The Lies of Sam Harris

I have only the OP’s characterization to go on, and there seems to be some consensus that the OP has misrepresented the argument. It is correct that the perpetrators of these acts attempted to “justify” them in the name of Christ. Christ would deny these actors. While it is certainly possible that absent a belief in Christ and others that these actors would have never done anything to injure others, that is rather unlikely. When people use a religion of charity, kindness and non-violence to justify cruelty and violence and avarice I think that the cause is not religion, but rather cruel, violent and greedy people who are being hypocrites about their religion, that being a simpler explanation than a complex misunderstanding of the religion.

It appears the Champ is questioning his own faith. What other reason would he have to burrow into these books and misrepresent nearly every example he holds up in defense of his beliefs?

There’s probably no god. If there is, we have no reason to believe it’s the christian version. He’s beginning to understand this, and it scares him. Have a little compassion.


Certainly you are correct, it is the individual that does “bad” things. But individuals are motivated by a multitude of stimuli. Further, authority (of any kind) seems to hold great sway over people and religion is well established as an authority in most cultures. Part of my interpretation of Mr. Harris’ argument was that religion gave these particular people the motivation to do these vile things (or follow authority blindly) whereas their other motivations (ones also shared by the non-religious) were insufficient.

My (remedial) take:

  1. Not everyone religious who does “evil” does so for religions reasons but there are some (just as all the non-religious who do “evil”).
  2. Most religious who do “good” might (probably more likely) or might not claim/believe it so in the name of their religion.*
  3. All religious could do “good” for non-religious reasons (as shown by non-religious “do gooders”)

So, it would seem that religion simply adds one more possible reason to a shared list of motivators: As such it is unnecessary for doing “good” but can be sufficient for doing “evil”.

  • Even so, I don’t know if we can simply cancel out this “evil” by the apparent “good” done in the name of a religion.

(This argument seemed too easy for me… So it must be full of holes. Critique away!) :slight_smile:

Most religions publicly purport peace in some way (“Hey, I’m a great guy! Just ask me!”) - though much written in their texts might contradict such a claim.

Does Hypatia count?

  1. Yes, there certainly are people who commit bad acts in “good faith” for religious reasons. That doesn’t mean that they are correct in their good faith belief that religion justifies it.
  2. Yes, many religious people do good only for religion. But doing “good” with or without religion is still doing good.
  3. Yes, religious people can and many times do good things for the same reasons non-religious people do those same kinds of things. In fact, all acts of charity can be done for non-religious reasons, and the same for all good acts.

There are, of course, matters not yet considered. Faith can provide feelings of well being for those who might otherwise be fully cognizant of conditions that would require the non-religious to despair. This is most everyone in the world. Would you deprive those who only have faith of that faith to satisfy your own sense of proper reality?

Yes. First, because it’s better to be right. And second, because they are far more likely to progress to a better situation if they pin their hopes on something real. And third, because they are less likely to harm others without faith distorting their judgement. And fourth, because it’s quite possible that faith is why they are so badly off to begin with.

It was on page 84, not 83. That was a mistake on my part, for which I apologize. Nevertheless it does not change the validity of the argument. Mr. Harris says:

“It is important to remember … that the perpetrators of the Inquisition–the torturers, informers, and those who commanded their actions–were ecclesiastics of one rank or another. They were men of God–popes, bishops, friars, and priests.”

Now according to The Myth of the Inquisition:

“The Inquisition had a secular character, although the crime was heresy. Inquisitors did not have to be clerics, but they did have to be lawyers.”

So according to Mr. Harris, it is “very important to remember” things that he’s making up off the top of his head. (Or possibly copying from someone else who did so; since he won’t provide sources, we can’t know.)

Not according to your cite. She was killed by a Christian mob, probably led by monks, particular one Peter. However, she was not killed by “the Church” nor “the State”, and the reason for her murder was in no way related to her scientific or philosophical work, but to the perception that she was responsible for maintaining the rift between Bishop Cyril and the Prefect Orestes.

Incidentally, I first heard of her in a book put out by Garner Ted Armstrong’s Internat’l Church of God, in which she was upheld as a victim of Catholic misogyny and Bishop Cyril blamed for instigating her murder.

What about your claim regarding Harris’s discussion of foot roasting. You said that he calls it “the most common form of torture,” but my quote from page 81 shows that he never says any such thing. Did you ignore that part of my post because you were embarrassed at being caught in a misrepresentation of Harris’s argument?

Also, Norman Roth, in his book Conversos, Inquisition and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), has this to say about torture:

Roth’s own footnotes refers to another scholarly work, Luis Coronas Tejada, Conversos and Inquisition in Jaen (Jerusalem, 1988).

None of this suggests that foot roasting was “the most common form of torture”—as far as i can tell, no-one has actually made that claim—but the fact that professional scholars of the period continue to include such descriptions does suggest that the practice did occur.

The issue, here, i guess, is how much the historian should be willing to separate the religious and the secular in a society that maintained such close ties between the religious and secular authority. Spain during the Inquisition maintained almost none of the church-state separation that we so take for granted today, and even secular law was heavily embedded in, and based upon, edicts and rulings issued by the Catholic church.

Now, it could well be that Harris overstates the institutional affiliation of those who participated in the Inquisition, but you seem to be trying to take the argument far beyond its logical bounds. Even if the people doing the actual interrogation and the torturing did not have to be clerics, the notion that you can therefore separate the interrogations and torture from the Church is completely ridiculous.

Here’s another quote from Roth:

Also, having done some reading of scholarly reviews over the last day or so, it seems to me that the scholarly understanding of the Inquisition is not quite as benign as you would have us believe.

It certainly seems true that there has been a considerable amount of scholarly literature correcting the view of the Inquisition of a centralized, totalitarian horror chamber overseen by the Catholic Church. Quite a few scholars have pointed to the secular and governmental influences on the Inquisition, and others have also argued that there was, in fact, no single Inquisition to speak of; rather, the nature and tone of the different inquisitions tended to reflect particular local and regional issues. Perhaps the standard-bearer for this revisionist view is Henry Kamen, who has been writing about the Inquisition for decades, and whose third edition of his monumental work on the subject came out in 1998, appropriately titled The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

But Kamen’s work, while widely respected, has not been without its critics in the scholarly community. And one of the more frequent criticisms in the scholarly reviews is that, in his zeal for offering an alternative view of the Inquisition, and his tendency to discount certain sources, he sometimes errs of the side of a whitewash, understating the importance of terror and torture.

For example, in a review for the Journal of Modern History (vol. 72, no. 2, June 2000: pp. 549-550), John Edwards says:

Thomas Glick, reviewing Kamen’s work for the American Historical Review (vol 104, no. 5, December 1999: pp. 1773-1774), says:

Glick, in concluding his review, notes:

In a review for The Sixteenth Century Journal (vol 30, no. 3, Autumn 1999: pp. 919-921), John Tedeschi summarizes Kamen’s revisionist argument, and then notes:

Interestingly, Johns Edwards, who wrote one of the reviews quoted above, is also among the scholars who have tried to present a more nuanced view of the Spanish Inquisition, and his own book, The Spanish Inquisition (Stroud: Tempus, 1999) was reviewed for the English Historical Review (vol 115, no. 463, September 2000: pp. 960-961) by Colin Thompson. Thompson praises Edwards’ book as “fair and balanced,” and notes that, despite the fact that “some writers remain attached to fantasy rather than historical enquiry,”

The question in all this, i guess, is whether pointing out the institutional and bureaucratic aspects of the Inquisition automatically exonerates the religious authorities and institutions of the period. That is certainly the position that you seem to be taking, but it’s not one that the professional scholarship seems comfortable with, on the whole.

Furthermore, your OP claims to expose the “malicious lies that Sam Harris tells about Christians.” But even if we accept that the Inquisition was, in many respects, a product of nominally secular institutions and bureaucracies, and even if some of their atrocities were the result of mundane politics or power-grabs rather than theological questions of spiritual import, the fact is that the Inquisition was, in all its important aspects, run by Christians (because even the lawyers who weren’t clerics were still Catholics) and based on notions of heresy and apostasy promulgated by the Catholic faith.

You might be right that Sam Harris misrepresents the Inquisition in his book, but i think you are far to cavalier with your own assertions. Arguing that the Inquisition had a “secular character” not only ignores the massive influence the Church had on the Inquisition itself, but it ignores the essential overlapping and intertwining of religious and secular authority in Spain during the period. To say that something has a “secular character” in sixteenth century Spain is not the same as saying that issues of religion and religious authority were absent or unimportant.

I guess here there are two questions about Sam Harris’ work. Firstly, is his characterisation of the inquisition accurate? Then, secondly, does the inquisition actually prove much about the nature of religion.

With the first question it is difficult to assess what Sam Harris actually believes happened during the inquisition, because his writing is full of inuendo and heresay, with very few cites or objective statements. He goes through a list of things that may have happened to you, with the obvious but unstated implication that this is representative of the norm of what happened. Given that little to no effort is made to create a balanced account, I think his description is overblown.

Secondly though, even if we accept that his account of the inquisition is representative, it proves nothing. Two other important points need to be made:

  1. The inquisition, as bad as it was, was often more just than the justice systems (or lack thereof) of the secular government at the time. Given that nothing like the inquisition happens today, it is unfair to judge history by the standards of today. All people, religious or not, are a product of their times. And too the inquisiton changed in focus and in standards of justice over time. I think that given the prevailing standards, the inquisition is much more a product of it’s times rather than an intrinsic product of religion.

  2. Atheist belief systems have lead to similar, if not worse attrocities than the inquisition. For instance one need only look to attempt to de-christianise France during the reign of terror as an example of atheists using much worse standards of justice on those they felt to be enemies of the state than those used in the inquisition.

What this shows I think is that people are jerks, and will hurt each other regardless of their belief systems. Trying to show the dangers of religion by example is foolish, since the same sorts of examples can be brought up about atheism.


I agree that anyone can be cruel but…

Now, I’m not saying either was exactly a party (well, besides the Cult of Reason orgies and such, I’ll bet those were a hoot!) but did you just try to equate a 10 month Reign of Terror (Sept. 1793 – July 1794) implemented by a recently liberated lower class out for vengeance (yes, I know not all of them were - but many felt repressed by the monarchy) to the nearly 350 year Inquisition (1478 - 1834) implemented by the authoritarian establishment already in charge?

Two points:

  1. The inquisition was established in Spain after a long period of Muslim rule. One of the main initial functions was dealing with people who had converted from the old national faith of Islam, or the permitted faith of Judaism, to the new national faith of Catholicism. This is not all that dissimilar to the regime change in France, which undertook a change from a Catholic monarchy to a secular republic.

  2. The short timeframe of the Reign of Terror compared to the inquisition can be interpreted in a number of ways. One way is to suggest that since the inquisition lasted so long, and even had a measure of popular support, it could not have been all that bad. The Reign of Terror, on the other hand, disintegrated so quickly because the persecution was so bad that it was inherently unstable and simply could not have lasted that long. Hardly a view that shows the superiority or compassion of anti-religious atheist regimes.


I find it ludicrous that you would take that sentence and turn it into “Sam Harris is a big fat liar and hate monger”
Yeah, how dare he do something as unscholarly as repeating a popular myth as it it was true? Just imagine.

Even with his details less than completely accurate they are accurate enough for his point to stand. Yours however seems to be flagging.

Harris is not using the inquisition to prove anything about the nature of religion.

What then do you think is the reason that Sam Harris has chosen to discuss the inquisition?

His point in bringing up the inquisition, unless I am mistaken, is that religous people have lost touch with reality and therefore likely to do anything. The inquisition then is one example of the horrible things that religious people do that demonstrate their irrationality.

My point is that the argument is flawed because people of all professed beliefs or lack of beliefs commit attrocities. The problem is not that religion is bad, but that people themselves are to blame.


It couldn’t have been that bad, so it wasn’t? Excellent logic.

I explained it in post #18. You are mistaken. That’s not his point.

That point has had to been debunked a hundred times on this board. No one commits atrocities because of rational thought that questions dogma and leads to a lack of belief. Atheists don’t commit atrocities because of rational thought and no one blames Christianity because Christians have robbed banks, drank and drove, etc. Abortion bombings, crusades, lies being spread in Africa about the effectiveness of condoms, etc., however, are committed because of the irrationality of religion and the spread of the dogma can be blamed. Attempting to pin bad things done by atheists on atheism is just more religious irrationality.

This was in response to the basic argument that the inquisition was much worse because it went on for longer. Obviously this is a bad argument, as the longevity of something is not proportional to its severity. In fact, the suggestion is that the length of a movement is probably inversely proportional to how bad it is. Longevity implies that both it is stable (ie: not running the country into ruin, as say, Stalinism did to Russia) and that it is not bad enough to inspire the people to overthrow it. Of course this second part is a bit tricky, since it varies depending on the will of those in power as well, and therefore there are exceptions to the general rule.


OK, so then since no-one that I know of is now advocating re-instating the inquisition, why then bring it up? More to the point, what does the inquisition have to do with myself, who is decidedly not Catholic?