Sam Harris on spirituality

June 30, 2012 • 4:41 am

Sam Harris’s new post, “In defense of ‘spiritual’“, tries to reclaim that word from its associations with various species of woo—especially religion. Trying to extend it beyond Hitchens’s construal as “something that inspires awe,” Sam wants the word to apply to forms of “other-consciousness,” including those induced by drugs and meditation:

We must reclaim good words and put them to good use—and this is what I intend to do with “spiritual.” I have no quarrel with Hitch’s general use of it to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more transcendent sense.

Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: “Spiritual” it is.

I agree that we should try to unload the woo-ish cargo with which the word has been freighted, but that will be a tough job—something that Sam simply can’t do on his own. It would require all of us using it in his particular sense, and then explaining what we mean when we use it.  Given that the word has already been co-opted by many accommodationists, especially the Templeton Foundation and its minions (people like Elaine Ecklund, for instance, regularly conflate “spirituality” with “religiosity”), I can’t see the disentangling of meanings happening any time soon.

Sam is, he says, writing a new book. I don’t know what it’s about, but appears to deal with different types of consciousness (“In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.”)  That, at least, is what his talk in Melbourne implied.

There is considerable value in discussing alterations of “normal consciousness,” phenomena I experienced not only in college during the Sixties, but in sporadic attempts at meditation thereafter. Anyone who has ingested psychedelic drugs is aware of the tremendous changes in perception that they induce—changes that can have lifelong effects. I refer in particular to the feeling of “oneness with the universe” that has been the butt of so many anti-hippie jokes. (e.g., “A Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and tells him, ‘Make me one with everything.'”)  It’s not something that can be easily dismissed, particularly because of its connection with similar feelings of religious people, feelings amply documented in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.  None of that, of course, validates the truth of religious claims.  But certainly such experiences require both discussion and scientific study.  Equally certainly, Sam’s book will be worth reading, even if you disagree with it.

A side note: to me, the great virtue of Sam Harris is that he doesn’t pull punches, but says exactly what he thinks, even when it’s unpopular; and, above all, he makes you reexamine your own opinions.  He has made me, for example, rethink the potential value of torture, of the effects of coddling Islam, whether moral values might be objective after all, and whether we have “free will” in any meaningful sense.  And I think he’s been treated unfairly on several counts, with people misconstruing his views—sometimes, it seems, wilfully. One friend, for example, dismissed much of his talk in Melbourne about death because it smacked too much of “woo”.  But if you listen to that talk, there’s no woo at all: just a suggestion that we can improve our lives by being mindful about how we think.

The ability to make us re-examine our cherished values—even if we wind up keeping them anyway—is the highest virtue of skepticism.  If we believe something, we need to be sure we have good reasons for doing so.  And among all the New Atheists, Sam has embodied that virtue most fully and diversely. He keeps us on the rails of rationality.

165 thoughts on “Sam Harris on spirituality

  1. Beautiful post.

    Perhaps, after the revolution, and once religion has finally vanished the way of (irony) feudalism and capital punishment (/irony), maybe we can rethink the animal-farm-esque slogan “Taking drugs is evil” and allow people to address their own inner spiritual concerns by ingesting whatever substances they feel like?

    1. Good grief! It’s an *analogy*. I wasn’t comparing him specifically to a nine-year-old boy so your mentioning Justin Bieber and that other kid baffles me. To get my meaning, think about what it would sound like listening to a young boy who can’t stand girls, has never kissed one and certainly wouldn’t like to, pontificating about how the word kissing needs to have it’s meaning rescued from all those gross, gooey-eyed, face-sucking teenagers. Then maybe you’d get an idea of what Sam Harris sounds like trying to rescue spirituality from religion.

          1. Dang it, my brother! Ye know I love thee with the love of the Lord, but now ye’ve gone an blown my cover as an under-cover agent waging spiritual warfare among these here Godless heathen who know not what they do.


            1. Ya, I didn’t explain myself well at all. My bad. Had intended to agree with your intent even though not with your example but, I did it very poorly.

  2. I enjoyed Sam’s Melbourne talk, I don’t know why some (although certainly not all) people are so resistant to anything he has to say. I am completely allergic to any kinds of woo, and there wasn’t any in what Sam was talking about.

    That said, I am not sure we can “take back” terms like spiritual and numinous, any more than fundamentalists can “take back” the word gay. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have a discussion about certain mental and chemical states or experiences and their effect on our lives.

    1. The reason I dissent and dislike the majority of what Sam Harris has to say is that I’m suspicious of his motives. We should not blindly follow and trust people simply because they’re very popular or famous.

          1. “I dislike what Sam says, not because of the content of his arguments, but based on my suspicions about his motives.”

            Got it.

            I’ll be able to stiff-arm all kinds of carefully presented positions with this handy tool added to my kit. Hell, I’m suspicious of everybody’s motives. Thanks for the tip. This is going to make my thinking much simpler.

          2. Oh for crying out loud. An argument stands on its own validity, regardless of any “motives.” And you don’t even have any well articulated reasons for your suspicion. It’s based on “intuition”, the secular equivalent of the revelation that supports religion. At any rate, it’s completely unfair to denigrate someone’s arguments because you suspect his motives, and don’t even give a reason for that.

          3. You seem a reasonably cogent fellow, so I think if you step back, take a breath, and look you’ll see just how much this rumination on your intuition lacks in excellence.

            If you disagree with and want to engage Sam Harris’ arguments directly and honestly, I’m sure no one on the boards would object, rather they would be happy to take part in the conversation. But what you’ve brought to the table here is some exceptionally weak sauce.

      1. Yeah, except that I didn’t say I don’t see why people disagree with him about some of the things he writes.

        I am curious about those people who are “resistant to anything he has to say” because they disagree with him on certain things.

  3. Thank you. I am a fan of Harris’s recent writings, and although I don’t agree with all of it, I have found it fascinating and well worth engaging his ideas. I agree that he has taken a lot of undeserved criticism.

  4. Sam Harris is the nearest thing we have left to Christopher Hitchens. He is an extremely clear thinker who explains himself pellucidly and if he wants to reclaim “spiritual” I’d be happy to give it my best shot. Whether we succeed is another question but it’s often necessary to define terms anyway, so we’ll just have to insist on our own definition.

    Sam’s talk in Melbourne was fabulous, I loved every minute of it.

  5. Not exactly sure how regulating emotions, regulating behavior, improving interpersonal effectiveness, and cultivating distress tolerance is considered woo.

  6. I can’t disagree with any of the positive comments made about Sam Harris so far. There are some words so laden with culture war baggage, though, that it is presently impossible to sanitize them in any way that makes them either useful or not harmful. Including the word ‘lifestyle’, for example, anywhere in a comment about GLBTQ signals CHOICE to fundavangelicals and reinforces a false conception stereotype with that bunch.

    The same group will hear ‘spiritual’ used in a comment and only be able to process it as either supportive of, or attacking, their supernatural belief. Any other intent in the comment is quite unlikely to penetrate. Maybe someday spiritual will be useful in the way Sam describes, but if it is unnecessary to speak or write emotionally-laden terms, for the time being it is wise to do so. Maybe someday, if rancor and divisiveness ever die down …

  7. Sam writes very well but I think he’s out on a limb with this one.
    In my opinion the idea of atheists reclaiming ”spiritual” or ”spirituality” is pretty much a lost cause. The term is synonymous, at least outside the scientific community, with the idea of a connection to a supernatural realm. So ingrained is the religious connotation that the Templeton Prize is officially awarded for ’Progress in Spirituality’.
    Even in countries that have a far higher proportion of the population that are non religious, such as the UK, “spirituality” is still read as another term for religiosity.
    His argument about there being no other suitable term isn’t particularly convincing. ”Trancendent” may have roots that are just as religious or dualistic as spirituality but it isn’t a term that is widely used by the public to denote religiosity – unlike “spirituality”.
    The comparison, made by Grania, with the word ”gay” is particularly apt. There comes a point where you have to say the effort required to change the popular meaning of the word is simply too great.

    1. ‘Atheism’ does not exclude religious terms. If you mean rationalists whom happen to be atheists then of course. Even the label ‘atheist’ is unhelpful in a lot of ways, which Harris has remarked himself.

    2. The word “gay” is, though, sort of a counter example. It’s “original” meaning was replaced by repeated use in a new way by activists making a social/political statement.

      I, too, am skeptical that Xtians could now “reclaim” the word. And the history of “bright” is a good example of how attempts to change word meaning can fail. I’d have to give Sam’s chances of reclaiming the word “spiritual” low chances of success, much as I’d like it to happen.

      1. I wouldn’t even call it ‘reclaiming’. It was pretty much theirs from the beginning. If I was religious and fond of using “spiritual” as a way of describing religiosity, I would be annoyed with others trying to remove the religious aspect of the term.

        1. “Theirs”, whose? And which word, “gay” or “spiritual”? I’m having trouble parsing the comment.

          1. What I mean is that “spirituality”, although it may have been occasionally used by the non-religious as meaning something like ‘transcendent’, was not historically a term devoid of religious meaning for most people. “Gay”, on the other hand, had a very different vernacular meaning fifty years ago compared to today. The differences between the terms then is that, for “gay”, some people want its historical common meaning to be restored. For “spirituality”, Sam Harris is suggesting we change that historical common meaning.
            I don’t think this is impossible for every word (“atheist” is a good example – its historical meaning is ‘one who believes there is no God’, while the modern interpretation pushed by the gnus is along the lines of ‘someone who doesn’t see enough evidence to accept the God hypothesis’.) I just think that “spirituality” is too deeply associated with religion and belief in supernaturalism for us to have much hope in changing its common meaning.

            1. Hmm… the “weak” meaning “pushed by the gnus” was actually being used by freethinkers in the nineteenth century (if not others earlier).


    3. “The term is synonymous, at least outside the scientific community, with the idea of a connection to a supernatural realm.”

      Right, but this is exactly what Sam is trying to combat.

  8. Spiritual is a concept that atheist Bertrand Russell was perfectly comfortable with using in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship”, one of the finest essays ever penned on non-believing…ummm….spirituality!!!! (The term is also employed by atheist poet Percy Shelley.) So it’s certainly a worthwhile goal to try to reclaim it.

    In the US, a lot of folk like to say they are “spiritual but not religious” (a phrase that had a short-term dip in popularity after Monica Lewinsky used it in an interview, but it bounced back), so I don’t know that it’s necessarily associated with conventional piety here. That’s the atmosphere that enabled the publication of Robert Solomon’s little-read 2002 book “Spirituality for Skeptics”, helped launch the workplace spirituality movement (sometimes God-oriented but heavily influenced by Eastern/Indian religion), and publication of a book like “Spirituality in Martial Arts”.

    Sure, there’s a whole tradition of Christian spirituality as well, but the term isn’t limited to it.

    On the other hand if folks like Elaine Ecklund are deliberately blurring the distinction in order to misrepresent the views of the scientific community, then there’s definitely a problem!! Does Ms. Ecklund represent a broad trend? Should be have a special term like “humanist spirituality” or “secular sprituality”?

    There is however no analogy with the word “gay” as we are really here talking about the blurring of boundaries between the word “spiritual” and the word “religious”, not any significant change in meaning to the word “spiritual” (re my Bertrand Russell citation).

    1. I rather like the notion of ‘humanist spirituality’. It defines it clearly way from religious woo and effectively obviates the more usual, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

      The fact that religion has already pervaded and commandeered everyday English as part of its comprehensive colonization of human experience [as Prof David Eller noted, in “Atheism Advanced”], should not be a barrier to our bloody well re-appropriating it, a word that was appropriate by the religiose in the first place. Yes, there are ever so many words that have become so toxic that we cannot even whisper without them dripping with christian connotation, but ‘spirituality’ is one on which I would be very happy to take a stand with Sam Harris.

      1. Agreed. A word we can certainly abandon to Christians is “penance” and probably also “born again” though the latter sometimes works in a snarky sense for being over-enthusiastic.

  9. Sam Harris … made me, for example, rethink the potential value of torture, of the effects of coddling Islam

    Harris is an unrestrained and unrepentant bigot who writes in favor of singling out Muslims for torture, nuclear bomb attacks, racial profiling, being the world’s greatest threat, and so forth. Harris’s irrational fears and arguments must be patiently countered as they have been by Bruce Schneier and others, not that any of this will cause Harris to change his mind in the face of being obviously and mathematically wrong.

    You are correct that Harris takes unpopular stands, but in the face of opposition, he always says he just wants to stop talking about it, rather than admit an error and move on. This is the definition of intellectual cowardice, and I’m surprised to see you praise Harris for any of his transparently hateful nonsense.

    1. Please explain how it is irrational to fear totalitarian ideologies? Racial profiling is horrible though.

    2. I consider Sam a friend and he is not a bigot or an intellectual coward. I expect you to apologize now for calling him a bigot here. It’s okay to criticize his arguments, but not to sling names. You can call creationists morons if you want, but I won’t tolerate name-calling toward me, my friends, or other commenters here.

      So apologize.

    3. So unrestrained and unrepentant a bigot that he refused to engage Bruce Schneier directly on his web site (

      And how bigoted of Sam Harris to dare to draw an analogy between collateral damage and torture.

      Best to pretend that neither of these ever happen than to have an adult conversation about it.

      It speaks well of you that you have such a visceral reaction to torture but regardless of how disgusting you find it, this and other behaviours that plague our species must be discussed in the marketplace of ideas.

      1. I’d love to hear you expound on your comfort level with collateral damage. The amount of human suffering inflicted by the US using torture pales, PALES in comparison to that caused by collateral damage which is the PC term for ‘accidental’ torture or ‘unfortunate’ torture or ‘couldn’t-be-avoided’ torture.

        1. I agree completely with you.

          I have no comfort level when it comes to collateral damage or torture.

          To say that we need to have a conversation about this does not mean that I’m in agreement with any extant policy.

          In they same way, when I say that I agree with Sam Harris that Islam poses a very real danger to human civilization does not mean that I agree with current western policies with respect to Islamic theocracies.

          1. Then you must square your own circle. How, philosophically, can you despise both torture and collateral damage but practically justify them in the real world and not be a pacifist? I for one loved that Sam had the balls to finally juxtapose these two thorny issues and analyze the ethics and morality surrounding them. To me, it appears to all come down to intent. I too am against torture as Hitch was but Harris makes us question several assumptions in a healthy way. Put it this way, what’s worse: intentionally water boarding someone 57 times or unintentionally bombing an Al Qaida safehouse and wounding a family of four next door–the mother and six year old boy are killed and the father survives to witness his horribly burned and partially disemboweled eight year old daughter suffer in agony for 4 days before dying from sepsis.

            Let’s have an honest discussion about human suffering. Don’t lecture us about the evils of torture or coersive interrogation when we tacitly accept the torture that is collateral damage.

            THIS was Harris’s point.

      1. Christians are doing the same thing. The difference is only in the type of weapon used. I see no difference to the people affected by a bomb dropped from 20,000 feet and a bomb disguised as a person on the ground. What happens to the victims is exactly the same. Nor, do I see a difference if the bomb is disguised as a remote control airplane.

        That shouldn’t be construed as being absolutely against the use of bombs but, only in extreme cases and the use of bombs and physical wars should be viewed as a failure on the part of some or all of the politicians involved, not as a celebration.

        The United States and allies have a slight moral advantage in some recent conflicts mainly I think as a result of christians being unable, so far, to develop their hoped for theocracies. I seriously doubt that christian theocracies would function any different than islamic theocracies do.

    4. Sam does NOT endorse nuking the Muslim world.

      In his book ‘The End of Faith’, he imagines a nightmare scenario where a theocratic state gets a hold of a nuclear weapon, and out of fear, other states make a preemptive strike against it. Sam goes on to immediately say that ‘this would be an unthinkable crime’, and that we need to do everything in our power to prevent such an event.

      Chris Hedges read this passage, and went around in articles, interviews, and speeches, saying that this was a frank endorsement of nuclear warfare against Muslim nations.

      1. Actually, gluonspring already provided the link to Sam’s argument in favor of nuclear war, as well as Sam’s defense of his argument:

        The relevant snippet:

        What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.

        First, the basic premise is ludicrous. No Islamic nation is even vaguely remotely capable of pretending to build or acquire an ICBM, and none have a chance of getting a bomber or missile carrier or other delivery mechanism within, literally, a thousand miles of striking range of the US.

        The real-world worst-case scenario we have to worry about is a weapon (or its components) being clandestinely smuggled into a US city, most likely into a port city by shipping container. The result would be horrific; tens of thousands dead and physical devastation on a scale comparable to Katrina (though much more concentrated and limited to a small area).

        But to suggest that such a thing even hypothetically constitutes a threat against which we might have to “ensure our survival” by launching a preemptive nuclear strike?

        There is no way at all to threaten the survival of the United States without signing your name to it. The delivery of hundreds of multi-megaton bombs simultaneously to both population centers and our own nuclear arsenal and military bases simply cannot be done anonymously, period, full stop, end of story. And no nation-state can even theoretically assemble such an arsenal unless it’s stable enough that Sam’s fears about not being subject to MAD…well, those fears are so out there and irrational that I simply don’t know what to make of it.

        Could a rogue Islamic state kill a lot of Americans with a nuclear bomb? Perhaps. Unlikely, but perhaps. But this talk of an existential threat is…well, insane. And any state that does launch a nuclear strike of any size against the US will, within minutes, be reduced to slag. Whether or not the rest of the world goes up in mushroom clouds in the ensuing firestorm of counter-counterstrikes would be the only remaining question.

        The counterstrike question is even more pressing if it’s the US that launches first, of course. A US nuclear first strike on Iran — which, if we’re honest, is the scenario Sam is hypothesizing about — would be almost certain to spark war with Russia.

        On that same page, Sam justifies torture:

        My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: if you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden).

        The difference that he completely ignores is that your torture victim is already safely secured in your custody and not in any position to harm anybody. It has long been established that what the police may do with a prisoner in custody is far more restrictive than what they may do in hot pursuit or in self defense or defense of others — and that, even in those latter cases, they are still subject to considerable restraint. The moral equation for wartime is no different.

        The police may apprehend a person who matches the description of a suspect, and they may even use lethal force to defend themselves if the person offers sufficient resistance. But, once the cuffs go on, that’s it. The prisoner gets Mirandized, treated for any injuries, and handed over to the DA for further interrogation (with defense counsel present) and prosecution.

        Anything less is barbaric.


        1. Actually, no you get the point about nuclear warfare wrong. The sentences quoted above are taken out of context. When read in context, it is clear that Sam is going on at length about the DANGER of nuclear warfare.

          Indeed, the sentence immediately after the quoted part makes this perfectly clear. Sam is laying out a scenario where a nuclear war COULD happen, in order to emphasize how much such an occurrence needs to be PREVENTED. Here are the following sentences:

          “Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen.”

          1. And yet, despite his horror at the thought, Sam still advocates a nuclear first strike against a Muslim (but not other) nation once it acquires long-range nuclear first strike capability. His goal is to prevent Muslim nations (as opposed to all current non-nuclear nations) from acquiring such a capability, and he is resigned to doing unto them before they get a chance to do unto us should it prove impossible to prevent such from happening.


            1. No, he doesn’t. He is simply laying out a scenario, whereby, if a country with a messianic (that is, wanting to see the end of the world, as the Al Qaeda types do) political ideology were to get a hold of nuclear weapons, the rest of the world might feel so threatened that it would strike first.

              Harris then clearly recoils at the possibility that nuclear warfare could be stoked by fear in this way (as he says “The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war”).

              One would never guess it from reading your comments, but there are political ideologies that are bent on starting a global conflagration, worldviews that see the prospect of a planet plunged in to war with pure joy. Nazism is one (thankfully in remission right now), and the extreme right-wing, Al Qaeda-style Islam is another (thankfully without ICBMs). The passage Sam wrote is worrying about the possibility of facing a country nuclear armed country that has a this type of worldview.

              Its funny. When read altogether Sam’s passage is actually quite clear on this point. I suppose its possible that Sam’s writing is not as clear as I think, or that your reading comprehension is less that I assume. But I think you are willfully misreading this passage.

              Chris Hedges tried to pull the same dishonest trick against him. Here’s Sam’s response:


        2. Also, you make another mistake. Pakistan, while not a full blown theocracy like Iran, has large tranches of its political space dominated by extreme right-wing, theocratic Islamic political thought.

          Pakistan also has nuclear weapons. These weapons are, to the best of our knowledge, under the control of the military, which basically runs the country. However, if the political situation changes, the state could well take a turn toward the more theocratic side that it already has.

          It also has missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons at range of 750 km:

          This isn’t enough to reach the US, but it could certainly hit India or China, both of which are nuclear armed states. So the danger is far more real than you are representing in your comments.

          1. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal means that neither India nor China dare launch an attack against Pakistan; they know that, if Pakistan feels sufficiently threatened, it will respond by escalating with nuclear weapons.

            But were Pakistan to launch a nuclear strike against either (and especially China), especially an unprovoked first strike, it would be instantly reduced to rubble.

            This is a textbook example of MAD, and it is working in that region exactly the same way it did in the Cold War.

            And, really, it isn’t even very hypothetically plausible that some lunatic will come to power in Pakistan and launch a first strike. The MAD calculus is obvious and universally known. There’s no way the military would go along with that sort of insanity, and no ruler in that part of the world is going to do anything that drastic militarily without the military’s full support.

            And, again. Sam is characterizing this as a potential existential crisis for the West. Even an all-out nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, as horrible and tragic as it would be, would have no more consequences for the West than the Japanese tsunami.

            It is most emphatically not the type of scenario in which one grants the utility of an American first nuclear strike, which is what Sam has repeatedly done.

            There is one and exactly one reason why it makes sense to keep an American first nuclear strike “on the table”: to strengthen the MAD calculus. The nuclear powers have non-nuclear weapons with comparable destructive force to a small nuclear bomb, and the official American position serves to effectively equate those super-bombs with nuclear bombs. Russia knows not to hit an American base with something that could be mistaken for a nuke, because the response likely will actually be a nuke. But none of this applies to Muslim nuclear powers, or even theoretically could.

            Remember: a nuclear bomb that a country hasn’t detonated is a huge military asset; a nuclear bomb that a country has just detonated is the worst imaginable military liability. It is exactly this paradox that has kept the world from vanishing in a collection of mushroom clouds.


            1. This time you ALMOST get it right:

              “But were Pakistan to launch a nuclear strike against either (and especially China), especially an unprovoked first strike, it would be instantly reduced to rubble.”

              This is true, but it depends on the political/military class that controls the warheads not wanting to see their country reduced to rubble. However, not all worldviews are that sane. Hitler and the Nazi leadership, for example, preferred to see their nation reduced to complete rubble, with millions of their own people murdered, rather than admit that their racial utopia was an impossibility. Hitler chose to see his country destroyed as unworthy of National Socialism.

              Right now, the stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons don’t view things that way, but it is possible that things could change. The extreme right-wing Al Qaeda suicide bombing version of Islam that Bin Laden supported has a similar messianism that Nazism displayed. It is also quite popular in Pakistan’s general populace (and indeed Pakistan is a major source of suicide bombers). What’s more, some of the religious philosophers that inspired Al Qaeda’s founders were from Pakistan, and their preachings are still popular today.

              Then of course, there is the huge problem that Nazism itself is quite popular in Pakistan:


              1. As I just replied to J.J.E., I agree that Pakistan represents a regional instability. China and India are and should lose sleep at night over Pakistan.

                But Sam’s argument is that a fundamentalist Islamic state with nukes represents an existential threat to the West, one that (at least hypothetically) justifies a preemptive nuclear first strike. I hope I’ve made clear how not only does that scenario not even remotely apply, but that speculating about it is counter-productive in the extreme.


              2. Not sure if you will see this, since the reply threading has run out here. You say something that seems unclear:

                “But Sam’s argument is that a fundamentalist Islamic state with nukes represents an existential threat to the West, one that (at least hypothetically) justifies a preemptive nuclear first strike. I hope I’ve made clear how not only does that scenario not even remotely apply”

                Doesn’t apply? You realize that this is a hypothetical scenario, right? Sam is worrying about the possibility that someone like Mohammed Atta, for whom MAD would be no deterrent, could get a hold of a nuclear weapon.

    5. Even people who aren’t Sam’s friends, like me, can tell he’s not a bigot. As a compassionte liberal, he goes after politically correct liberal assumptions, which helps the liberal cause, rather than obstructing it. If you read his terrorism-threat and torture arguments as advocacy of pe-emptive war, or of torture, you are simply not paying attention to what he actually says. You are just responding reflexively, to thoughtful questions he raises about received liberal orthodoxy,as if you were a Pavlovian dog. I agree that he should have deferred more to the homeland security expert, who I thought made a convincing case that racial profiling would not increase our safety and would probably decrease it, and i wish he had much more fully acknowledged the harm it would create. But these are harmless side effects, in my view, of an exuberance of personality and intellect in a man doing some of the most important, cutting edge thinking on the planet right now.

  10. I don’t believe in any kind of spirits — gods, goddesses, angels, devils, fairies, elves, ghosts, souls . . . so I bristle at the term spiritual and would never apply the word to myself, no matter how often I experience awe, grandeur, connectedness. I know that people often use the term to mean they feel in tune with the natural world, perhaps the universe. I think we should promote the notion that one can have such feelings without being spiritual.

    About a quarter to a third of people in the US identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Whether or not they are theists or deists, I would guess that most believe in some kind of transcendent reality — and, in particular, the existence of consciousness apart from the brain. Modern science is teaching us a lot about the nature of consciousness. And, as neuroscientists put it, the mind is what the brain does. It doesn’t require a soul. Or spirituality.

    Make me one with everything, fine, but I prefer a scientific explanation of feelings of awe, ecstasy, rapture — okay, forget [the] rapture — overwhelming emotion.

    1. That was great even down to your handling of rapture. Thanks for expressing it so clearly.

      On a side note I think words that have opposing definitions are disgusting. They allow dishonest people to gain an advantage over honesty. If spiritual means existence after death it shouldn’t also mean the natural states produced within the brain. If lack means wanting and needing it shouldn’t also mean simply not having.

      Clearly, biologists would find such ambiguity troubling within their own field and it isn’t any less troubling with communication in general.

    2. Absolutely agree. I loathe the word spirituality. I think Sam’s attempt to redefine spirituality is a complete waste of time and energy. As Jerry said, Sam can’t “reclaim” the word on his own and I seriously doubt that he’s going to receive any more support for this than proponents of the term “Bright” ever have (I’m not claiming that Sam is/was one of these). In fact, I think he’s likely to receive even less support than the “Bright” proponents. His target audience is a minority and a fair portion of that minority is likely to disagree with him and not only fail to support him in his attempt to reclaim “spirituality,” but even actively argue against it.

      And to dismiss neologisms because he thinks they’re pretentious. That’s hardly a valid argument against their use. The word psychedelic is a neologism coined a mere 56 years ago and it’s worked quite well. And it’s a word that describes an experience and the substances that produces that experience better than any previously existing and baggage-laden word. Unlike the baggage-laden spirituality, numinous, or transcendent, which all have religious and/or wooish connotations.

  11. Sam is on safe and well-trodden ground here, So long as we call it *naturalistic* spirituality upfront, and make clear there’s nothing dualistic or non-evidence based involved, then talk about spirituality and spiritual practice isn’t problematic for non-believers.

    Same thing goes for “religious naturalism”: we can be religious in what Dawkins called the Einsteinian sense. The terms religious and spiritual denote domains of experience and human concern that can be approached within a completely naturalistic context, and it’s difficult to find better words to refer to them. But of course people are free to find and promote other words to do the same job, e.g., “ecstatic naturalism.”

    1. An ecstatic naturalist! That’s me!:-)
      (“Naturalist” in the sense of rock collecting, cactus hunting, snake loving, hawk watching, ocean swimming, tree drawing, microscope squinting, nature studying artist/geologist.)
      Who needs gods or meditation when you have saguaros?

      “I think, far off, our arts will be practiced once again.”
      – Loren Eisely

    2. Yet you can’t even make it through one sentence without forgetting or simply ignoring to put naturalistic in front of spirituality. Doesn’t bode well for your claim.

  12. A much better performance than his Melbourne talk.
    Not just superior: really good.
    I don’t agree with much of it — I share Sigmund’s objections — but the case is worthy and well argued.

    However, the examples quoted by Sam Harris suffice to show how spirit has meant many different things to many different people over many centuries. Nor can any attempt to regain the lexical high ground be restricted to the English idiom. Geist, ånd, esprit, spirito, дух, all share several core connotations, diverge in several others, but they all have shaped the definition of a common semantic space. The notion of spirit is so central to European “Geistesgeschichte” (another partial overlap: intellectual history can also be translated as spiritual/i> history) that any monolingual endeavour is doomed to be a forlorn cause.

  13. He has made me, for example, rethink the potential value of torture

    Oh, I hope not.

    Even if it hadn’t been soundly and nearly-universally demonstrated horrifically counter-productive by interrogation experts, torture actually does at least as much harm to the society that perpetuates it as it does to the victims.

    The least-worst argument torture apologists can come up with is the “ticking time bomb scenario.” The first problem is, that scenario never actually plays itself out in the real world. Nobody with the means and intent to plant a nuke in the middle of downtown is going to be stupid enough to arm it with a cheap alarm clock that beeps on the second and connect it with two wires, one red and one black, only one of which must be cut in order to defuse it. No, it’s going to get loaded into a vehicle with a driver who has no clue what’s really going on, and it’s going to be detonated by GPS as soon as it’s “close enough.” There will be no option to disarm it once things are set in motion, because a nuke going off anywhere is “good enough,” even if it only produces minimal casualties. There’ll even be a dead man switch that sets off the bomb if the driver opens the door, rolls down the window, if the window gets broken, the truck sits in one spot too long, that sort of thing.

    The second problem is that, historically, including especially by the CIA and at Guantanamo, torture is always used for the reasons that Orwell laid out in 1984. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times by the CIA and thereby tortured into confessing involvement in dozens of years-old terrorist plots. Torquemada would have been proud.

    You can’t give the green light to “ticking time bomb scenario” torture without also giving your blessing to Inquisition-style insanity, and there isn’t even a hint of a question that you’ll only get the latter and none of the former. A lot of the latter, too.

    Besides, by definition, there can be no due process, no justice for those suspected of a ticking time bomb. And it can’t be sent up the chain of command, either — there’s no time, the bomb could go off any second. If a cop on the street thinks you’ve planted a pipe bomb on a train platform, the ticking time bomb scenario gives him free reign to torture you to death rather than do a proper evacuation and investigation. And so what if his only evidence against you is your skin color and your clothing? Especially since Sam has also endorsed racial profiling….

    Sam should know better on this subject, and I’d have thought you did, too, Jerry.


    1. Well put, Ben.

      “The torturer mindset, in a crisis, is incompatible with the quest for truth, or at least for reliable evidence.”

      This is what an elderly gentleman told me decades ago in Rome. He was a former Italian career officer who turned against the Germans when they occupied Rome in 1943. He joined a group of partisans, was caught and tortured by the SS in Via Tasso, and made no bones about telling them everything they wanted to hear. They could have taken down his entire network. Instead, they went on torturing him to within an inch of his life, because they could not decide what to believe, and there was no time to investigate.

      1. There are those who so abhor uncertainty that they will gladly accept misinformation in its place.

        We see that with the Nazi torturers in your example, and we also see it with the religious who crow, “You don’t know exactly how life on Earth began, but the Bible says it does, so I’m going with the certainty of the Bible.”

        I find this mindset utterly incomprehensible.

        In the ticking time bomb scenario, it plays itself out in the form of, “Well, if we don’t torture this brown-skinned person, we know the bomb will go off and lots of people will die.” What’s missing is that, even if you do torture the brown-skinned person, the bomb (if there even is one) is (or isn’t) going to go off regardless. The comparison isn’t between no torture with lots of death and torture without deaths, it’s between lots of deaths with torture and lots of deaths without torture. By the time you’re in a position to torture somebody, it’s already too late — there’s nothing that torture could even theoretically do to prevent the deaths.

        And I haven’t even addressed the other side of the equation. By torturing people, the government provides incentive to potential torture victims to revolt. Torture does far more to cause innocent bystanders to get blown up than it does to prevent it.

        Of course, the conservative mindset at this point bristles, complaining that we can’t “coddle” or give in to terrorist demands. The Hatfields and McCoys might have a thing or two to say about that. It’s nice and well to play the tough strongman who has his way with the lesser mortals who pester him with their unclean presence, but the reality is that it’s the filthy masses that build civilizations and tear down dictators. And if you want to be part of civilization, you would be wise to help, not hinder, said masses.


          1. You’re welcome.

            I’ll even agree with Sam that Muslim fanaticism represents a significant threat to Western society, and that Muslims are statistically more likely to be fanatical and dangerous than Christians.

            But Sam is guilty here of thinking, “We need to do something; torture and war are something; so let’s do that.” Torture and war make the problem worse. The solution in the Muslim world is the same as in the Western world — liberty, education, and prosperity.

            Leafletting Iraq and Afghanistan with $1 trillion in $100 bills — merely a quarter of the cost of the wars so far — would have completely and permanently eliminated either country as a threat to the Western world. That’s something, and it would have worked far better than the quagmire we’re in — so why didn’t the war hawks and torture apologists jump all over it?

            Sam talks big about enlightenment and compassion, but his stance on torture (and racial profiling and other such issues) isn’t even remotely compatible with either. It’s rather hard to take seriously his proposals for “spirituality” and morality when his own quest has led him so shockingly astray.

            For all his alleged wisdom, Sam has failed to grasp that there are worse things than death, and becoming a monster yourself in a desperate attempt to save your own skin is right there at the top of that list. That one niggling little detail really spoils so much of what else he has to say.


            1. I fricking hate racial profiling. I’m sick of Sam’s idea that Indonesians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Persians, Turks, and Nigerians should be profiled at the airports.

              Or was that Arabs? I dunno, I can’t keep what race Muslims are supposed to be BECAUSE THERE IS NO MUSLIM RACE.

              1. I dunno. Sam might have a point about racial profiling.

                After all, Timothy McVeigh was a Muslim. The Unabomber, too — and the creep who poisoned all the Tylenol in the ’80s, and George Metesky and Charles Manson and the Son of Sam and Jack the Ripper and Jim Jones and the IRA and the Weather Underground and FALN and Hitler and Stalin and even Pol Pot.

                Muslims, every one of ’em.


              2. Your point regarding religious profiling is indeed something that can be debated, and in all likelihood, we’d probably agree more with each other than we do with Sam.

                Sadly, that’s not what you said. You slipped into a lazy shorthand that is palpably and empirically false and tried to score a save by changing the subject. Fortunately, your subject change puts forward a topic I can agree with, so we can drop that as a subject.

                When discussing profiling Islam, the moment you start complaining about “racial profiling” is the moment you should take a moment for self reflection to determine if you’ve gone off the rails and started making elementary logical areas like you’ve manifestly done above. However, in some cases, it won’t be the case. When discussing certain rednecks and sundry, you very well may have a point. They will make idiotic mistakes by conflating race with religion all the time, and you’re shorthand, as misleading and obfuscated as it may be, might actually be on target. For certain members in my family, I know it is the case.

                Repeat after me Ben: “Islam is not a race. No ‘race’ is a majority in Islam and Arabs make up less than 20% of world Muslims. Calling religious profiling ‘racial profiling’ is a dishonest smear tactic unless I have evidence that my target conflates the two as well.”

                You’ll feel better for battling your own biases and blindspots. Isn’t that what we skeptics do?

                And lest my intent be misunderstood: Religious profiling would almost certainly be ineffective and Sam Harris’s idea for promoting it is misguiding.

              3. Typos galore… 😐

                *in some INSTANCES, it won’t be the case
                *elementary logical MISTAKES
                *and YOURE shorthand
                * Sam Harris’s idea for promoting it is misguided

            2. “Sam has failed to grasp that there are worse things than death, and becoming a monster yourself in a desperate attempt to save your own skin is right there at the top of that list”

              When I read Harris’ attempt to respond to these kinds of criticism here [1] I find myself almost buying it except for the growing feeling of nausea I have as I read it. I think you have given words here to the source of this nausea. Harris seems to be saying that, fine talk notwithstanding, under the right circumstances, circumstances not so different from ones that are all around us now, he is willing to be as much of a monster as needed. It is unfortunate, because I really loved his meditation talk posted here recently. However, when I think of that talk in context of the things he has written about torture and so on, I get a creepy feeling that sort of undermines it.

              I’m also bothered by what seems like his desire to have it both ways. He goes to great pains to say he’s opposed to nuclear first strikes, torture, even capital punishment. See, he’s not advocating barbaric things! In the same breath, though, he makes what he claims are unassailable arguments in favor of these barbaric things. Or, at least that is how it struck me on a single reading. Taken all together, it gives me that feeling that here is not someone I’d want to share a lifeboat with.

              But then, that’s just Harris as I’ve experienced through reading a few pages he’s written. I don’t know the guy.


          2. Sam is not unhinged, and I think that comment is both misguided and rude. If he’s unhinged, then let me be unhinged the same way. Nor is he a bigot, as some splenetic person said above.

            1. I said that. Anyone who singles out a large group for torture, nuclear bomb attacks, racial profiling, and against actual evidence being the world’s greatest threat, is and deserves to be called a bigot.

              1. He is not a bigot in any meaningful sense of the word, and he’s my friend. Either apologize or go make comments on other blogs.

              2. But Steve, you’re actually wrong.

                1) Sam did not suggest that we ought to torture Muslims. He suggested that torture may under some circumstances be acceptable. (I happen to disagree, but at least characterize your interlocutor’s argument correctly.)
                2) Sam did not suggest that we ought to nuke Muslims. In fact he said that a nuclear first strike against an Islamist regime would be an unthinkable crime.
                3) Anti-Muslim sentiment, even if it is bigotry, is not a form of racial bigotry. This is sloppy thinking and is definitionally wrong. The largest single “race” in Islam doesn’t rise above 20% of Islam’s “racial” composition.

                I’d be willing to allow you to claim, for the sake of argument, that Sam is a religious bigot, but not a racial one. In fact, I don’t even think he’s consciously religiously bigoted, even though I think his prescriptions are wrong. Whether he is unconsciously bigoted or is simply wrong is something I can’t determine.

                In sum: characterize the arguments of those you disagree with accurately before going off half-cocked.

              3. Steve might wish to chime in. But…

                Sam did not suggest that we ought to torture Muslims. He suggested that torture may under some circumstances be acceptable.

                This would seem to be a distinction without a difference, especially considering that he’s repeatedly and vociferously advocated profiling in airports on the grounds that it’s only Muslims who want to blow up airliners. I think Sam would similarly argue that there’s no point in torturing a blonde six-year-old girl in order to determine where the ticking time bomb is, and we should instead focus “our” efforts on the swarthy man in the turban.

                Sam did not suggest that we ought to nuke Muslims. In fact he said that a nuclear first strike against an Islamist regime would be an unthinkable crime.

                True…but, in the same breath, he advocated a nuclear first strike against any Muslim state that had a credible potential to acquire first-strike capability. Even though he would shed profuse tears while pressing the Big Red Button. Again, a distinction without a difference.

                Anti-Muslim sentiment, even if it is bigotry, is not a form of racial bigotry. This is sloppy thinking and is definitionally wrong. The largest single “race” in Islam doesn’t rise above 20% of Islam’s “racial” composition.

                By your definition, it would seem that Sam is advocating racial, not religious, profiling.

                Read his debate with Bruce Schneier, linked elsewhere on this page; you’ll see that, although Bruce repeatedly counters with real-world named examples of Muslim terrorists who are and look decidedly Western, Sam persists in insisting that Westerners should generally be given the benefit of the doubt in airport security.

                Sam even gives an example of witnessing a handful of crotchety old men forced to stand up out of their wheelchairs to go through security. Bruce pointed out that there are Al Qaeda documents exploring the possibility of using wheelchair wheels to smuggle explosives. Sam insisted that there’s no way they could have posed a threat. Unfortunately, Bruce left it at that without noting that a crotchety old man with a terminal illness may well decide to go out in a blaze of glory.

                But if those men were dark-skinned and wearing turbans, I very much doubt Sam would have objected to their search.

                Sam deserves much credit for much of his thinking, but he deserves stern criticism for his thinking on torture, profiling, and nuclear first strike policy. And I haven’t seen any indication that he deserves the benefit of the doubt on those matters…his excuses and extenuating circumstances are perfectly in line with other advocates of such horrors.


              4. Ben Goren
                This would seem to be a distinction without a difference especially considering that he’s repeatedly and vociferously advocated profiling in airports on the grounds that it’s only Muslims who want to blow up airliners.

