Readers Write: Atheist Sam Harris on Torture and Faith
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Last week, John Gorenfeld's piece, "Sam Harris's Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture," drew quite a response from our readers.
Many readers felt that the article did not fairly represent Harris's views and Harris himself encouraged his fans to send us their feedback. On his website, Harris defended his positions.
One of the disputed topics was Harris's thoughts on torture. Harris explains:
In one section of the book [End of Faith] (pp. 192-199), I briefly discuss the ethics of torture and collateral damage in times of war, arguing that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board. Rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, some readers have mistakenly concluded that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, there are certain extreme circumstances in which I believe that torture may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary.
Another area of controversy was Harris's beliefs about Eastern religions and mysticism. He writes:
My views on "mystical" or "spiritual" experience are extensively described in "The End of Faith" and do not entail the acceptance of anything on faith. There is simply no question that people have transformative experiences as a result of engaging contemplative disciplines like meditation, and there is no question that these experiences shed some light on the nature of the human mind (any experience does, for that matter). What is highly questionable are the metaphysical claims that people tend to make on the basis of such experiences. I do not make any such claims. Nor do I support the metaphysical claims of others.
A letter by Sam Harris to his mailing list was posted on the website of prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, which said that Gorenfeld had taken his writings out of context. The full text of the article was reprinted on the website and drew a number of comments, including some that supported Gorenfeld's article.
"Given what Harris has written in his book I think he is trying to downplay what he has previously written," one commenter said. "Go read his quotes from the book and you'll see -- the writer of this article is correct here, and points out the same thing."
Another person wrote, "Though I think the article inappropriately misrepresents what Harris says, it's not entirely off. I read 'End of Faith,' and while some of it was good, there were several parts that made me do a double-take. His opinions on psychics, Buddhism, torture and war seem very misguided and misinformed."
After Harris's prompt, many of his fans wrote to AlterNet to express their dissatisfaction with the article. One wrote, "...I have carefully read Sam's books and many of the writings that call Sam to task for his books. I do not agree with everything in Harris's books but I think that this interview is the worst case I have seen against Harris's writings. Harris is taken out of context throughout, his quotations are used in a very slanted context, and it appears to me that there is more to this interview than just a straight review of Harris..."
Another wrote, "I found the article by Mr. Gorenfeld very unhelpful for anyone who wants to know the thinking of Mr. Harris, and, moreover, a complete distortion of this author thinking."
Many of the comments we received were from Harris supporters who have read most of his work and who visited our site for the first time to respond to the article. However, some comments also came from loyal readers.
"I visit AlterNet regularly and appreciate the different perspectives that are presented on so many issues. That said, I must express great disappointment in Gorenfeld's article about Sam Harris," wrote one reader. He continues:
I am not a gung-ho Sam Harris supporter, I have read his work and heard him speak and I believe he makes some valid points. Just as some religious leaders, mystics, and spiritual texts have all made valid points within limits and taken in the correct context. Unfortunately Gorenfeld compromises the validity and integrity of his article by grossly misquoting Harris and presenting topics completely out of context. I am surprised that you would present what is so obviously not just an analyzation or critique but a personal tirade. Shame on you.
In response to the article's comments, Gorenfeld offered his own defense:
There is a bogus atheist on the loose, and as a Californian I feel responsible. It's a real problem out West, where moony-eyed mystics deliver windy lectures on "scientific" soul magic.
Some readers mistook me for a Christian shadow agent after reading my article about Sam Harris. Unfortunately, I'm a secular humanist specializing in Religious Right lunacy. The problem is that the man on TV proposing new intolerance for "preposterous" beliefs is himself gullible when it comes to " spooky stories" of reincarnation, the evidence for which is shockingly corny (eerie birthmarks).
As for the context of my article, I relied on huge swaths of it in Harris' book: passages sanctifying truthiness itself. You can discover facts while meditating, he claims. He still hasn't answered for the passages in which he claims Shankara and the Buddha put Western philosophers (Newton? Jefferson?) in the shade.
And those toddlers! In his response Harris clings tenaciously to the chance there really might be an outbreak of Bengali moppets speaking in tongues. Like a Bible flood scientist, he repeatedly insists that things for which there is zero evidence are "interesting," but won't dismiss them. If there's compelling data for eternal souls, that should be the most urgent subject of study possible, as slain "Islamofascists" could stalk us from beyond the grave, so I don't understand his apathy.
Also, Harris oughtn't claim to be provocative when the steady creep towards cruelty and superstition in America is anything but taboo. In our conversation, Harris showed disarming gusto for smearing fake menstrual blood on detainees -- "It's not torture," he said -- and flirted with religious job discrimination. I left these out of the article for balance.
I'm also waiting for an explanation of what this "End Of Faith" excerpt means: "Indeed, the future looks like the past ... We may live to see the technological perfection of all the visionary strands of traditional mysticism: shamanism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Hermetism and its magical Renaissance spawn (Hermeticism) and all the other Byzantine paths whereby man has sought the Other in every guise of its conception. But all these approaches to spirituality are born of a longing for esoteric knowledge and a desire to excavate ... the mind -- in dreams, in trance, in psychedelic swoon -- in search for the sacred (p. 290)."
Addled by this solipsism, Harris even misuses statistics in a way normally associated with hate sites like Stormfront.org, suggesting that a 70 percent rate (it's 50, actually) of Muslims in French jails means Muslims themselves are a crime wave.
The New York Times has even run a piece detailing whether it's OK with Harris to have a Christmas tree. Why do the British get the real atheist, Richard Dawkins, while we get one who might as well be the Duke from Huckleberry Finn?
Clearly, the work of Sam Harris has fervent supporters and critics. And as more readers are introduced to Harris's work, hopefully the debate will continue to evolve.
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlertNet.