The Lies of Sam Harris

Firstly, I think the characterization of atheism as nothing more than the lack of belief in a God absurdly reductionistic. Atheism, like theism, is most properly understood as a class of many different belief systems (communism, nihilism, existentialism, ect) that are all held together the common thread that they all deny the existence of God. Atheists DO make positive statements about the world around them (for instance, that science describes reality) and these positive statements do lead them to act in particular ways.

Otherwise the argument becomes one of special pleading. Why is “there is no god” the be all and end all of atheism, but religion is so much more than “there is a god”. You can’t be reductionist about one and then try and say that the other involves a host of other elements.

Secondly there were fundamentally atheist campaigns of violence (among other motivations admittedly) during the Reign of Terror.

One of the beliefs of these groups was precisely that religion was irrational. This lead them to the conclusion that religious people were dangerous, and the state would be better rid of them. When these people, especially rural people refused to voluntarily renounce their Catholicism, these groups took it upon themselves to force them to change their minds, to the point of executing them.

What is really troubling of course is that from this chapter it looks like Sam Harris agrees with most of this logic, that religious people are dangerous, ect. The only thing missing is the final step, that the end of riding ourselves of religion justifies the means of atrocities against individuals. Of course he does agree on this as well to an extent, as his publicized support of the torture of terrorism suspects shows.

I think the reason that point is debunked so often is that it is true. Atheists don’t limit themselves to just the statement “there is no evidence for God”. Atheists believe so much more than that, and these extra beliefs lead them to do different things. Often good things, but also sometimes bad things.


Your post ignores reality in favor of your own fantasy. 90 percent of the people in the world are religious. It is a fantasy, an utter break with reality, to actually believe that you can sweep it away with wishing. Great that it works for you personally, I have nothing against that. But denying comfort to the almost 6 billion people who have faith isn’t going to happen unless you dissociate from reality, which you seem to claim to reject. It’s one thing to anonymously point out on a message board how cruel you would be to an old dying religious person with a few minutes left to live, or to parents who cannot save their child who has only hours to live and nothing can be done. But it really is hard to picture a gung ho atheist who would insert himself into such a situation to proselytize a whole new set of uncomforting facts in real life. It would in fact require someone incapable of empathizing. The rest of us have to live with all the other people who are already in the world and we have to get along with them and make the best of the short time we have.

The fact that you believe that the world would be a better place if it were changed the way you suggest indicates that you are not lacking empathy. You’ve come up with a utopia that you have rationally justified would benefit mankind to even my satisfaction. But like The Republic, The Law, More’s Utopia, Star Trek, etc. you cannot get there from here. You overlook that human nature being what it is, you are spitting into the ocean, the character of the ocean will not change. And you miss out on meeting and genuinely engaging most of the world’s population. Yes, many behave badly, but so many people are so wonderful too. Accept reality the way it is. With human culture and beliefs.

Neither of these assertions is correct.

  1. Atheism isn’t a unifying force of the items you described. It isn’t a unifying force at all. Religion is, on the other hand, a unifying force and hence it was seen as an opponent to the power of fascist states. And of course it’s a philosophy besides being a religion, so any philosophy is going to trash it just as much as they’ll trash Buddhism and Sikhism and Confucianism. Those are competitors.

  2. Atheists don’t deny the existence of God. They notice the lack of any reason to believe in him, just like they notice the lack of any reason to believe in UFOs or Santa Claus. I don’t deny that there could be a teapot floating in outerspace, hidden behind Mars. I just see no reason to believe such a thing.

I would just like to give **mhendo **mad props for an extremely well-written and well-researched post.

I am not saying that atheism brings people together. What I am saying is that there are many different philosophies that can be rightly labeled atheistic. Therefore when you talk about all atheists you have to include all of these philosophies, whether or not they actually get along with each other.

This is especially true if you are going to talk of “religion” as one monolithic block. The scientific positivism of Richard Dawkins and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre have more in common than the Christianity of the Pope and Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda. If it is meaningful to talk of one as a monolithic block, then it should be for the other.

Secondly, to insist that there is a real belief system out there called “atheism” that is limited to just the statement “there is no reason to believe in God” is simply absurd. I know of no-one who would limit their knowledge in such a fashion. Sam Harris certainly believes more than this, as his writings demonstrate. Atheism is more than just “there is no reason to believe in God” just as Christianity is more than just “Jesus is God”.


Well, it could also be so oppressive as to quell any sign of dissent from the outset, of course. Feudalism lasted longer than Athenian democracy – does that make it the ‘better’ system?

It’s however the definition of ‘atheism’.

Atheism may be a feature of a certain dogmatic system, yes, but it does not give rise to them the way faith does to religions – disbelief in the existence of a higher power requires no further qualification, whereas the belief in god immediately opens up further questions, at the very least regarding the properties of this god; once you try to answer them, you have formed yourself a nice little religion. It’s basically just an evolutionary process from there on.

The same doesn’t hold for atheism, owing to its uniqueness, as opposed to faith’s interchangeability – with faith, you have a multiplicity of essentially equivalent stances you can pit against each other, however, atheism is the singular rejection of all these stances. You don’t have different flavours of lacking belief.

Atheism is perfectly compatible with making no statements about the world around us at all – in fact, the solipsist is automatically atheist. That most of us make other assumptions about the nature of reality isn’t a consequence of atheism, but rather a consequence of solipsism being decidedly silly.

Also, science just requires two positive statements about the world around us, which are that it in fact exists and that our perception of it isn’t totally misleading; it’s not, like religion, a baseless series of assertions to pick and choose. That is more parsimonious than any religion or other faith-based system.

Atheism is the result of an attempt at minimizing the amount of ‘positive statements’, ‘assumptions’ or ‘axioms’ that are necessary to make descriptive statements that have some hope to apply to the real world, and so is science – that’s the reason the two of them often go together, not that atheism somehow leads to science. Correlation and causation, that kinda thing.

Well, ‘there is no god’ is not actually the assertion of atheism. Lack of belief in the existence of something is very much not the same as the belief in the non-existence of something.

Yeah, from me, too. I’m hoping to see a continuation of debate on this level, though I’ll be unable to participate, so I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing it answered.

I am not saying that atheism brings people together. What I am saying is that there are many different philosophies that can be rightly labeled atheistic. Therefore when you talk about all atheists you have to include all of these philosophies, whether or not they actually get along with each other.

This is especially true if you are going to talk of “religion” as one monolithic block. The scientific positivism of Richard Dawkins and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre have more in common than the Christianity of the Pope and Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda. If it is meaningful to talk of one as a monolithic block, then it should be for the other.

Secondly, to insist that there is a real belief system out there called “atheism” that is limited to just the statement “there is no reason to believe in God” is simply absurd. I know of no-one who would limit their knowledge in such a fashion. Sam Harris certainly believes more than this, as his writings demonstrate. Atheism is more than just “there is no reason to believe in God” just as Christianity is more than just “Jesus is God”.


Well, you are wrong. Atheism is simply disbelief in gods, and nothing else. It’s the lack of a single belief, not a belief system.

Because the vast majority of religious people don’t follow the generic belief that there is some totally undefined god, but religions. And because religion is a belief system, but atheism is simply the lack of belief.

And where have I said I could do that ? Rather the opposite; I believe that humanity will clutch the insanity and evil of religion to itself with absolute determination, even to the point of the death of the species. Or worse than death.

Which is why in the long run we have the collective choice of changing human nature, or our civilization or species will die, or worse.

Because the Inquisition was all about heresy, which it appears to escape the OP’s notice, is a religious concept and the inquisition an instrument of the various Churches throughout Medieval times and represent one of the many enormous crimes of Christianity.

That he apparently has never heard of Bruno shows a battle still in need of fighting.

Maybe his time would be better put questioning his ability to read for understanding.

The point is about all religious belief systems in general, not any one. The inquisition is one extreme example, there are others including current ones. Radical Islam comes to mind. Currently Christians campaign to keep gays from having equal rights. They try to restrict the freedom of choice for women. One religious leader who’s support was sought by John McCain called his followers to a Holy War against Islam.

Your point about the deeds of atheists isn’t relevant. Atheists don’t have any protected status around their belief system. There has been an unwritten social rule a person’s religious beliefs should not be questioned. Harris points out that religious belief systems have a very real world effect on those who are not believers. For that reason he advocates that religious belief systems should be examined and challenged by the same standards as anything else. Facts and hard evidence.

I wrote:

And here is where I interpreted what you said as wishful thinking. You would deprive these people of solace.

Of course one day the species will die, as all species have since the big bang. Death is a certainty of life. As individuals we will all die, and as a species we will also die. The universe itself will die a heat death in a few trillion years.

The concept of “evil” is itself a fantasy created by humans for human purposes. Animals taking advantage of others is part of the natural condition. Your assertion that religion is “evil” because it is a fantasy merely suggests that only the bigger fantasies should be considered to have value: religion being a subset of evil in your view. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people he did not exist. And like that “poof” he was gone.

It’s not a “fantasy”, it’s an assertion. A human defined concept. It only becomes a fantasy if you claim it’s some objective force, like rocks or electromagnetism.

What the “natural condition” is, is irrelevant; the distinction of good versus evil is about what’s desirable, not what is natural. And religion isn’t evil because it’s a fantasy; that’s what makes it stupid. What makes it evil is it’s malice, bigotry, cruelty, and callousness.

He never existed in the first place.

And religion is an assertion too, a human defined concept. It only becomes a fantasy if you insist it behave like an objective force, like rocks or electromagnetism.

The distinction between religion and a “natural condition” is irrelevant under your reasoning about what is desirable, rather than what is natural. Evil does not objectively exist, the only thing that makes evil, evil are the human values that reject malice, bigotry, cruelty and callousness and coincident with the nature of evil, not the nature of religion.

Any concept can be used for evil, including religion, or atheism as hoping that religion won’t exist. What Stalin and Mao did against religion and in the name of atheism were greater evils, as subjectively measured by humans, than any other acts in history with possible exceptions of genocides like the Holocaust, also arguably carried out by atheists for atheist motives. Any human activity can be interpreted as evil by those adversely affected. The subject of eating a nice steak dinner is seriously regarded as an evil act of murder by some vegetarians.

The fact that evil encompasses come of the field of religion, and religion encompasses some of the field of evil does not make them of the same overall character. That’s a flaw in logic. Some people judge religion, on balance, not to be for them. Most people in the world (around 90 percent) believe that religion, on balance, is for them and a good thing. Even under the ethical logic that has concluded that there is no God, people are still left to decide to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil. Even Trekkers must decide whether to dress up as bloodthirsty Klingons or quasi fascist military Starfleet.

Yeah but that’s like saying that Buddhists are atheists because Christianity is correct and hence what they believe in isn’t real, and hence they believe in nothing–ergo they are atheists. Woot.

Pointing out that people believe alternate philosophies and religions than Christianity, some of which don’t include a deity or deities of any sort is rather a pointless thing to point out. Yep, there are philosophies that don’t endorse a deity of any sort. In fact most of these can perfectly co-exist with religion. Confucianists were often Buddhists. Social Darwinists were most often Christians.

In other words, if it’s a religion.

Religion isn’t a simple assertion; it’s a lie or delusion. It makes claims about objective reality that are baseless or outright false.

No. All of those are part of the nature of religion; they are things that religion tends strongly towards.

Some are far more inclined towards evil than others; and religion is one of the worst.

Only in the minds of Christian apologists. The Nazis were overwhelmingly Christian, with a great deal of support from Christian organizations, and acting according to common Christian values.

As for Mao and Stalin, they were killing people for Communism and personal power, not atheism. Atheism doesn’t call for the deaths of others, or for anything else for that matter.

Well, that’s quite an defense of Stalin and Mao. They did what they did to religion with state imposed atheism following. It seems no different to me than other evil people accused of doing things in the name of religions, for the reasons I’ve stated. And they did them on the stated assertions that religions were “lies” or “delusions”. As horrible as the evils of this world are, the evils done to advance atheism claim a place second to none, not even Naziism.

As for religion being a lie, undoubtedly there are clergy who do not at all believe, but I see no reason to dismiss all of religion as a lie, or even enough of it to make it a serious argument. Most believers are not “lying”, but under your logic that makes them all of the rest, every last one, “delusional”. Freud, of course, agreed with you, describing religion as a “shared delusion”. And he was serious. Religion, is not, of course, a delusion. It is a shared set of beliefs and faith, concepts entirely in the human mind, but communicated and operated upon that have meaning and benefits (and downsides) for the individuals and communities operating under them. Infinity is a concept that is similar. It exists nowhere except in concept. Yet it makes a number of human activities, such as space flight, possible. It is neither a lie, nor a delusion. It exists. And religion also exists and people use it socially every day and for many other reasons. You have rejected shared belief systems because in your analysis the costs far outweigh the benefits. But you cannot make that decision for other people, only for yourself. Have you converted anyone to atheism and seen that their life is better? If people get a sense of community and personal meaning out of it, should they really be confronted in their times of joy (or extremis) with an atheist preacher’s nilhilism?

I would disagree that Naziism was Christian in its nature. It was not. It was ultra-capitalistic in its nature and dictatorial and totalitarian. The socialism in its title was an outright cynical lie to make it sound popular. The German resistance was lead by a Lutheran minister, Deitrich Bonhoeffer. As evil as the crimes of the Nazis were, they were not done in the name of Christianity. Despite all the accusations against the Vatican, they sheltered hundreds of Jews in Vatican City during the war, I’ve met some of them. It is far more appropriate, and less fanatical, to lay other crimes at the feet of the Church: the persecution of scientists and philosophers, crusades, inquisitions and molestation cover-ups. But eternal damnation for these crimes, these deviations from a clear charitable purpose set by the Founder, is not a reality concept, but again a religious concept. The molestation cover-up continues and is criminal, but again, it is not a tenet of the faith to cover up molestation, but rather a deviation from set principles that will, in all likelihood be punished as a crime. A legal system is not made invalid by the fact that judges are sometimes on the take, or adopt a judicial philosophy that imposes a long period of injustice (Dred Scot or Plessey v. Ferguson), but that is rather an injustice and against the very concept of justice. It doesn’t mean that all human beings should give up on justice, nor will they.

As for religion being one of the worst evils, I think that perhaps you mistake that lust for power and money and domination and vengeance often try to cloak themselves in with good motives espoused by religions and frequently have nothing to do with religion beyond a public excuse. The sack of Constantinople by one of the Crusades being just such an example.

State imposed Communism, not atheism. It was all about Communism, not atheism, not matter what the believers like to claim. Of course, that’s because if the admit that Communism is a belief system all it’s own, they lose what’s pretty much their only tool to bash atheism and pretend it’s as bad as religion.

And it’s not; as I’ve stated in the past, Communism is a non-theistic religion that refuses to call itself a religion. It’s a false and intolerant worldview that’s taken on faith; not so different than Christianity, except for being generally less fond of the end of the world. And it has acted as religions tend to do when they get power; imposed itself by force and slaughtered and oppressed unbelievers.

Once again, garbage. Communism did what it did to advance Communism, not atheism. That’s why it stands out, and why the believers love to lie and equate Communism and atheism all the time. That way they can use Communism to bash atheism, as long as they carefully ignore the question of why it’s only the Communists who act like that. Not atheists in general. Where’s the gulags in the European nations where atheism is common ?

More or less. Some are either stupid or extremely ignorant, rather than being either liars or deluded.

And what makes you equate atheism with nihilism ? That’s more religion’s style; that the world doesn’t matter, that people don’t matter; that suffering and death don’t matter.

Common Christian values, all of them. As was the hatred of Jews and homosexuals and so on.

And the Catholic Church, and believers in general were big fans of fascism. As far as they were concerned, all their evils could be ignored because they opposed the ultimate evil of “godless Communism”.

As for Deitrich Bonhoeffer, your own link admits that the sect we was a part of was a small one. The majority of Christians did the Christian thing and supported the slaughter of the Jews. Christianity is evil; the fact that occasional Christians overcome the fundamental vileness of the religion they have attached themselves to in no way redeems it. It just means that they are good people, but bad Christians. As opposed to those who were good Christians but bad people, and put Jews in gas chambers.

Yes, as a crime by the secular legal system. The Church puts the welfare of the faith above all else, and happily sacrificed children for decades to protect the reputation of the faith.

Ah, yes, the standard excuse. Religion is good and pure, and any evil done in it’s name doesn’t count.

Asserting that communism did not try to wipe out religion and impose atheism is a failure to deal with fact by reinterpreting history. Was communism a religion as you assert? Only if one removes the distinction between religion and political theory or economic theory and call them the same thing. Politics and religion are not the same thing. If they were, presumably people who hated religion as evil would spend a similar amount of time tearing down all political efforts, and vice versa.

I’ve never said that communism is similar to religion, merely that it advanced atheism for its own goals. Communism is not a religion, theistic or otherwise, it was an economic and political theory. Those are both substantially different human endeavors than religion.