                Sorry, you don’t get to determine by fiat what Sam does and doesn’t advocate. You may say “The consequences of what Sam suggests is Muslim torture.” But you don’t get to say “Sam advocates Muslim torture.” One is an inference based on your interpretation. The other is a lie.

                Of course, I’m being generous in granting you that Sam even advocates torture. Sam was not specifically advocating torture. Indeed, he even advocated that torture remain illegal in the same way theft should remain illegal. Sam also suggests that it may be ethically preferable under some circumstances to steal, but that doesn’t mean that Sam advocates theft. This is no different than using the trolly car thought experiments to consider what we feel is and isn’t ethical. Really, these are pretty simple concepts. You’re wilfully misconstruing Sam’s stated positions on topics in order to bring the full rhetorical heft of your not inconsiderable barbed wit to bear. Not only is this not fair, but it borders on dishonest.

                Ben Goren
                True… but, in the same breath, he advocated a nuclear first strike against any Muslim state that had a credible potential to acquire first-strike capability.

                So wrong, it isn’t even funny. The argument Sam made was in the process of sketching out the game theoretical implications of such a situation. Not surprisingly, he predicts that “we” (ie the nuclear-capable governments of those of us who are not citizens of an Islamist state) will make the same calculations as the actors in the Cold War would have made: strike first if your strike will prevent being struck yourself first. This is just running through the game theory calculations. He uses this as a jumping off point to call on the “Muslim world” to anticipate this terrible situation and preempt it:

                Sam Harris
                All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.

                By your definition, it would seem that Sam is advocating racial, not religious, profiling.

                This has the appearance of an assertion without support. Did you forget to paste a paragraph into the form? I’m not being facetious. I can’t see how you get from A to B here. Muslims are Indonesian, Persian, Sub-Saharan African, Turkish, Malaysian, Sub-Continental, Arab, Central Asian, etc. And these categories are far too broad. The full spectrum of the breadth of MAJOR Islamic groups is staggering.

                Again, re: profiling: In my opinion: Sam. Is. Wrong. But I don’t think he is advocating nuclear strikes, torture, or racial profiling. I do take him at his word that he fears a preemptive nuclear strike would be more probable in some circumstances, that he feels that torture isn’t unconditionally worse than collatoral damage, and that he thinks religious profiling would be efficacious. Why can’t you simply use those positions as a starting point and go from there? All of those positions have serviceable counter-points. Putting words into Sam’s mouth serves nobody.

              5. Sorry, you don’t get to determine by fiat what Sam does and doesn’t advocate.

                You would have a point…were it not for the fact that Sam’s discussion of torture is entirely within the context of the war on Muslim Terror and that he himself consistently and primarily uses examples of Muslims (such as Osama bin Laden) for individuals to torture.

                Sam is smart enough to know that simply repeating “Muslim” and “torture” in the same context is going to be construed as supporting the torture of Muslims. With all the extra emphasis he keeps putting on the connection between terrorism, his justification for torture, and his assertion that it’s primarily Muslims who constitute a torture-worthy threat…well, claiming that he’s not advocating the torture of (deserving) Muslims is disingenuous in the extreme.

                It’s also the exact same sort of “dog whistle” “code language” employed by those who oppose universal civil liberties.

                The argument Sam made was in the process of sketching out the game theoretical implications of such a situation.

                Actually, the exact argument was:

                What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.

                Sam’s words. My emphasis. And claiming that’s a “what-if” scenario again doesn’t carry much water. On the one hand, the scenario is so ludicrous it doesn’t merit mention at all; on the other, if one is to mention it, adding “Muslim” adds nothing to the discussion. What, he thinks Iran is going to launch their first ICBM at us the minute it goes live, but that North Korea wouldn’t? Or that a Muslim nation is somehow capable of stealthily amassing a nuclear arsenal to rival China’s without us noticing but a non-Muslim one isn’t?

                Muslims are Indonesian, Persian, Sub-Saharan African, Turkish, Malaysian, Sub-Continental, Arab, Central Asian, etc.

                I know that. You know that.

                But, read Sam’s debate with Bruce Schneier and tell me that you honestly believe that Sam knows that.

                Bruce repeatedly challenges Sam on exactly that point, and Sam sticks to his position that it’s somehow easy to tell a Muslim from a non-Muslim, or at least that it’s easy to identify those who aren’t Muslims.

                I’m sorry. Considering how much I agree with Sam on positions not related to geopolitics, I’d really like for him to be on my side in this arena as well. But, the fact is, he’s on the worng side of history in these matters, right alongside and in lock step with George Bush and the Neocons.

                I’m not kidding. Sam’s excuses for torture and racial profiling and nuclear first strikes read just like something that could come out of a Heritage Foundation policy paper or the RNC foreign policy platform position. These are not novel or extraordinary justifications for his position; they’re textbook examples.


              6. We’re both referencing the same page of Sam’s which in turn references other works.

                Just for convenience, I’ll re-link it.

                I still say it is fine to call Sam disingenuous and say why he is. I think it is fine to give your take on why what Sam advocates will lead to certain outcomes. I think it is fine to say that what Sam actually advocates would result in some of the things he says he doesn’t advocate. Where I draw the line is claiming that he advocates what he disclaims. Call him out for faulty logic, a naive understanding of the world, a misapprehension of the facts, whatever. But don’t ascribe attributes or positions to him that he doesn’t have or denies (respectively).

                For example, I honestly don’t think he’s racist at all. I think he’d be perfectly happy with an atheist of any stereotypically Muslim “race”. I don’t think he’d discriminate against them or advocate profiling of an Arab (or Persian, etc) who behaves in the way we non-religious people normally do. Of course, given how shitty profiling is, it is likely a brute fact that such people, even though atheist, would get splashed by the collateral damage in such profiling. This is one of many reasons I don’t agree with Sam here. I take him to mean that, insofar as Muslims wear their religion on their sleeves through public display of their faith through public behavior, they should be profiled. Conditional upon knowing someone is proudly Muslim, so the argument goes, the person is more likely to be a terrorist. There are so many holes in this line of argument, that I won’t even begin to outline them. But I take this as an argument rooted in the purported ideology possessed by the profiled person, not in their genetic heritage. I think profiling in this context is stupid (and I’m hard pressed at the moment to imagine a condition in which negative-profiling is useful), but I don’t think it is racial or, by extension, racist.

                Again, in reading that link (Sam can argue for himself, so I’m giving my impression rather than speaking for him anymore) it seems perfectly obvious that Sam is saying what WOULD happen if a Taliban like regime got ICMBs with nuclear warheads. Not what ought to happen, but what would happen. He takes pains to say what WOULD happen is insane and terrible, etc. He uses this lose-lose situation as a rhetorical device to urge Islamic governments and their people (the “Muslim world”) to take steps to prevent the situation from even arising. I don’t see even a scintilla of advocacy of a nuclear strike. Just the resigned recognition by a helpless bystander of the likely turn of events in a hypothetical situation that he sees as being more and more likely as time passes.

                Out of curiosity, do you think that an ICBM capable Taliban with nuclear warheads + U.S.A. = anything other than tragedy for all involved?

              7. Out of curiosity, do you think that an ICBM capable Taliban with nuclear warheads + U.S.A. = anything other than tragedy for all involved?

                I think that scenario is even less reasonable to worry about than a Martian invasion, and posing it as something worth worrying about can only possibly serve…well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it can only serve to fuel the flames of racist paranoia. Those brown-skinned people want us extra dead, and just imagine if they could do to us what we could do to them!

                Why worry about the Taleban getting ICBMs, but not worry about the Klan getting drones equipped with nerve gas, or the IRA dumping biological weapons in the Thames?

                The Taleban is no more capable of acquiring an ICBM than the kid next door is of riding his bike to the moon, so why waste any time on either’s fantasies?


              8. I read his “response to controversy” several times. I can definitely see the reading that you and he want us to come away with, that he’s just gaming out a scenario as a way to make a case to the Muslim world of the vital importance of policing their own (which, I must say, comes across a bit like a Mafioso saying, “You know, things can happen to businesses without protection.”) But I can see the reading where it’s just playing out the scenario and reminding everyone of the perilous times that may be ahead. It is obvious, from all his highlighting, that that’s how he wants us to read it. In the end, though, the whole piece still sounds like double-talk to me. Like he is trying to offload to logic, or the inevitability of other people’s logic, the responsibility for what might happen.

                The response to the nuke first strike claim here [1] comes across as lawyerly. Rather than starting off with a maximally clarifying, “I do not advocate a nuclear fist strike in any circumstances”, he instead points to the fact that he’s only written a few words on the topic, and then repeats those words with highlighting. Thanks, but I’d still like a little clarification. He highlights that it is an “unspeakable crime”, sure, but it is not out of the realm of human discourse to talk of “necessary evils”. And that is exactly how the piece as a whole comes across to me, like an exposition of a “necessary evil”. Oh, we’ll be ever so sad, but logic and necessity will force our hand. I don’t think that’s an unfair reading at all.

                His use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ throughout isn’t very distancing of this logic either. Juxtaposed against saying it’s an “unspeakable crime” he says:

                “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons.” [*]


                “In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”

                Against laying out such logic which is the more likely interpretation, that Harris thinks this will be awful, but necessary, or that he thinks we should cling to a unlikely chance of survival and go down nobly?

                Overall my impression is that he is someone who is trying to have it both ways. He wants to rattle the nuclear saber at the Muslim world, wants to lay out the logic of nuclear strike as though it were some force of nature or were going to play out on Saturn where he is not a participant, but he also doesn’t want to come off as a barbarian so he is constrained to call it an “unspeakable crime” even as he lays out the unavoidable logic that will lead to this “unspeakable crime”. Now I have no idea what the man actually thinks. He may be horrified that anyone would think he advocates a nuclear first strike. But if so, it seems odd that he just highlights a few words in a forceful argument for a first strike rather than just coming out and saying so.

                [*] While it is certainly possible that a suicidal regime will take power somewhere, and it is obvious that a few individuals are so fervent that they won’t hesitate to go down a suicidal path, I think overall Harris gives too much credit to what religious people say they believe. Most of them are hypocrites as judged by what they do when they get sick: seek treatment rather than welcome God’s calling them to Heaven. There is belief, and there is suicidal-belief. The latter is real, such people exist, but I think quite rare even among radical cults.

