Sam Harris, formally Samuel B. "Sam" Harris

Harris, formally Samuel B. "Sam" Harris

American Philosopher, Neuroscientist, Author and Mindful Skeptic, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason

Author Quotes

We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?

We can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about morality and the human well-being - a conversation in which we avail ourselves of all scientific insights and philosophical arguments that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse - or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.

To point out non-epistemic motives in another?s view of the world, therefore, is always a criticism, as it serves to cast doubt upon a person?s connection to the world as it is.

To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe.

This is not to say that the deepest concerns of the faithful, whether moderate or extreme, are trivial or misguided. There is no denying that most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed?however obliquely and at a terrible price?by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions?Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God?for us to do this.

This notion of eternity, this notion of nothing matters here but matters over the long haul, in the afterlife, because the bulk of our experience is after we die; this religious idea actually robs life of its meaning. It doesn't bring meaning to life. It renders meaningless all of the precious moments we have while alive. This is the only life we are certain of, and it is continually ending. It not only ends in death but it ends in each moment and things change. And that makes each moment precious.

This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call 'spiritual.' No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish.

Three million souls will starve or be killed in the Congo with little reaction from our media. But if a princess dies in a car accident, a quarter of the population of the Earth falls prostrate in pain. We may be unable to feel what we should feel to change our world.

To agree to keep a secret is to assume a burden.

There is no other term ? apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative ? with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

There is no reason whatsoever to think that Buddhism can compete successfully with the relentless evangelizing of Christianity and Islam. Nor should it try to.

There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion?a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) non-conceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one?s mind or body?thoughts, sensations, moods?without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.

There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell.

There is, of course, much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books. But words of wisdom and consolation and beauty abound in the pages of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Homer as well, and no one ever murdered strangers by the thousands because of the inspiration he found there. The belief that certain books were written by God (who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself) leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict, past and present. How is it that the absurdity of this idea does not bring us, hourly, to our knees? It is safe to say that few of us would have thought so many people could believe such a thing, if they did not actually believe it. Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything ? anything ? be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in.

There must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

There's no way to reconcile Islam with Christianity. This difference of opinion admits of compromise as much as a coin toss does.

This concept of the afterlife really functions as a substitute for wisdom. It functions as a substitute for really absorbing our predicament, which is that everyone is going to die; there are circumstances that are just catastrophically unfair; evil sometimes wins and injustice sometimes wins, and that the only justice we are going to find in the world is the justice we make. We have an ethical responsibility to absorb this, really down to the soles of our feet. And this notion of an afterlife, of how it's all going to work out and its all part of god's plan, is a way of shirking that responsibility.

This is a common criticism: The idea that the atheist is guilty of a literalist reading of scripture; and that it?s a very naive way of approaching religion; and there?s a far more sophisticated and nuanced view of religion on offer and the atheist is disregarding that. A few problems with this: Anyone making that argument is failing to acknowledge just how many people really do approach these texts literally or functionally - whether they?re selective-literalists, or literal all the way down the line. There are certain passages in scripture that just cannot be read figuratively. And people really do live by the lights of what is literally laid out in these books. So, the Koran says ?hate the infidel? and Muslims hate the infidel because the Koran spells it out ad-nauseum. Now, it?s true that you can cherry-pick scripture, and you can look for all the good parts; You can ignore where it says in Leviticus that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night you?re supposed to stone her to death on her father?s doorstep. Most religious people ignore those passages, which really can only be read literally, and say that ?they were only appropriate for the time? and ?they don?t apply now?. And likewise, Muslims try to have the same reading of passages that advocate holy war. They say ?well these were appropriate to those battles that Mohammed was fighting, but now we don?t have to fight those battles?. This is all a good thing, but we should recognize what?s happening here; People are feeling pressure from a host of all-too-human-concerns that have nothing, in principle, to do with God: Secularism; and human rights; and democracy; and scientific progress; These have made certain passages in scripture untenable. This is coming from outside religion; and religion is now making a great show of its sophistication in grappling with these pressures. This is an example of religion losing the argument with modernity.

This is not (as you have charged) to paint religion with a broad brush. I am very quick to distinguish gradations of bad ideas; some clearly have no consequences at all (or at least not yet); some put civilization itself in peril. The problem with dogmatism, however, is that one can never quite predict how terrible its costs will be. To use one of my favorite examples, consider the Christian dogma that human life begins at the moment of conception: On its face, this belief seems likely to only improve our world. After all, it is the very quintessence of a life-affirming doctrine. Enter embryonic stem-cell research. Suddenly, this life begins at the moment of conception business becomes the chief impediment to medical progress. Who would have thought that such an innocuous idea could unnecessarily prolong the agony of tens of millions of people? This is the problem with dogmatism, no matter how seemingly benign: it is unresponsive to reality. Dogmatism is a failure of cognition (as well as a commitment to such failure); it is the state of being closed to new evidence and new arguments. And this frame of mind is rightly despised in every area of culture, on every subject, except where it goes by the name of religious faith. In this guise, parading its most grotesque faults as virtues, it is granted a special dispensation, even in the pages of Nature.

The very ideal of religious tolerance?born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God?is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

The wealthiest Americans often live as though they and their children had nothing to gain from investments in education, infrastructure, clean-energy, and scientific research.

The year was 1987, but it might as well have been the Summer of Love: I was twenty, had hair down to my shoulders, and was dressed like an Indian rickshaw driver. For those charged with enforcing our nation?s drug laws, it would have been only prudent to subject my luggage to special scrutiny. Happily, I had nothing to hide. Where are you coming from? the officer asked, glancing skeptically at my backpack. India, Nepal, Thailand? I said. Did you take any drugs while you were over there? As it happens, I had. The temptation to lie was obvious?why speak to a customs officer about my recent drug use? But there was no real reason not to tell the truth, apart from the risk that it would lead to an even more thorough search of my luggage (and perhaps of my person) than had already commenced. Yes, I said. The officer stopped searching my bag and looked up. Which drugs did you take? I smoked pot a few times? And I tried opium in India. Opium? Yes. Opium or heroin? It was opium. You don?t hear much about opium these days. I know. It was the first time I?d ever tried it. Are you carrying any drugs with you now? No. The officer eyed me warily for a moment and then returned to searching my bag. Given the nature of our conversation, I reconciled myself to being there for a very long time. I was, therefore, as patient as a tree. Which was a good thing, because the officer was now examining my belongings as though any one item?a toothbrush, a book, a flashlight, a bit of nylon cord?might reveal the deepest secrets of the universe. What is opium like? he asked after a time. And I told him. In fact, over the next ten minutes, I told this lawman almost everything I knew about the use of mind-altering substances. Eventually he completed his search and closed my luggage. One thing was perfectly obvious at the end of our encounter: We both felt very good about it.

Theology is ignorance with wings.

Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.

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Harris, formally Samuel B. "Sam" Harris
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American Philosopher, Neuroscientist, Author and Mindful Skeptic, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason