Samuel Benjamin Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, philosopher, neuroscientist, blogger, and podcast host. He is a critic of religion and proponent of the liberty to criticize religion. He is concerned with matters that touch on spirituality, morality, neuroscience, free will and terrorism. He is described as one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism", with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.
Harris's first book The End of Faith (2004) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. In The Moral Landscape (2010), he argues that science answers moral problems and can aid human well-being. He published a long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014 and, with British writer Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue in 2015. Harris is a proponent of secular meditation practices.
Early life and education
Harris was born on April 9, 1967 in Los Angeles, the son of actor Berkeley Harris and TV producer Susan Harris (née Spivak), who created The Golden Girls. His father came from a Quaker background and his mother is a secular Jew. He was raised by his mother following his parents' divorce when he was aged two. Harris has stated that his upbringing was entirely secular, and his parents rarely discussed religion, though it was always a subject that interested him. Fellow critic of religion Christopher Hitchens once referred to Harris as a "Jewish warrior against theocracy and bigotry of all stripes". While a student at Stanford University, Harris experimented with MDMA, and has written and spoken about the insights he experienced under its influence.
Though his original major was in English, he became interested in philosophical questions while at Stanford University after an experience with the psychedelic drug MDMA. The experience led him to be interested in the idea that he might be able to achieve spiritual insights without the use of drugs. Leaving Stanford in his second year, a quarter after his psychedelic experience, he went to India and Nepal, where he studied meditation with Buddhist and Hindu religious teachers, including Dilgo Khyentse. Eleven years later, in 1997, he returned to Stanford, completing a B.A. degree in philosophy in 2000. Harris began writing his first book, The End of Faith, immediately after the September 11 attacks.
He received a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 from the University of California, Los Angeles, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. His thesis was titled "The moral landscape: How science could determine human values", and his advisor was Mark S. Cohen.
Criticism of Abrahamic religions
Harris states that religion contains bad ideas, calling it "one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised". He compares modern religious beliefs to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, which were once accepted as fact but which are obsolete today. In a January 2007 interview with PBS, Harris said, "We don't have a word for not believing in Zeus, which is to say we are all atheists in respect to Zeus. And we don't have a word for not being an astrologer." He goes on to say that the term atheist will be retired only when "we all just achieve a level of intellectual honesty where we are no longer going to pretend to be certain about things we are not certain about".
Harris advocates a benign, noncoercive, corrective form of intolerance, distinguishing it from historic religious persecution. He promotes a conversational intolerance, in which personal convictions are scaled against evidence, and where intellectual honesty is demanded equally in religious views and non-religious views. He also believes there is a need to counter inhibitions that prevent the open critique of religious ideas, beliefs, and practices under the auspices of "tolerance". He has stated that he has received death threats for some of his views on religion.
Harris considers Islam to be "especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse," relative to other world religions. He asserts that the "dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend one’s faith, both from within and without" to varying degrees, is a central Islamic doctrine that is found in few other religions to the same degree, and that "this difference has consequences in the real world."
In 2006, after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, Harris wrote, "The idea that Islam is a 'peaceful religion hijacked by extremists' is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It now appears to be a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognize why this is so—it is so because the Muslim world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism. In confronting the religious literalism and ignorance of the Muslim world, we must appreciate how terrifyingly isolated Muslims have become in intellectual terms." He states that his criticism of the religion is aimed not at Muslims as people, but at the doctrine of Islam.
Is it really true that the sins for which I hold Islam accountable are “committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially [my] own”? ... The freedom to poke fun at Mormonism is guaranteed [not by the First Amendment but] by the fact that Mormons do not dispatch assassins to silence their critics or summon murderous hordes in response to satire. ... Can any reader of this page imagine the staging of a similar play [to The Book of Mormon] about Islam in the United States, or anywhere else, in the year 2013? ... At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame.
Harris has criticized common usage of the term "Islamophobia". "My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences," he wrote following a controversial clash with Ben Affleck in October 2014 on the show Real Time with Bill Maher, "but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people." During an email exchange with Glenn Greenwald, a critic of the New Atheists, Harris argued that "Islamophobia is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it."
Harris has referred to Catholicism as "ghoulish machinery set to whirling through the ages by the opposing winds of shame and sadism", and asserts that the Catholic Church has spent "two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other institution, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo." Harris has criticized the Catholic Church's structure and forced celibacy within its ranks for attracting pedophiles, and blames its opposition to the use of contraception for poverty, shorter lifespans, and the proliferation of HIV/AIDS.
In The End of Faith, Harris is critical of the Jewish faith and its followers:
The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. […] the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. […] Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their "freedom of belief" on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East.
Regarding Israel and Judaism, Harris has said, "I don't think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don't celebrate the idea that there's a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don't support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible. Though I just said that I don't think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it's the strongest one I've got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable."
Harris has been referred to, along with Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, as one of the "new atheists", but he considers the term "atheist" to be problematic. He said, "while I am now one of the public voices of atheism, I never thought of myself as an atheist before being inducted to speak as one [...] I think that 'atheist' is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don't need a word for someone who rejects astrology."
On Indian tradition
In contrast to the "Abrahamic religions", Harris states "the Indian tradition is comparatively free of problems of this kind." The "Indian tradition" includes Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism (with a particular emphasis on Dzogchen).
Harris holds that there is "nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have."