              9. O.K. I get it. You’re not into hypotheticals. I happen to disagree that such hypotheticals are in any way comparable to your hyperbole. But then again, outlining explicitly how unhelpfully over-the-top your hyperbole is would reflect a lack of a sense of humor on my part.

                But just for context for the plausibility of such scenarios: Pakistan has regional nuclear capability (not ICBM) and is fairly unstable and could fall to any number of changes in power. For a non-Muslim example, North Korea might soon have effective nuclear capability (and not ICBM) and definitely is on the cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs side of the sanity spectrum. It isn’t unreasonable (though not on the high side of likely) to imagine they could some day in the next half century upgrade to get the full suite of capability necessary to threaten anyone in the globe with at least one nuclear strike.

                Is your lack of willingness to wade into this hypothetical a vote of confidence in the intelligence agencies of the world?

              10. @gluonspring

                I find your interpretation reasonable. If Sam were induced somehow to choose between mine and yours as most accurate and he chose yours, I wouldn’t be shocked. Obviously it isn’t how I see it, but it isn’t out of the question by any stretch of my imagination.

              11. J.J.E., I’ve repeatedly agreed that Pakistan represents a regional threat.

                My point has been that Sam is arguing that “Muslim extremists” (hypothetically) represent an existential threat to the Western world, and that such a threat, if it ever comes close to being realized, would justify preemptive nuclear annihilation.

                That sort of speculation is so over-the-top that I’d have expected somebody of Sam’s caliber to have stopped indulging in it about the same time he moved out of the dorm.

                And as to the rest of your question, your hypothetical is almost in that league. Pakistan and North Korea are so far from a credible intercontinental threat that it’s silly for those not paid to worry about such things to worry about them. Intercontinental force projection is a huge level of difficulty beyond even nuclear weaponry, and it’s useless as an offensive weapon. It just makes your enemy mad enough to annihilate you without doing them any substantial damage (as horrific as the catastrophe would be).

                It’d even be of limited utility in “don’t attack us or we’ll nuke you” diplomacy, since they can (almost) as effectively state, “don’t attack us or we’ll nuke our neighbors and your allies.”

                And all this still is laughably (if it weren’t for the horrible nature of the topic) far away from an existential threat and in no way can justify a preemptive first nuclear strike. Even hypothetically.


        1. What’s missing is that, even if you do torture the brown-skinned person, the bomb (if there even is one) is (or isn’t) going to go off regardless. The comparison isn’t between no torture with lots of death and torture without deaths, it’s between lots of deaths with torture and lots of deaths without torture. By the time you’re in a position to torture somebody, it’s already too late — there’s nothing that torture could even theoretically do to prevent the deaths.

          Sorry, but this is just utter nonsense. You may believe that it is *unlikely* that torture would be successful in thwarting a ticking time bomb plan, but you have absolutely no basis for claiming that “there’s nothing that torture could even theoretically do to prevent the deaths.” It is obviously “theoretically” possible that torture would induce the prisoner to reveal the location of the bomb, allowing it to be disarmed or moved and thereby preventing deaths.

          You just don’t seem to be able to think rationally about this issue at all. Your comments contain one obviously false claim after another.

    2. The first problem is, that scenario never actually plays itself out in the real world.

      Nothing you write demonstrates that the ticking time bomb scenario is impossible, or even implausible. For all we know, it may already have happened.

      You can’t give the green light to “ticking time bomb scenario” torture without also giving your blessing to Inquisition-style insanity,

      Of course I can. Torture may be justified in a TTB scenario, to obtain the information needed to prevent a catastrophe, but is never justified as a means of extracting a confession. There.

      Besides, by definition, there can be no due process,

      So what? There’s no due process when a cop shoots a man on the street to stop him from killing someone else, either. In an emergency, time-critical situation, there may not be any opportunity for due process.

  14. I can’t go with Sam on this one. Why hang on to a term with so much baggage and with an etymology based on the supernatural? Wonder and awe describe that sensation just fine.

    I tend to say “I feel dopaminated today!” because that is really what it is.

    Why do I have a feeling Douglas Adams would have no problem coming up with the best term?

    1. It’s really the illusion of spirituality he’s talking about, so I think this may have something to do with why it is so hard to come up with a word.

      Sam Harris has written before that, paraphrasing, everything humans do is directed at altering consciousness. I think he’s on to something with that and it will be interesting to see whether and how he brings that around.

  15. I’m not sure this is a quest worth pursuing. There are many suitable alternatives for “spiritual”, many of which carry less baggage. Why do we need spiritual? Especially if we’d have to nearly totally redefine it? There must be other terms already suited to the particular semantic niche Harris wants to fill.

    I don’t agree with Sam all the time, but I do think he has a way of cutting to the core and saying exactly what needs to be said when fighting religious bullshit. When debating, I think his rebuttals are uniquely effective.

    But I was not impressed with his Melbourne talk, posted here recently, in which he seemed to extol and recommend a kind of denial as a way of dealing with the difficulty of life. I completely understand that meditation can be a positive experience and even contribute to psychological well-being. But so can any number of other things. For me, listening to great music is one. But listening to great music can’t and shouldn’t be exalted the way Sam exalted meditation: as thought it’s a sure path to living life the way it ought to be lived. I thought it was silly. I’m glad he finds meditation useful. I don’t.


  16. If words have been corrupted by being co-opted by certain groups it is best to leave them alone. Shouldn’t words such as belief and spirutual be avoided so the we are not accused of being atheists just waiting for the first foxhole of life to profess our hidden faith. We should let the faithful know that it feels great to have a rational understanding of the world without the woo.

  17. What Mauch said. And, too, I’m tired of hearing religionists say that atheism is “just another religion.” Using words like spirituality doesn’t help the cause.

  18. Spiritual is too freighted to be redeemed. Maybe transcendental, but it is intertwined with woo, too. Maybe we need a new word, like transcendful.

  19. To the specific idea of reclaiming words and expressions that have been “religionized”, I say reinvent them.
    It’s a fantastic opportunity to update the human mindset.
    “Woo” has been mentioned. I think that’s a good word. (Not least because I tell my dogs to “Go woo woo” when I want them to go potty).
    I used to “search” for an answer. Now, I “google” the answer. Words are invented, eventually accepted. I say let’s get rid of the middle man, and go straight for the target.

    I like Sam Harris. He has a lot to say, and he says it. I don’t think he asks for anything more of us than to read, consider, debate.

    1. The entire lexicon has been abused and shredded by the religious right who co-opts any word or concept.

      The “Patriot Act”? Enhanced interrogation? The right wing gives something an absurd name and the news media take the ball and run with it, and that’s that.

      It would be nice if we could… take anything back from these people.

  20. If we should be so lucky, when it’s all said and done history will view Sam Harris as “The Great Integrator.” The feeling of internal separateness that Sam is attempting to remedy has an external correlate — the discrete fields of science, spirituality, and art. It seems to me that Sam is attempting to unify these fields into a single instrument with a strong, scientific ground note. I for one hope he succeeds, but he can’t do it alone.

    1. I agree. Sam Harris, almost singlehandedly, has reopened the debate on morality, ethics, and consciousness, and has rightly wrested them from the manacled clutches of christian theism where they have languished for millennia. He has placed them on a reasoned, testable scientific footing, away from the primeval and primitive intuitive reflexes of our teleological predilection. His contributions to the debate, flaws and all, are seminal. A new paradigm for thinking through these issues, solidly grounded in empiricism is a game changer to the religious claptrap that we have been subjected to for too long.

      I say, All Kudos to Sam Harris.

  21. For some reason, each time Sam comes out with a new argument, idea, or lecture, nearly the entire online atheist community appears to turn into a bunch of annoying little crybabies. It really gets my goat. Every. Friggen. Time.

    Please note that I have no problem with dissenting views, argumentation, discussion, the advancement of knowledge, etc. But the overall tone and lack of substance in dissents on Sam is supremely irritating. Let’s just say, your responses remind me of the letters sent by religious fundies to Dawkins, Harris, et al. once they’ve written a book criticizing religion. Frantic and cringe worthy.

    Like many others, I’ve been drawn in and have read thousands upon thousands of words in comments threads discussing (moaning about) Sam’s arguments. As appears the case in Jerry’s post, it would be a rather forlorn task to regurgitate all the widespread and seemingly purposeful misunderstandings of Sam’s arguments over the years. So, I’ll just make a few modest observations:

    Why is it that in many discussions on Sam’s views, dissenters’ comment are polarized to the point where statements like, “Sam never actually says anything new, he just belabors on already established knowledge” are said in conjunction with things like, “Harris is an unrestrained and unrepentant bigot, bla bla bla, he believes in woo, woo, woo.” ?

    Why do I have to continually hear about the stupid torture argument? Sam’s argument: if we’re willing to risk collateral damage in war, we should at least be open to gleaning any knowledge we can get out of known terrorist in situations where it might help save innocent lives. Really, is that argument so crazy argument that I have to hear everyone’s diatribes to the end of time?!?!? Sheesh.

    Please tell me, in crystal clear context, what exactly Sam has said that is outright “woo”? OMG! There are different states of consciousness and knowledge of those states is interesting and should be understood scientifically, because it would further help us to understand and reframe how we view the world and treat each other. Holy cow! What a bunch of superstitious woooooo! Oh Sam, you knucklehead you!

    Finally, I can’t help but notice that over the years, Sam’s books, teachings, lectures, thoughts, and arguments are similar to the process of learning a new skill: overtime you struggle and practice to learn the next lesson and eventually reach a new plateau of skill or understanding. Then you do it again and reach the next plateau. It’s funny to see how similar the process of digesting Sam’s views is to this. One day he’s outrageously off base, but as each new book or thought comes out, much of the seemingly ‘crazy’ things he said previously now appear to be the good ole’ standard of lucid and compelling writing we’ve come to expect of Sam. What gives?

    Now back to this idea of using the word “spiritualism”. OGM, I can’t believe he’s talking about spiritualism! What a right woo bastard! It’s like back at that AAI conference when he said “Atheist” is a term with a lot of negative connotations! What a nut ball!

    1. Why do I have to continually hear about the stupid torture argument?

      Because torture is important. It defines who we are.

      Sam’s argument: if we’re willing to risk collateral damage in war, we should at least be open to gleaning any knowledge we can get out of known terrorist in situations where it might help save innocent lives.

