Sam Harris: It’s not about atheism, it’s about reason and genuine respect for the well-being of others

Having just watched the recent Sam Harris + Rabbi David Wolpe debate on the existence of God, I was reminded of Sam Harris’ very important and agreeable position that a big part of the cultural struggle being fought be secularists should not be about atheism specifically, but about reason generally. Now, the subject of religion surely earns very special consideration in the struggle because it is one of the few, if not the only, domains in which people are not pressed for evidence for their beliefs, and are often even treated favourably for holding these beliefs in the absense of evidence. And of course, there is also the aspect of the secularist movement which is pushing for the raising of consciousness with the respect to the fact and inappropriateness that atheism is apparently one of if not the last hot button social characteristics for which it is still fairly socially acceptable for one the display overt bigotry toward. So definitely, given all of this and the great political import, considerations of religion remains the highest individual priority for the movement. However, at its core this movement needs to be more generally about anti-dogmatism and open-minded and genuine respect for the well-being and freedom from suffering of others.

I think that a necessary set of features for a stable and humanitarian society are lack of attachment and mindfulness. Lack of attachment is important because attachment to things outside of the self can corrupt reason and compassion by virtue of the creation of an insecure state of dependence. If one is attached to a particular set of beliefs to the point where one would feel great psychological discord in considering that the belief may be errant, one can become highly motivated to engage in irrationality, self-deception, dishonesty, and social fragmenting from those who believe otherwise. If one is attached to their social status, they can come to view their peers as rivals. If one is attached to their possessions and wealth, one can become greedy and uncompassionate to those who have less and envious of those who have more. And if one is so attached to other people (e.g., friends, lovers, etc.) to the point where one feels that they could not live happily without them, one becomes limited in one’s options (e.g., where to live, what to do) and creates for themselves a mindframe of insecurity. In all of these cases, one is localizing their locus of control, happiness and security outside to a large degree outside of themselves. They are putting their stock in factors that are to a great degree outside of their own control. Often people will try to exert control over these uncontrollables in order to hold down the fort, and this is a source and manifestation of anxiety as well as social discord, as it involves trying it often involves attempting to control or demonstrate strong dependence on others. Having a locus of internal stability that is so significantly outside of the self will necessarily create great insecurity that is obviously personally destructive and can be very socially destructive when it comes to trying to protect one’s beliefs, status, wealth and possessions, and other elements of personal security against others attempting to do the same thing. It can become antagonistic and/or overly demanding of others.

Now, one may rebut that to some degree some of these factors are pretty much demanded. We all want loved ones, a certain measure of status, a certain variety of possessions, and so on. This indeed may be the case. But I think it’s important to do our best to internalize our locus of control, happiness, and security as much as possible so that we minimize these personally and socially destructive sources of discord to the greatest degree possible. Mindfulness, I believe, is key to this. Through the practice of mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy, we can learn that we are not the same thing as our social identity, as our beliefs, as our possessions, as our careers, and so forth. And we can realize the same about others. By learning to distinguish ourselves from these attributes of our lives, we can help decrease oursense of dependency and increase our appreciation for the experience of life both in ourselves and in others. A commitment to mindfulness for the sake of the cultivation of wisdom, autonomy, and appreciation for wellness and suffering can only help promote secure individuals and societies. Mindfulness is also key for keeping scope of the big picture. Is living a life largely fixated on leading the pack in the rat race really a well-spent life? Is living a life that is so constantly enshrouded with anxiety, competitiveness, deadlines, distraction, and narrowness of experience and focus really the best way to go? Is living a life in which we view others as competitors and life as some sort of a race to the top really the path to enrichment? How many hours do so many of us spend in fierce competition? How many of those may have been wellspent in tasks such as meditation, interacting with people from different walks of life, and doing other things that will help one learn, connect, grow, and help others do the same? Is having the respect, admiration and envy of others, and feeling that one is high-ranking worth so severely narrowing the scope and experience of this one life? Is this sort of dependence on external rewards (e.g., status, possessions) worth the time spent away from the development of personal development and wisdom, and the establishment of a relatively cold egoistic antagonist hyper-individualist culture?

