna be in that book? I mean just think of how good a book would be if it were authored by an omniscient deity. I mean, there is not a single line in the bible or the koran that could not have been authored by a first century person. There is not one reference to anything - there are pages and pages about how to sacrifice animals, and keep slaves, and who to kill and why. There’s nothing about electricity, there’s nothing about DNA, there’s nothing about infectious disease, the principles of infectious disease. There’s nothing particularly useful, and there’s a lot of iron age barbarism in there, and superstition. This is not a candidate book.
    • Interview by Big Think (04/07/2007) [3]
  • This is a common criticism: The idea that the atheist is guilty of a literalist reading of scripture; and that it’s a very naive way of approaching religion; and there’s a far more sophisticated and nuanced view of religion on offer and the atheist is disregarding that. A few problems with this: Anyone making that argument is failing to acknowledge just how many people really do approach these texts literally or functionally - whether they’re selective-literalists, or literal all the way down the line. There are certain passages in scripture that just cannot be read figuratively. And people really do live by the lights of what is literally laid out in these books. So, the Koran says “hate the infidel” and Muslims hate the infidel because the Koran spells it out ad-nauseum. Now, it’s true that you can cherry-pick scripture, and you can look for all the good parts; You can ignore where it says in Leviticus that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night you’re supposed to stone her to death on her father’s doorstep. Most religious people ignore those passages, which really can only be read literally, and say that “they were only appropriate for the time” and “they don’t apply now”. And likewise, Muslims try to have the same reading of passages that advocate holy war. They say “well these were appropriate to those battles that Mohammed was fighting, but now we don’t have to fight those battles”. This is all a good thing, but we should recognize what’s happening here; People are feeling pressure from a host of all-too-human-concerns that have nothing, in principle, to do with God: Secularism; and human rights; and democracy; and scientific progress; These have made certain passages in scripture untenable. This is coming from outside religion; and religion is now making a great show of its sophistication in grappling with these pressures. This is an example of religion losing the argument with modernity.
    • Interview by Big Think (04/07/2007) [4]
  • Death is, in some ways, unacceptable. It’s just an astonishing fact of our being here that we die; but I think worse than that is if we live long enough, we lose everyone we love in this world. I mean people die and disappear, and we’re left with this stark mystery: just the sheer not knowing of what happened to them.
  • We just don’t teach people how to grieve. You know, religion is the epitome, the antithesis of teaching your children how to grieve. You tell your child that, “Grandma is in heaven”, and there’s nothing to be sad about. That’s religion. It would be better to equip your child for the reality of this life, which is, you know, we... death is a fact. And we don’t know what happens after death. And I’m not pretending to know that you get a dial tone after death. I don’t know what happens after the physical brain dies. I don’t know what the relationship between consciousness and the physical world is. I don’t think anyone does know. Now I think there are many reasons to be doubtful of naïve conceptions about the soul, and about this idea that you could just migrate to a better place after death. But I simply don’t know about what... I don’t know what I believe about death. And I don’t think it’s necessary to know in order to live as sanely and ethically and happily as possible. I don’t think you get... You don’t get anything worth getting by pretending to know things you don’t know.
  • If premarital sex is a sin, who is the victim?
    • Attribution to Sam Harris in A. Alexander, Fly Fishing for Sharks (2008), p. 91.
  • You don't get anything worth getting by pretending to know things you don't know.
    • Interview by Big Think (January 2008) [5]
  • The truth is that religion, as we speak of it - Islam, Christianity, Judaism - is based on the claim that God dictates certain books. He doesn’t code software, he doesn’t produce films, he doesn’t score symphonies, he is an author. And this claim has achieved credibility because these books are deemed so profound they could not have possibly been written by human authors. Please consider for a moment how differently we treat scientific claims and texts and discoveries. Isaac Newton went into isolation for 18 months starting in the year 1665. When he came out of his solitude he had invented the calculus; he had discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation; he had single-handedly created the field of optics. No one thinks this was anything but a man’s labor. And it took 200 hundred years of continuous ingenuity on the part of some of the smartest people who ever lived to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? Anyone in this room could improve this supposedly inerrant text scientifically, historically, ethically, spiritually - in moments. If God loves us and wanted to guide us with a book of morality, it’s very strange to have given us a book that supports slavery, that demands that we murder people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft. The true basis for hope in our world is open-ended conversation; And religion has shattered our world into competing moral communities. What we have to convince ourselves of is - that love and curiosity is enough for us - and intellectual honesty is the guardian of that.
    • “Re-Evolution” Debate, 18/11/2009 [6]
  • You are happily being misunderstood in your use of the word "god."
    • Debate against Deepak Chopra on ABC Nightline (23 March 2010) "Does God Have a Future?"
  • The God that our neighbors believe in is essentially an invisible person. He’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primates — lucky us. And he’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to, but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked. He almost certainly disapproves of homosexuality. And he’s created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity, and the test is this: can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say, on faith? And if you can, you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.
    • Debate on ABC Nightline (23 March 2010) "Does God Have a Future?" [7]
  • The connection between facts and values is straightforward and philosophically uninteresting... values reduce to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures; the well-being of conscious creatures is what can be valued in this universe... Now, here’s the one bit of philosophy I’m going to anchor this too: imagine a universe in which every conscious creature suffers as much as it can for as long as it can — I call this the worst possible misery for everyone. The worst possible misery for everyone is bad. If the word bad is to mean anything, surely it applies to the worst possible misery for everyone... the moment you grant me that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and therefore worth avoiding... well then you have every other possible constellation of conscious experience which, by definition, is better. So you have this continuum here of states of consciousness and given that consciousness is related to the way the universe is, it’s constrained by the laws of nature in some way, there are going to be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum... now this is, in philosophy, a somewhat controversial statement. I do not see how.