      And Sam’s argument is bullshit.

      Torture does not give you knowledge. Indeed, torture destroys knowledge and removes all possibility that you might gain it. Your victim will say anything to make the torture stop — maybe starting with the truth, but quickly devolving to whatever the victim thinks you want to hear. Even the threat of torture will cause this response. And the problem is that the response to torture makes it impossible to ever have even a theoretical chance of separating the honest truth from a desperate attempt on the part of your victim to placate you.

      What Sam’s argument instead does is drive us rapidly, hard, inescapably into a society in which people are ostensibly tortured to “save innocent lives,” but in reality you torture them just because you get your kicks by grinding your boot into the faces of your victims.

      We’ve seen what torture does to societies. Torquemada even sincerely felt deeply compassionate about his victims — in his own words, better a few weeks of earthly torment than an eternity in Hell. One might even claim his motives were pure — just as pure as your motives, just as pure as Sam’s motives, just as pure as Bush’s motives. There’s a nobler goal to attain, after all — the salvation of heathens, the purity of the master race, the protection of innocent light-skinned children, the security of the state — pure and noble goals, all.

      The thing is, at the heart of such purity lies a corruption so vile that it overwhelms and destroys all who embrace it, turning them into monsters far worse than those they think they’re protecting themselves against.

      You don’t want to hear about this “stupid” torture debate? Good. Stop embracing and apologizing for torture. Reject it, unconditionally.

      Until then, everything you do or say will be tainted by the knowledge that you’re one of those who thinks torture is a good idea.


      1. Pretty much totally agree, Ben (except for maybe the final paragraph directed specifically at the other poster).

        Torture turns us into exactly what we claim to despise, and the rationalizations for it are just phantom deceptions playing on our phobias.

        Harris is both very Buddhist-friendly and Islamophobic. He’s right there’s a bigger threat from Islam than most religions (and perhaps his travels in India have helped him be aware of this), but at times he seems like a frightened child.

        1. It’s curious about the accusations of “Islamophobia” that are being slung around; I’ve never heard anybody called a “Christianophobe”.

          1. It’s never occurred to me to use that word, and I don’t think it’s particularly effective, rhetorically. I’ll grant, though, that, in its strictest dictionary sense, it would seem to apply to Sam: he considers Islam, with its propensity to breed radical extremism, as an existential threat and has repeatedly advocated using the most extreme available measures to counter that threat. I think that’s enough to determine that he is, indeed, afraid of Islam. How rational that fear and the proper response to it is the subject of the debate.

            When people use the term, “Islamophobia,” they generally seem to mean it in the same way that “Anti-Semitism” is used. I’m not aware of a similar term in popular circulation used for Christians, but the paranoid “poor us!” Christians with persecution complexes certainly use similar language when faced with efforts to keep prayer and Creationism out of the schools and the Ten Commandments out of the courts. I suspect the lack of a word has more to do with the fact that Christians are the overwhelming majority and only subject to persecution (in the English-speaking world) in the minds of a handful of not-especially-eloquent demagogues.


            1. This isn’t really relevant but the word “Christophobe” really occasionally pops up in Unitarian circles with reference to the century-and-a-half old phenomenon that Unitarians claim on paper to be open to the wisdom in all the worlds religions (extending for all practical purposes from Aphrodite to Zoroaster) but in practice they tend to be virulently anti-Christian often to the point of stereotyping the whole lot as fundamentalists. Which I would say could be OK except that it goes very much against their stated principles.

          2. The thought is just occurring to me (so I’m prepared to be told it’s a stupid, ill-conceived thought) that there really is no Islamophobia.

            When atheists earnestly express fear or loathing for Islamic tenets/etc that are, in fact, abhorrent, that is a justified position.

            When Teabaggers and GOPers shriek about Muslims for no other reason than to shriek about Muslims, that’s plain old xenophobia.

            1. All racism and bigotry is “plain old xenophobia,” just with a specific named xeno.

              The problem I personally have with Sam’s approach to Islam isn’t that he’s worng about the specific and real dangers that arise from the fundamentals and implementation of Islam. My problem is that he then extrapolates from that a position that Islam and its adherents are therefore suitable targets for racial profiling, torture, war, and nuclear annihilation.

              Pick any one of Sam’s (quite legitimate) complaints against Islam, and I’ll instantly pick a perfectly parallel complaint against Christianity. The Q’ran commands death to infidels? Jesus personally ordered all those who reject his sovereignty be slaughtered at his altar (Luke 19:27). Popular imams preach death to the evil Satan of the West? Pat Robertson. Islamic heads of state have used Islam to justify war and terrorism against the West? George Bush.

              Again, Sam is correct in that the disease is worse, more advanced, in the Islamic world — but we’ve got it bad here in the West, too.

              And, worst of all, we know what the cure is. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this thread, it’s liberty, education, and prosperity. Racial profiling, torture, and war only make things worse — far worse, in every way you can possibly think of, by any metric you can come up with.

              Sorry…I started to rant again, didn’t I?

              <sigh />

              Jerry, maybe you can point Sam to this thread. He is a smart guy, even if he does go off the rails when it comes to the subjects of Islam and torture. Perhaps something here will help him get back on track.


              1. “Pick any one of Sam’s (quite legitimate) complaints against Islam, and I’ll instantly pick a perfectly parallel complaint against Christianity.”

                Suicide bombing?

                Also, are you generally arguing that all religions are on the same footing with regard to any threat they on innocent people?

      2. Torture does not give you knowledge.

        There are documented cases in which torture — and even just the threat of torture — has “given knowledge”. So your claim here is just factually incorrect.

        What Sam’s argument instead does is drive us rapidly, hard, inescapably into a society in which people are ostensibly tortured to “save innocent lives,” but in reality you torture them just because you get your kicks by grinding your boot into the faces of your victims.

        You keep making claims like this that you cannot possibly know to be true.

        We’ve seen what torture does to societies.

        The U.S. has used torture. Britain has used torture. France has used torture. These countries are not generally regarded as repressive or evil. In fact, by any reasonable measure they are among the most free and democratic countries in the world. Your claims about the effects of torture on “societies” simply are not supported by the historical record.

        The thing is, at the heart of such purity lies a corruption so vile that it overwhelms and destroys all who embrace it, turning them into monsters far worse than those they think they’re protecting themselves against.

        This statement is like a religious diatribe. I think you’re a clear example of the kind of person Sam Harris had in mind when he wrote that people who claim torture is unethical in all possible circumstances simply aren’t thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.

      3. Let me add: The kind of people who inevitably gravitate to actually doing the deed, and ordering the act, torturing people that is, are indeed the kind of people who get their “kicks by grinding [their] boot into the faces of [their] victims”. How could it be otherwise? The great American war criminal, Dick Cheney, was absolutely salivating over it. The twin towers were still smouldering when the son of a bitch starting talking about how he just couldn’t wait to get started on it.

        1. Let me add: The kind of people who inevitably gravitate to actually doing the deed, and ordering the act, torturing people that is, are indeed the kind of people who get their “kicks by grinding [their] boot into the faces of [their] victims”.

          Yet another evidence-free assertion. Are the “kind of people” who order or carry out military attacks that cause the deaths of civilians also “the kind of people who get their kicks by grinding their boot into the faces of their victims,” in your view? How do you know? And even if they are, so what? Would that mean military attacks that cause the deaths of civilians are never justified?

          How could it be otherwise?

          Er, because people can distinguish between torture for the purpose of saving lives and torture for the purpose of sadism.

    2. Criticism of Harris’s positions on torture, nuclear bombardment, racial profiling, and others is substantive and devastating. Anyone who selectively recommends these actions against a single group whom against all evidence they label the world’s greatest threat is and deserves to be called a bigot.

      Harris’s case for torture is jejune and ignorant. As a real-life counter to Harris’s hypothetical arguments, consider any one of the number of conflicts in which torturing people was tactically effective. The journalist Henri Alleg, himself tortured by the French in Algeria, summarizes torture’s consequences:

      I am really astonished that this is a big question in the States about this, because the real question is not waterboarding or not waterboarding, it’s the use of torture in such a war, and this use of torture, torture in general.

      A man liked General Massu, who was the chief organizer of torture in Algeria and who died about two years ago, asked about three months before his death what he thought of torture and the use of — the general use of torture in Algeria, said that he regretted it and that the war could have been — could have gone on without torture. In fact, torture is not the main thing in such a war. The war was against the Algerian people, and every kind of torture used against an Algerian man or woman would only help the Algerians to fight back, and that when a son knew that his father was tortured, he had only one idea, that is, join the fighters who had tortured his father. So, I don’t think this is the good question.

      But to answer precisely your question, it is a terrible way of torturing a man, because you’re bringing — you bring him next to death and then back to life. And sometimes he doesn’t come back to life. So, the use of torture, in my opinion, is a way of making all people fear that if they fight, if they join the fighters against Algeria, they would undergo such a treatment. So it’s the use of terror against the people who fight. It’s not a way of getting whatever information; sometimes they get it, but most of the time it’s useless. So it is not a way of winning a war, even if the people who lead this war say that they have — it’s an obligation for them to use this method if they want victory at the end of the war.

      1. But Sam doesn’t endorse nuclear warfare. The idea that he has comes from a willful misreading of his book, “The End of Faith”

  22. Jerry, I agree with you about Sam making things unnecessarily hard on himself by trying to reclaim the word spirituality, but you’ve done exactly the same thing with the words “compatible” and “truth.” First you define the term, then you show that religionists’ compatibility and truth claims are empirically false based on your definitions. This is question begging. The terms are, as a matter of fact, ambiguous. “Compatible” CAN mean “believed by one person at the same time,” and truth CAN mean (according to one sense given by the American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed.), “that which is considered to be…the ultimate meaning and value of life.” So you can’t win by arguing that your definitions of these terms is “correct” and the accommodationists’ aren’t. Instead, you have to explain how you’re defining your term every time you use it (not just in some other article you’ve written) and then challenge accommodationists to define THEIR terms too. You can’t win if you criticize them for making “false” claims. Ambiguity is their friend, allowing them to say deepityish things that are arguably true (though trivial), while suggesting they mean what they would have to admit, if pressed, is false (but that would be earth-shattering if true. But you oan win by criticizing them for making “unfalsifiable” claims. Any empirical claim about something that hasn’t been operationally defined is unfalsifiable, and therefore incontrovertibly something no science organization shoul be claiming. They can’t argue with that. And the minute they define their terms, all the wind goes out of their sails. So what if they claim that “religion and science are compatible, by which we mean that people can have supernatural beliefs and still understand and use scientific methodology in their work?” And so what if they claim “religion is a source of truth, by which we mean that people can find what they
    ‘consider to be the ultimate meaning and value of life’ in their religious beliefs?

    1. People on this website know what I mean by “compatible,” and I do define the term when I use it in a new venue, as I did in my talk with Haught or the New Republic article.

      1. I am trying to be helpful, not criticize you. The point is not that you dont define your terms– you do. The point is that you unnecessarily weaken the structure of your argument by focusing on the claim that your definitions are the correct ones, rather than insisting that the accommodationists define their terms. Take a look at the structure of your argument in your article on incompatibility, or the blog post you did awhile back on the definition of truth. With due respect, which is of course enormous, your argument is circular and question begging, and it doesn’t HAVE to be. You say, here’s how I define compatible, and here’s the empirical evidence that on those definitions, the compatibility claim is false, therefore the accommodationists compatibility claim is false. Same with your post on truth. You say, “here’s the definition of truth in the OED, I challenge anyone to show empirically that religion is a source of truth, but only send me evidence based on that definition.” The problem is that the accommodationists don’t disagree with your incompatibility or truth arguments as so defined. That’s why I respectfully suggested in my post above that you consider also accusing accommodationists of unscientifically making an unfalsifiable empirical claim. (Which they are, as long as they don’t operationally define what they mean by compatible and truth when they make their claims.) they can easily brush aside your circular argument, but they can’t deny they are making an unfalsifiable empirical claim by keeping the term ambiguous. Instead of just demanding hey stop making the claim, why not demand that they at least define the term in the same sentence as they make the claim? That’s a harder thing for them to refuse to do, politically, and may be even more effective, and educational for their readers.

        1. If it wasnt appropriate of me to point out something like this directly to you on your blog, I apologize. I was trying to help, to support your cause, which I believe in. but if it would have been more appropriate to email you about this instead please forgive my ignorance about the etiquette. It only just now occurred to me that might be the case. (Aargh.)

  23. Our issue with Harris is simple: he says words matter. But the brains research seems to say they don’t.

    Furthermore, brain research suggests consciousness is post hoc and trivial. All of our hotly embraced and defended emotions may be epiphenomenal and trivial as well.

    Bottom line, it’s best to be highly skeptical of any information that is cheap to acquire and easy to exchange socially.

    Then what could be possibly mean by transcendence!? Transcend what? Physical reality it seems. Quieting the physiological processes of the body is one things. Ascribing any moral quality to it is silly.

    1. Mindfulness meditation is morally useful because it’s an exercise that cultivates wise compassion. There is nothing “woo” about either wisdom or compassion. Wisdom has to do with insight into human nature and into one’s own strengths and weaknesses, which helps people who wish to act morally to do so effectively. Compassion is an emotion that motivates people to alleviate their own and others suffering (broadly defined). Wise compassion, as opposed to naive compassion, equips a person to do things that effectively reduce their own and other people’s needless suffering.

      1. A transcendent experience is not woo either. It’s an experience where the illusion of the solid self and the naive identification with its its automatic, insistent, largely futile drive to constantly escape from aversive experiences and hold on to pleasurable ones, is recognized as an illusion — exactly the way optical illusions and change-blindness experiments (like the famous one of the unseen gorilla walking through a bunch of basketball players) help us understand that our vision system constructs rather than directly perceives reality. See Dan Dennett’s TED talk, “Cute, sexy, sweet, funny.”

      2. “Mindfulness meditation”? Is “mindfulness”, “compassion” and “wisdom” definable, observable phenomena or woo out of behavioral learning and pattern search?

        We need refs for some of the stuff that gets thrown at the wall.

        1. the word mindfulness just means “paying attention.” I don’t know what you mean by “woo out of behavioral learning and pattern search,” but you obviously aren’t up on experimental research in cognitive psychology and the neurobiology of emotions in the last twenty years. It’s a common and dated misconception that subjective experiences in the mind cannot be studied objectively. They can be studied by a combination of fMRI, the effects of injury of specific brain areas, studies on the brains of animals with electrodes, double-blind experiments with randomized groups and controls, and so forth. Compassion, or if you prefer, tenderness, is an emotion, just like anger, fear, joy, sadness, and has a neurobiological basis. The word wisdom is not operationally defined, and I’m not aware of any studies of whether people with a better understanding of human nature (that phrase would have to be operationally defined) tend to be more effective in their attempts to influence human beings (“more effective” would have to be operationally defined)–but these terms certainly could be operationally defined and the proposition could be falsified by experiment.

          1. “Compassion” has been well studied as the “caregiving instinct,” which evolved through kin selection. Not being prisoners of our genes, we can develop compassion for non-relatives. “Wise” compassion may be defined as providing effective care of others that is not to one’s own detriment.

  24. I do agree with Sam that subjective experience is a natural phenomena. We can only gather data by collecting individual reports of it, but its something we should assume has nature that can be teased out through the disciplined collection of such data.

  25. If atheists don’t need churches, why would we need ‘spirituality’?

    The term “altered mind states” is an old fully descriptive term, regardless if it is unusual amounts of oxytocin or heroin that is the causal factor.

    Whether it is good or not is another question – ‘spirituality’ comes preloaded with a positive notion that may not exist. (Say, murderous feelings triggered by religion.)

    The beauty with altered mind states is that psychological changes, such as manodepressive states, may or may not be “altered” depending on the persons history. A developmental brain pathology may not be an altered state, no case of ‘spirituality’.

    Harris is a utilitarian, reminding me of our own utilitarian and hedonist Torbjörn Tännsjö. TT gets his rock off by posting articles in the press about ethical (seldom moral) consequences of diverse acts, articles which of course are provocative for some group. If utilitarianism is so good, why doesn’t he subject it to empirical research?

    Of course many atheists have problems with Harris since he is positive to religions and religious attitudes that embrace dualism (buddhism, fear of death) and altered mind states (religious feelings, meditation).

    If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

  26. i dunno… in my dictionary “spirituality” has always ment “believing you have the power to change/affect the real outside world by only using your mind or by performing a ritual or behaving in some weird way.” and that a part of your mind, often the emotional one, is somehow connected or can perceive the universe’s hidden true reality, whatever you want that to mean. Usually something along the line, a place where all concioussnesses connects to each other.

    so imo, reclaiming spirituality just seems weird.

    1. In French, “esprit” means “mind.” Somebody with “esprit” means “fast witted” or having a quick intellect. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were “grand esprits.” It is clear that Christians in the Anglo-Saxon world have high-jacked the term, appending it with the insinuation that if you are not “spiritual” you are dimwitted. When I listen to Beethoven, I call this a spiritual event, I don’t hear just sounds, as my dog does, but my experience is much richer. So I propose that instead of calling ourselves “brights” we should call ourselves “grand esprits.”

  27. I agree with this. And that last speech was fenomenal!
    Sam has been a influential thinker for me, I don’t agree on some things like his take on profiling. I am pragmatic about profiling, but other people/most are not so it has a negative influence on society as a hole and constructs ingroup and outgroup thinking, and that I don’t like at all.
    But many here and other places do attack him on ad hominem or miconseptions of his thoughts.
    It is almost as if it was arguments from religious feeling from some here…
    His thinking and language forces me to rething old “cultural” truths, and that is very important for me. I often do not change stance but I have a better understanding of why I believe what I believe..

  28. Why does “spirituality” deserve to be ‘taken back’ while “atheist” & “free will” not?

  29. I think “reclaiming” the word “spiritual” is as pointless as trying to popularize a new, obnoxious meaning for “bright” was. I never use the word except for a particular genre of music, and have never felt the lack. Leave it to the religious and the new-agers. We may not know exactly what it means, because its primary use is as a deliberately vague term for all those good traits they have and we don’t, but if they want to throw it around, let them. Some uses are clear enough: “spiritual but not religious” means “religious but can’t be bothered going to church and definitely not one of those nasty fundamentalists”.

    If Harris wants to use the word in connection with “other-consciousness” I have no objection, since I don’t believe that altered states of mind lead to anything but fits of the giggles anyway. My opinion on this dates to the time when a few of us, suitably fortified, listened for the first time to a live recording of the Grateful Dead at Glastonbury and went into raptures over their radical new take on Dark Star. Then the vocals came in, and we realised it was playing at 45 rpm instead of 33.

  30. I will never use the word spiritual to mean something that is physically or mentally evident. When we are talking about drug induced experiences we are talking about things that actually exist. Sam’s’ meditation experiences are something made up in the imagination. In no way will I ever Buddhist bologna. I like Sam but meditation is over the line.

    1. Wow. It’s as if many here haven’t even read Harris on meditation nor listened to his lectures. All woo aside, how is attentiveness i.e. the deliberate avoidance of discursive thought to break the spell of that unrelenting conversation you are having in your head just a fabrication by your imagination? Do you ever wonder why our entire society behaves as if suddenly diagnosed with ADD? Perhaps because we are all texting in our heads while driving. Learning and practicing mental exercises to turn off the constant stream of consciousness and savor the present moment seems like a very useful goal. I am definitely going to try it because Harris has opened my eyes to what the point of meditation is. I was always skeptical of meditation, never understanding its goal nor usefulness. Sam’s personal inquiry into meditation couldn’t be more clear–it’s an experiment to discover how certain thinkers can find happiness after months of solitary confinement. Answer: happiness is not entirely contingent but under your control.

      Bottom line: you are your brain. Your brain does what it wants to for most of the time until you seize the reigns and deliberately focus your thought. Meditation helps you do this consistently. Do you want to spend the majority of your life lost in thought or being present? Ask yourself.

  31. Spiritual is a completely meaningless word. One has to ask for clarification anytime it is used unless the context is very self-evident, in which cases the word probably has no need of even being uttered. May as well state what is ACTUALLY being referred to, instead of calling it spiritual.

  32. Spirituality has copped a bagging over the years and as soon as someone mentions the word all too often people close off. No longer can the new agesists claim custody. Spirituality is a way of being in touch with all of your senses, awakening intuition. Our spirituality, our reasin for being here is to get back in touch with these exta senses and perceive everyone as beign of the same inner substance, that of love.

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