Harris rejects the dichotomy between religious spirituality on the one hand and scientific rationality on the other, and favors a middle path that preserves spirituality and science, but does not involve religion. He writes that spirituality should be understood in light of scientific disciplines like neuroscience and psychology. Science, he contends, can show how to maximize human well-being, but may fail to answer certain questions about the nature of being, answers to some of which he says are discoverable directly through our experience. His conception of spirituality does not involve a belief in God.
In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), Harris writes that the purpose of spirituality (as he defines it – he concedes that the term's uses are diverse and sometimes indefensible) is to become aware that our sense of self is illusory, and says this realization brings both happiness and insight into the nature of consciousness. He argues this process of realization is based on experience and is not contingent on faith. In the same book, he describes his experience with Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, and recommends it to his readers.
With regard to spirituality, Harris has spoken freely about psychedelics in numerous interviews, podcasts, and in two of his books. In his view, "There is no guarantee that anything will happen" in regards to meditation, yoga, or other forms of contemplation, whereas with psychedelics, an experience is guaranteed. Such certainty, he writes, proves to be an initial rite of passage to convince people of the possibilities within consciousness.
Science and morality
In his third book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris says that "Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics." Harris says that it is time to promote a scientific approach to normative morality, rejecting the idea that religion determines what is good. He believes that once scientists begin proposing moral norms in papers, supernatural moral systems will join "astrology, witchcraft and Greek mythology on the scrapheap".
Harris says the idea of free will "cannot be mapped on to any conceivable reality" and is incoherent. According to Harris, science "reveals you to be a biochemical puppet." People's thoughts and intentions, Harris says, "emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control." Every choice we make is made as a result of preceding causes. These choices we make are determined by those causes, and are therefore not really choices at all. Harris also draws a distinction between conscious and unconscious reactions to the world. Harris argues that this realization about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.
Social and economic politics
Harris describes himself as a liberal, and states that he supports raising taxes on the very wealthy, the decriminalizing of drugs and same-sex marriage. He was critical of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, fiscal policy, and treatment of science.
During the 2016 United States presidential election, Harris supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party presidential primaries against Bernie Sanders, and despite calling her "a terribly flawed candidate for the presidency", he favored her in the general election and came out strongly in opposition to Donald Trump's candidacy.
Building on his interests in belief and religion, Harris completed a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA. He used fMRI to explore whether the brain responses differ between sentences that subjects judged as true, false, or undecidable, across a wide range of categories including autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual statements.
In another study, Harris and colleagues examined the neural basis of religious and non-religious belief using fMRI. Fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers were scanned as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. For both groups, statements of belief (sentences judged as either true or false) were associated with increased activation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in emotional judgment, processing uncertainty, assessing rewards and thinking about oneself. A "comparison of all religious trials to all nonreligious trials produced a wide range of signal differences throughout the brain," and the processing of religious belief and empirical belief differed in significant ways. The regions associated with increased activation in response to religious stimuli included the anterior insula, the ventral striatum, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the posterior medial cortex.
Writings and media appearances
Harris's writing focuses on neuroscience and criticism of religion, for which he is best known. He formerly blogged for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Truthdig. His articles have appeared in publications such as Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the British national newspaper The Times.
Harris has made numerous TV and radio appearances, including on The O'Reilly Factor, ABC News, Tucker, Book TV, NPR, Real Time, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show. In 2005, Harris appeared in the documentary film The God Who Wasn't There. Harris was a featured speaker at the 2006 conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival. He made two presentations and participated in the ensuing panel discussions. Harris has also appeared a number of times on the Point of Inquiry radio podcast. Harris engaged in a lengthy debate with Andrew Sullivan on the internet forum Beliefnet. In April 2007, Harris debated with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine. In April 2011, he debated William Lane Craig on whether there can be an objective morality without God.
Harris's practice developed from Vipassana and Dzogchen. He states that the key aim of meditation is to enable its practitioners to see that the feeling of self is an illusion. He is in the process of creating a meditation smartphone app, inspired by Headspace.
Harris is a student of the martial arts and practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Harris was at one point a vegetarian, but gave it up after six years, citing health concerns and supports the idea of cultured meat. After discussing Peter Singer's drowning child thought experiment and the philosophy of effective altruism with William MacAskill on his podcast, Harris pledged to donate several thousand dollars of the revenue generated by each new podcast episode to effective charitable organizations.
Harris has been reluctant to discuss personal details such as where he now lives, citing security reasons. In 2004, Harris married Annaka Harris, an editor of nonfiction and scientific books. They have two daughters.
The Waking Up podcast
In September 2013, Harris began the Waking Up podcast, in which he discusses his views, responds to critics, and interviews guests. The podcasts vary greatly in length, anywhere from 8 minutes to over 4 hours. The podcast has no regular release schedule, although the frequency of releases has increased over time. In 2017, the UK Business Insider included it in their list of "8 podcasts that will change how you think about human behavior" and PC Magazine included it in their list of "Podcasts You Should Download Now". The Waking Up podcast won the 2017 Webby Award for "People's Voice" in the category "Science & Education" under "Podcasts & Digital Audio".
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004). ISBN 0-393-03515-8
- Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). ISBN 0-307-26577-3
- The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010). ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9
- Lying (2011) ISBN 978-1940051000
- Free Will (2012). ISBN 978-1451683400
- Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014) ISBN 978-1451636017
- Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015) ISBN 978-0674088702