  • The “war on drugs” has been well lost, and should never have been waged. While it isn’t explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, I can think of no political right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time.
If [my daughter] does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.
  • Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.
  • As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to make conclusions about the nature of the cosmos based upon inner experience — no matter how profound these experiences seem.
  • I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities... But as the peaks are high, the valleys are deep. My “bad trips” were, without question, the most harrowing hours I have ever suffered—and they make the notion of hell, as a metaphor if not a destination, seem perfectly apt.
  • The power of psychedelics... is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.
  • Principle #1: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places.
    Principle #2: Do not defend your property.
    Principle #3: Respond immediately and escape.
  • Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations.
    • "Death and the Present Moment", speech at the Global Atheist Convention (April 2012) [8]
  • Most of us do our best not to think about death. But there’s always part of our minds that knows this can’t go on forever. Part of us always knows that we’re just a doctor’s visit away, or a phone call away, from being starkly reminded with the fact of our own mortality, or of those closest to us. Now, I’m sure many of you in this room have experienced this in some form; you must know how uncanny it is to suddenly be thrown out of the normal course of your life and just be given the full time job of not dying, or of caring for someone who is... But the one thing people tend to realize at moments like this is that they wasted a lot of time, when life was normal. And it’s not just what they did with their time — it’s not just that they spent too much time working or compulsively checking email. It’s that they cared about the wrong things. They regret what they cared about. Their attention was bound up in petty concerns, year after year, when life was normal. This is a paradox of course, because we all know this epiphany is coming. Don’t you know this is coming? Don’t you know that there’s going to come a day when you’ll be sick, or someone close to you will die, and you will look back on the kinds of things that captured your attention, and you’ll think ‘What was I doing?’. You know this, and yet if you’re like most people, you’ll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you’ll live forever. Like, watching a bad movie for the fourth time, or bickering with your spouse. These things only make sense in light of eternity. There better be a heaven if we’re going to waste our time like this.
    • "Death and the Present Moment", speech at the Global Atheist Convention (April 2012) [9]
  • There are ways to really live in the present moment. What's the alternative? It is always now. However much you feel you may need to plan for the future, to anticipate it, to mitigate risks, the reality of your life is now. This may sound trite... but it's the truth... As a matter of conscious experience, the reality of your life is always now. I think this is a liberating truth about the human mind. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand about your mind than that if you want to be happy in this world. The past is a memory. It's a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated, it is another thought arising now. What we truly have is this moment. And this. And we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth. Repudiating it. Fleeing it. Overlooking it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to never really connect with the present moment and find fulfillment there because we are continually hoping to become happy in the future, and the future never arrives.
    • "Death and the Present Moment", speech at the Global Atheist Convention (April 2012) [10]
  • Even when we think we are in the present moment we are in very subtle ways looking over its shoulder anticipating what's coming next. We're always solving a problem. And it's possible to simply drop your problem, if only for a moment, and enjoy whatever is true of your life in the present... This is not a matter of new information or more information. It requires a change in attitude. It requires a change in the attentiveness you pay to your experience in the present moment.
    • "Death and the Present Moment", speech at the Global Atheist Convention (April 2012) [11]
  • From my point of view, compatibilism is a little like saying: a puppet is free so long as it loves its strings.
  • The illusion of free will... is itself an illusion. There is no illusion of free will. Thoughts and intentions simply arise. What else could they do? Now, some of you might think this sounds depressing, but it's actually incredibly freeing to see life this way. It does take something away from life: what it takes away from life is an egocentric view of life. We're not truly separate: we are linked to one another, we are linked to the world, we are linked to our past, and to history. And what we do actually matters because of that linkage, because of the permeability, because of the fact that we can't be the true locus of responsibility. That's what makes it all matter.
  • So you can't take credit for your talents, but it really matters if you use them. You can't really be blamed for your weaknesses and your failings, but it matters if you correct them. Pride and shame don't make a lot of sense in the final analyses. But they were no fun anyway. These are isolating emotions. What does make sense are things like compassion and love: caring about well-being makes sense; trying to maximize your well-being and the well-being of others makes sense. There is still a difference between suffering and happiness, and love consists in wanting those we love to be happy. All of that still makes sense without free will.
  • Nothing that I've said makes social and political freedom any less valuable: having a gun to your head is still a problem worth rectifying, wherever intentions come from. So the freedom to do what one wants is still precious. But the idea that we as conscious beings are deeply responsible for what we want I think needs to be revised: it just can't be mapped onto reality, neither objective nor subjective. And if we're going to be guided by reality, rather than by the fantasy lives of our antecessors, I think our view of ourselves needs to change.
  • Your life doesn't get any better than your mind is: You might have wonderful friends, perfect health, a great career, and everything else you want, and you can still be miserable. The converse is also true: There are people who basically have nothing—who live in circumstances that you and I would do more or less anything to avoid—who are happier than we tend to be because of the character of their minds. Unfortunately, one glimpse of this truth is never enough. We have to be continually reminded of it.
  • Meditation ... puts into question more or less everything you tend to do in your search for happiness. But if you lose sight of this, it can become just another strategy for seeking happiness—a more refined version of the problem you already have.

The End of Faith (2004)[edit]

Main article: The End of Faith
Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker.
  • Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.
  • We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?
  • Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker.

Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)[edit]

Harris, Sam (2006). Letter to a Christian Nation (1st edition ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 96 pages. ISBN 0-307-26577-3. 
  • It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves- socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically.
    • p. xii
  • It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently—though isn't it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed?
    • p. 11-12
  • Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being." Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept.
    • p. 23
  • The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics.
    • p. 32
  • Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say that religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all, nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.
    • p. 90-91

Free Will (2012)[edit]

  • You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
  • To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe.
  • You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts.
  • You are either lucky in this department or you aren't—and you cannot make your own luck.

The Moral Landscape (2010)[edit]

  • Science has long been in the value business. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; rather, scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best efforts to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. This is how norms of rational thought are made effective... The answer to the question "What should I believe, and why should I believe it?" is generally a scientific one.
    • p. 143–4

Quotes about Harris[edit]

  • Mr. Harris argues cogently, pithily, wittily, passionately, that religious "faith" is leading humanity straight to a very earthly hell.
  • His passion was for deep philosophical questions, and he could talk for hours and hours... Sometimes you'd want to say to him, 'What about the Yankees?' or 'Look at the leaves, they're changing color!'
  • Reading Sam Harris is like drinking water from a cool stream on a hot day.

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