By having a more stable internal locus of stability, control and happiness, one can be more impartial, honest, open-minded and compassionate when it comes to evaluating propositions, be they religious, political, or whatever. This is of critical importance for individual and social wellbeing. It can contribute to a world in which we compete less and collaborate more in the pursuit of wisdom and wellness for ourselves and others.

I will close this write-up with a consideration of an argument of Harris that points out the need to promote reason reaches beyond religion. A criticism often launched against atheism is the behaviour of persons like Stalin and Mao. These people were atheists who did horrible things. As Harris points out, it was not their atheism that led them to engage in their socially abhorrent behaviours. It was not a lack of belief in a deity that did this. Sure, perhaps the fear of a God’s wrath may have stopped them from acting this way, but it also may not have; humans have historically been able to square horrible acts with their religion. But even if the fear of God would have persuaded them to not engage in such behaviours (a charitable assumption), the lack of belief was not the motivating factor. How does a lack of belief in something lead one to a particular course of morally-relevant action? How does one’s lack of belief in God serve as a motivating factor for horrific crimes against humanity? These people may have been atheists, but they surely were not the kind of people that Sam Harris or I would want in any type of power. They were people who had demonstrated nontheistic dogmatisms and an astonishing lack of willingness to consider other views and value the humanity of a certain subset of humanity. This is a demonstration of how the secularist movement should be about far more than theism. It needs to be about reason generally and a genuine appreciation for the wellbeing and freedom from suffering of onself and others. It needs to be about prioritizing reason and wellness above all else. Creating such a world is not going to be easy. In fact, it is anything but probable. This kind of world cannot be forced upon people. It requires the buy-in of the masses. I see no task to be of greater importance than this.

30 Responses to “Sam Harris: It’s not about atheism, it’s about reason and genuine respect for the well-being of others”
  1. thirdpartypirate says:

    Well said….The End of Faith should be required reading in every public high school…keep up the progressive work.

  2. Sue says:

    I thoroughly agree.

    From my meanderings around the blogosphere it has become completely obvious to me that most right wing religionists who pretend to make much of the use of “reason” are full of intolerant irrationalities.
    Even to the degree that just below the surface of their seeming rationality they are deeply and dangerously psychotic.

    Any group (large or small) that pretends to possess the truth or some exclusive proprietary ownership of god is “profoundly” deluded and a threat to everyone else to does not subscribe to their binary “certainties”.

    People that write books with the title Total Truth for instance (and travel around the country promoting such toxic ideas). And anyone who subscribes to that toxic inherently totalitarian meme—and there are lots of them in the USA.

  3. Mark says:

    The End of Faith, Ch 2, “The Nature of Belief” is one of my favourite reads of all time.

    However, in regards to the secularist movement being about far more than theism and in promoting reason and wellness, you end up back at those that will continue to insist that there are many kinds of truths. For example, listen to Madeline Bunting debate Richard Dawkins (,2260,n,n). Madeline rambles on at several points about “emotional truth” and how there are different truths, etc.

    The fact of the matter is that there are only two kinds of truths, objective and subjective. Objective truths are what is real outside your head (ie. the Earth is not flat, there is no God, etc), and subject truths are what you want to be real and exist only inside your head (ie. my wife is beautiful, God loves me, etc). The sooner the unreasonable and religious recognize this, the better off this planet will be.


  4. There is one thing with reason. It is a product of the mind with its thousand eyes which is destructible and perishes with the corruptible body. Intuition is infallible as it comes from that part of the being, the heart with its single eye, which is imperishable. So long as one chooses to depend on reason, the product of mind and matter, and not explore the invisible reality, so long one will fail to acquire intuition. Religion is dangerous when it does not seek to promote unity. One has to learn from the experience of the mystics of all the religions to garner the truth: ” There is no difference in religious quest if one chooses, not to remain on the periphery and jostle one another, but to travel towards the centre where all differences disappear. A thought provoking article, but oh, how fallible is man.

  5. ronbrown says:

    Mark: A lot of people go by their first-person experience as if it were evidence for things out there in the world. They’ll call a religious personal experience very strong evidence for their God. Often you hear the theist argument that compares religiosity to love. Can you prove love exists anymore than you can prove God exists? The answer is supposed to be “no”, and the consequence is that not everything we believe can be scientifically verified but that does not mean it’s irrational to believe in them. The confusion here though is on what is being compared. No one denies the reality of religious experience. I have no doubt that religious people have interesting and unconventional experiences linked to their religious practice. Similarly, for all pragmatic purposes, I don’t seriously doubt the first-person experience of love. But that’s where the analogy stops. To say that one’s religious experience is evidence for an objectively real God is like saying that one’s experience of love is evidence for an objectively real Cupid.

    I agree with you on the fallibility of people. This is something that I think everyone needs to be keenly aware of: they can be wrong, even when they’re confident. Where we part ways is in your suggestion that intuition is infallible. What is the basis for such a claim? On what basis do you claim that when a person goes with their gut, they can’t be wrong? Secondly, intuition doesn’t actually come from the heart. The heart is not a cognitive device. It comes from unconscious cognitive processing and the emotional centres of the brain (e.g., the amygdala). Further, greater evidence for the fallibility of intuition is that intuition can be improved. Through extensive practice in an activity, one’s unconscious processing (e.g., pattern finding) can be greatly improved. Consider chess masters. Their ability to mop the floors with the rest of us is not a result of them consciously running through thousands of possible move sequences and thinking 5 moves ahead for each possible move. They really can’t engage in a great deal more conscious move processing than novices—they are better at it, but not to the degree that they are better chess players than the rest of us. The biggest factor in their ability is the incredible amount of information they have stored on the game which allows them to unconsciously recognize relevant game configuration patterns and zoom in on a small subset of highly pertinent considerations, rather than considering a huge number of possible scenarios. They have trained themselves to be able to intuitively zoom in on and consider what is relevant.

    I definitely think that there are major differences between religions. While they all seem to ultimately seek how to develop wisdom, personal fulfillment, and united and supportive community, there is no reason to believe that they all do it equally well. From my limited education on the subject, I would conjecture that the Buddhist traditions tend to be significantly ahead of the great monotheisms. The practices of mindfulness meditation combined with philosophies of the need to detach from externals, to accept that which one cannot control (e.g., impermanence), and so on seems significantly advanced over other traditions. While other traditions may also embrace similar philosophies (e.g., to not be attached to possessions), the Buddhist gem of meditation so as to promote insight, awareness of what the self is, autonomy of the self, and compassion through deep awareness of experience seems to put Buddhism on a tier above the monotheisms when it comes to the development of open-mindedness, kindness, and wisdom. Of course, I could be wrong.

  6. thisbusymonster says:

    If you are interested in an earlier take on these kinds of ideas, give <a href=”″Island by Aldous Huxley a read. Or, you can just cheat and read the linked Wikipedia article. Certainly, ideas like this aren’t new. Various philosophies, both Eastern and Greek (pre-Socratic) have identified these ideas.

    I often muse that Epicurus had it all figured out, but Plato and Aristotle came along and ruined it for all of us. The Christians, when they weren’t busy burning the best of Greek knowledge, plagiarized the worst (Aristotle and Socrates) and we’ve been suffering for it ever since.

  7. Stoobs says:

    Talking about subjective truth is twisting the word truth to the extent that it loses its meaning. There are objective truths about subjective experiences – it is an objective truth that I find a particular thing beautiful, or amusing, or pretentious. There is no subjective truth there, though. There are only experiences, and objective truths about those experiences.

    Things are further complicated, of course, but the fact that we have no direct access to objective truths, or indeed to anything objective. Objectivity, by its nature, requires that there be no subject. Our access is purely to our own subjective experiences, from which we attempt to cobble together an account of objective truth. But experiences do not possess truth values – only the claims about objective reality that they inform do.

  8. evolution says:

    I really think that someone’s personal belief about the nature of God should be irrelevant to the humanist movement.

    As you say, fundamentally, the humanist movement is about the consideration of others, does it really matter which God, if any, drives you to strive for the rights of others? The motivation may lie in religion, but then again, it may not.

    I think that humanist movement could be a lot more powerful if there was a lot less focus on individual belief systems and more on shared ideals.

    I find religious people who consider themselves morally superior highly irritating, but I find them as irritating as atheists who assert that I have not considered my belief system. I don’t think it should be necessary to justify religious beliefs to anyone.

    I think the biggest problem with the humanist movement is the lack of understanding between theists and atheists. I have shown an active interest in the humanist movement in the past, but unfortunately, the debates were polarised by arguments for and against the existence of God. It’s largely irrelevant.

    Ron, it’s great that that Buddhism’s open-mindedness appeals to you, but i think there are narrow-minded and open-minded people within every belief system. It’s about finding your own interpretation, and I would assert that it is possible to be open-minded even within the monotheisms, although I am not saying that this is widespread.

  9. Stoobs says:

    “I don’t think it should be necessary to justify religious beliefs to anyone.”

    It should be necessary to justify your religious beliefs to exactly the same extent as it is necessary to justify any other belief. That is, you should be required to justify your beliefs in order to be taken seriously as a thinker. Theists should be treated the same as people who believe in pixies, or who believe the earth is flat (almost all christians, in the latter case,) or who think squirrels are conspiring to murder them. They should be permitted to live, and to believe whatever they want, but not permitted into jobs where their wacky beliefs might impact on their performance (such as teaching, policing, government…)

  10. evolution says:

    Religious beliefs are personal. Think of it as marriage or a relationship. Should or could every person in a relationship justify why they are with that person?

    As for the narrow-minded assertion that religious people should not be permitted into jobs such as teaching, policing etc, that sounds like a fabulous system. Too much irony here. Wow, a system where people are treated as second-class citizens, where we discriminate on religious beliefs? No, that sounds like a much better system for changing the world. How could I have missed that one?

    All beliefs and agendas impact on actions, whether consciously or sub-consciously, regardless of whether you believe in God or not.

    Do you see the irony? I’ll break it down.
    1. Your believe that religious people are not capable of functioning in such roles. (Belief – not fact, as no evidence or any factual basis)
    2. As an employer you have to be objective and hire people based on skills. You cannot hire someone because you don’t agree with their beliefs.
    3. If you let this discrimination affect your decision, and you are not capable of removing that bias, then whose beliefs impact on whose performance?

    P.S Personally I am ambitious. I am not going to let anyone tell me that they can outperform me in any role because of my personal religious beliefs.m

  11. evolution says:

    One more thing.

    My religious beliefs do not affect you since I do not seek to convert anyone.

    I believe in equal rights for all.

    Your beliefs affect me, if you were ever able to assert your beliefs about religious people and jobs.


  12. thisbusymonster says:

    One more thing.

    My religious beliefs do not affect you since I do not seek to convert anyone.

    Certainly you do not claim that you hold religious beliefs and that they never influence your actions. If someone who is deluded bases their public actions on that delusion, we are all affected. You may not try to convert me, but if your ignorance affects your judgment, it’s relevant to others.

    You may be a quiet Christian who ignorantly votes to deny abortion rights or gay marriage. That affects thousands if not millions of people.

    I don’t begrudge you a rich fantasy life. If you want to secretly believe nonsense, that is your right. If you want to act on that nonsense, you had better be prepared to justify your actions and your beliefs.

  13. evolution says:

    Lots of assumptions about me here. Many of them false.

    I am not a Christian. I am a Muslim. Secondly, I am also a secularist. I believe in a complete separation of religious institutions from State. I don’t believe in denying abortion. I don’t agree with it, but I believe it’s a personal choice that an individual should have the right to make.

    Also, I may not agree with atheistic beliefs, but I respect the right of people to have them. I don’t want to reduce this down to a debate about whether it’s delusional or not to have religious beliefs, but if we’re starting from that assumption, then perhaps this is rather pointless. I refuse to enter into that debate, my personal beliefs are nothing to do with you.

    I’m not asking you to justify why you’re an atheist, in fact I’m not really interested- it’s your personal choice.

    Who is more narrow-minded now?

  14. thisbusymonster says:

    Christian, Muslim, whatever. The example stands. Your beliefs are your own, your public actions have an effect on all of us. How you vote has an effect on all of us. If you are saying that your religious belief does not have an effect on your choices, what is the point in believing?

    My point was that actions required justification. If you never act on your beliefs, you are welcome to them. At what point do you have to stop claiming to be a believer tho, if you never follow through?

  15. evolution says:

    I’m not denying that religious beliefs have an effect on choices, but i assert that we all have our beliefs and agendas and all of these affect the way we vote. Whether they are about god or not is irrelevant.
    Are you saying personal feelings and personally held beliefs never affect the way you vote?

  16. thisbusymonster says:

    No, I’m saying my personal feeling are formed from a belief system with a rational, not a delusional basis. Plain and simple.

    Your assertion was that I was not affected by your beliefs, but your beliefs drive your behaviour which might very well effect me and lots of others. Ergo, we should be concerned about the foundation for the beliefs of others. Simple.

  17. evolution says:

    Hmm. We’re obviously starting from the assumption that your beliefs are rational and secondly, that your beliefs provide a better foundation for driving behaviour than my beliefs.

    All of our beliefs affect our voting, therefore your beliefs also affect me. I guess the difference between us is that I don’t believe the foundation is relevant. But then again, I guess your argument comes from the Richard Dawkins position that religion is akin to madness. If we start from that assumption, then there’s really very little point continuing this debate.

    By the way, human bias is in all of us. There are still some atheists who are delusional. They might not believe in God, but their thought process is totally irrational/illogical. So why only judge theists?

  18. I don’t judge only the theists. And I don’t claim to be superior either. I only claim that my beliefs are open for review and revision. I do my best to be rational and keep an open mind.

    Religious belief that begins with faith is the exact opposite of that. Faith requires unreason and a rejection of evidence to the contrary. I don’t see how you can characterize it in any other way.

    One delusion is as good as another in my book, whether you are an atheist or not. I don’t think it’s unfair to criticize irrationality.

  19. evolution says:

    Refreshing to have a discussion where at least we can take the judgment out of the debate. I think it is unfortunate that so many of these discussions end with the theist quoting a revelation and the atheist quoting Richard Dawkins 😉 (Kidding, see, even Muslims have a sense of humour- especially the British ones…!)

    “Religious belief that begins with faith is the exact opposite of that. Faith requires unreason and a rejection of evidence to the contrary. I don’t see how you can characterize it in any other way.”

    I guess I just don’t believe it is EXACTLY the opposite, or at least it doesn’t have to be. On some other points – I believe in evolution and have a science background – my belief in science does not conflict with my faith.

  20. Pardon my ignorance of your faith, but you must have to give up some aspects of either science, faith, or a little of both. There are some obvious points of conflict, such as creation, the source of moral beliefs, etc.

    If your religion is a social club, full of people with a shared sensibility who all happen to like the same literature, fair enough. But, insofar as your beliefs determine your actions, and your actions have an effect on others, you should be prepared to be held to account.

    If all you are talking about is getting together with your friends, sharing a few morality tales and some tea afterwards, go for it.

  21. evolution says:

    The points of conflict only come from when you come at the problem from an atheist agenda or from a extreme religious fundamentalist agenda.

    Are you saying it’s not possible to be a scientist but also hold religious beliefs?

    “If all you are talking about is getting together with your friends, sharing a few morality tales and some tea afterwards, go for it.”

    No, i don’t deny religion affects the way I think and of course it has practical implications in how I choose to live my life. That is my choice, and my free will. But we all have our own agendas. You assert that your decisions come from a rational basis, but the fact all decisions have some elements of irrational bias. Belief in this case is irrelevant.

  22. The conflict I am talking about arises when you have two different stories, and have to choose which one you are going to act on. You seem to be saying that you segregate your scientific (professional?) life from your religious (personal?) life and just don’t think about the conflict.

    Certainly, I have irrational beliefs, but my agenda isn’t to ignore them, it’s to as quickly as possible understand them and discard them.

    I can see an engineer being religious, because they really don’t care why things work, as long as they do. But someone who is committed to finding fundamental explanations for the world in scientific terms should have a tough time accepting the word of a god and not asking more questions.