It seems that the apology of communism (which I don’t adhere to but don’t have anything particular against other than the brutality of its failures), namely that communism advances communism, not atheism, is the exact same relation to the argument that Christianity does not advocate war, greed, oppression, etc., except that Christianity in its tenets is actually against those things and requires treating each human being with dignity, where communism actually advocates atheism as a way of making the world a better place. Marx made the same arguments about religion that many of its modern critics make. Now I don’t want to weigh down Marx with the crimes that practitioners of his philosophy committed, Marx would have been horrified at what Lenin, Stalin and Mao did, and even moreso with attaching his name to it. But to suggest that Marx and his criminal practitioners did not advocate atheism and enforce it is to deny reality.

Common Christian values have never included capitalism, which is contrary to Christian principle and always has been. The dictatorial element of Christianity went out with the Reformation and has been on a slide ever since. Christianity has in fact had anti-Jewish elements: these have been taking a drubbing and dropped out of the teaching for the last 60 years, and the views on homosexuality that still exist in many Christian theologies have started on the same road. None of these events and trends can have escaped the careful Christian critic (in the academic sense).

I am not a Catholic, so I do not speak for Catholicism, but to state that it was ever Catholic doctrine to support fascism is mistaken.

I mention Bonhoeffer because he is the most admired non-Catholic Christian of the twentieth century. His influence continues to grow, particularly among Protestants. The suggestion that Christians supported the Holocaust is wrong. Murdering Jews has always been murder in Christian tradition. No group can claim not to have murderers among it, that does not mean that the whole group are murderers or should be tainted with it. If it does, then official atheists, Mao and Stalin, give the evil prize to atheists and atheism.

That is a straw man argument. I never said that religion is pure and that evil done in the name of religion has no consequence. I think I acknowledged and even argued that religion isn’t pure and that there have been bad consequences. But most bad acts, even those that are done in the name of religion, only use religion in the same way a bank robber takes a hostage: to scare people away from shooting at the greed and cruelty hiding behind religion.

I will agree that the Catholic Church appears to have put the welfare of their hierarchy and priests above that of the children hurt by the molesters. It is not excusable and must be stopped (I believe it now is) and must be punished, and recompense made. But nobody disagrees except the extent of the recompense and the actual institution being punished. The suggestion that every institution that has a series of criminal acts committed by its higher-ups is cause for the disbanding of that institution, rather than punishment and recompense, would leave us without institutions.

The world and the lives of people in it are far, far more complex than simple declarative sentences of disdain can effectively deal with. It’s why radio political entertainment personalities usually work alone or with only token opposition: there is a lot more going on than one point of view can encompass.

I’m not a great fan of the whole ‘religion is evil because evil things are done in its name’ line of thinking, but this sort of tu quoque seems an even worse argument to me. I mean, do you honestly not see a difference between a religion, a belief system directly caused by the faith in the existence of god and subsequent needs to examine his properties, and ideologies (like communism etc.) that have no foundation in atheism at all? I’m not saying they don’t promote it, and in some cases even require it, but atheism doesn’t lead to communism (or anything, really) the way faith in some higher being leads to religion. Correlation is not causation – for instance, there are people, including myself, arrive at atheism out of a sort of desire for frugality in one’s belief system, i.e. rejecting baseless and incomparable hypotheses about ephemeral realities, in accordance with some sort of baseline Occam’s razor, and those people will often tend to gravitate towards a scientific viewpoint in general, because that caters to the same need; this doesn’t mean that atheism is a reason for scientific thinking, though. On the other hand, religions are a direct consequence of faith – faith in something is effectively already a religion in so far as that ‘something’ is defined by faith. From there, the establishing of that religion is a straight-forward (and necessary, or else the religion will die out) process of ‘fleshing out’ the object of faith – detailing god’s attributes, writing some mystical narratives, coming up with some rituals etc.
Faith cannot be faith alone, but absence of faith stands on its own.

Well, there’s an infinity of moments between now and later, and an infinity of points between here and there (provided no spacetime quantization).

Nobody’s denying that religion exists, but that’s at best questionable regarding the objects of their faiths (something you’ll agree with for the majority of religions if you follow one of them). Infinity has a clear-cut sense in which it has mathematical existence; I have yet to see an equation ending in ‘= god’. And faith doesn’t carry the same weight in making existential statements owing to its absolutely subjective nature: everybody can, basically, rediscover the mathematics of infinity, but not the tenets of (some given) faith; those are absolutely limited to the individual or those he can convince of them.