  23. evolution says:

    “The conflict I am talking about arises when you have two different stories, and have to choose which one you are going to act on. You seem to be saying that you segregate your scientific (professional?) life from your religious (personal?) life and just don’t think about the conflict.”

    No, I’m saying that for me, there is no conflict. i just mean that my studies in science instead of conflicting with my faith, it affirms it.

    “But someone who is committed to finding fundamental explanations for the world in scientific terms should have a tough time accepting the word of a god and not asking more questions.”

    So you are saying that you can’t be a religious scientist.
    Science explains the processes, the how. It doesn’t explain the why. If you believe in God, then you must also believe God must have created the processes. In that way, I don’t see a conflict.

  24. Is that the way the religious doctrine describes god’s role? He set it in motion a few billion years ago and checked out?

    Why bother with a god then? I prefer to just say I don’t know how it all started, and it doesn’t really matter, except for the whole physics thing. Maybe one day they will find something useful out of all that.

  25. evolution says:

    “Is that the way the religious doctrine describes god’s role? He set it in motion a few billion years ago and checked out?”

    I think that’s a different question. I think you are asking if I believe God intervenes or not?

    I don’t believe that but as an aside, that’s what Einstein believed.

    “I prefer to just say I don’t know how it all started, and it doesn’t really matter, except for the whole physics thing. Maybe one day they will find something useful out of all that.”

    I don’t know what this means. Are you saying that it doesn’t matter how the world started? That is the point of science, isn’t it?

    I don’t know what you mean by the “whole physics thing.” Physics is quite broad so I can’t really respond, until I know what you mean.

  26. evolution says:

    “I don’t believe that but as an aside, that’s what Einstein believed.”

    i.e I don’t believe that god just set it in motion and checked out.

  27. Science is as much about explaining how things work right now as it is about caring about where it all came from. The exception is Physics’ search for the Big Bang and all that. For the average biologist or chemist, it hardly matters. They can proceed from “I just don’t know for sure” and do their business quite happily.

    I don’t really care what Einstein believed, except those things that were verified by experiment. Scientists make lousy philosophers for the most part.

    Either god has no effect on the world, and is irrelevant, or god is involved and should be evident through science. If god is involved in the world, you get into the whole problem of evil (unless you favour the old testament, let you wander around the desert until you die because you pissed him off god) and other tiresome debates.

    So, if god hasn’t checked out, where do I see the work of this being? Of course, I’d prefer and example that can’t be explained by other means as easily as by god, and doesn’t introduce a bunch of other unanswerable questions.

  28. evolution says:

    “For the average biologist or chemist, it hardly matters. They can proceed from “I just don’t know for sure” and do their business quite happily.”

    This is such a one-dimensional view of science.

    “I don’t really care what Einstein believed”

    That’s fine. All I was arguing was that a person’s belief does not affect their capacity to do a job – in response to Stoobs. I was also saying that it is irrelevant.

    Einstein or Darwin’s belief in God does not affect you. You only care about theri theories. All I ask is that you judge me by me and not whether I believe in God or not. It is not for you to know my justification because my belief is personal, mine and mine alone.

    The rest of your post – I promised I wasn’t going to try to prove god to you, because I don’t want to see a pointless argument theist vs atheist debate that will go round in circles. that’s not my point here. I just think don’t think theists have to justify their beliefs for reasons already stated.

  29. I only ask a person, theist or otherwise, to justify their actions. If you justify your actions by reference to religious belief, then I would expect you to defend your religion. If you justify your action by reference to scientific theory or philosophical argument, I would also expect a rational defense of those positions.

    Your religious beliefs are only interesting to me if you choose to thrust them into the public arena through your actions.

  30. Stoobs says:

    Would you hire a bus driver with no legs? Of course not, because they are not able to use pedals, and thus can’t do the job. If people want to believe idiotic things with no justification, that’s their business. But important jobs should be restricted to people who can be trusted with them – people who do not believe insane, idiotic things for no good reason. If you want to be trusted with anything that matters, you should be able to justify your beliefs rationally. If you believe things that can not be rationally justified, you are not of sound mind, and shouldn’t be trusted to do anything important.

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