Sam Harris's Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture
Sam Harris's books "The End Of Faith" and "Letter To A Christian Nation" have established him as second only to the British biologist and author Richard Dawkins in the ranks of famous 21st century atheists. The thrust of Harris's best-sellers is that with the world so crazed by religion, it's high time Americans stopped tolerating faith in the Rapture, the Resurrection and anything else not grounded in evidence. Only trouble is, our country's foremost promoter of "reason" is also supportive of ESP, reincarnation and other unscientific concepts. Not all of it is harmless yoga class hokum -- he's also a proponent of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
"We know [torture] works. It has worked. It's just a lie to say that it has never worked," he says. "Accidentally torturing a few innocent people" is no big deal next to bombing them, he continues. Why sweat it?
I wanted to interview Harris to find out why a man sold to the American public as the voice of scientific reason is promoting Hindu gods and mind reading in his writing. But we spend much of our time discussing his call for torture and his Buddhist perspectives on "compassionately killing the bad guy."
In 2004, Sam Harris' award-winning first book said society should demote Christian, Muslim and Jewish belief to an embarrassment that "disgraces anyone who would claim it," in doing so catapulting him from obscure UCLA grad student -- the son of a Quaker father -- to national voice of atheism.
"The End of Faith" may be the first book suitable for the Eastern Philosophy shelf at Barnes & Noble that somehow incorporates both torture and New Age piety, and offers pleas for clear scientific thinking alongside appeals to "mysticism." The old-fashioned brand of atheist, like the late Carl Sagan, argued eloquently against religion without supporting rituals and ghosts.
Harris, however, argues that not just Western gods but philosophers are "dwarfs" next to the Buddhas. And a Harris passage on psychics recommends that curious readers spend time with the study "20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation."
Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy," in which people abruptly begin speaking languages they don't know. Remember the girl in "The Exorcist"? "When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what's going on," Harris tells me. It's hard to believe what I'm hearing from the man the New York Times hails as atheism's "standard-bearer."
Harris writes: "There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science." On the phone he backpedals away from the claim.
"I've received a little bit of grief for that," he says. "I certainly don't say that I'm confident that psychic phenomena exist. I'm open-minded. I would just like to see the data."
To see the "data" yourself, "The End of Faith" points readers to a slew of paranormal studies.
One is Dr. Ian Stevenson's "Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy." The same author's reincarnation book presents for your consideration the past life of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who introduced the Beatles to the Maharishi. He was born with a birthmark, it says, right where his past self was knifed to death, aged two.
Making the case for the "20 Cases" researcher, Harris sounds almost like "Chronicles of Narnia" author C.S. Lewis, who said Jesus could only be a liar or the Son of God.
"Either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on," Harris says. "Most scientists would say this doesn't happen. Most would say that if it does happen, it's a case of fraud. ... It's hard to see why anyone would be perpetrating a fraud -- everyone was made miserable by this [xenoglossy] phenomenon." Pressed, he admits that some of the details might after all be "fishy."
Another book he lists is "The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena." "These are people who have spent a fair amount of time looking at the data," Harris explains. The author, professor Dean Radin of North California's Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is not accredited for scientific peer review, proclaims: "Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments."
Harris has spent the past two years doing "full-time infidel" duty, in his words. His second book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," takes the infidel persona and runs with it, lashing back at Christians for their intolerance toward his first book.
In a versatile turn, however, Harris moonlights as inquisitor as well as heretic. Without irony, he switches hats between chapters of "The End of Faith." Chapter 3 finds him complaining that the medieval Church tortured Jews over phony "blood libel" conspiracies. Then in chapter 6, "A Science of Good & Evil," he devotes several pages to upholding the "judicial torture" of Muslims, a practice for which "reasonable men and women" have come out.
Torture then and now: The difference, he tells AlterNet, is that the Inquisition "manufactured" crimes and forced Jews to confess "fictional accomplices."
But if the Iraq War hasn't been about "fictional accomplices," what has? "There's nothing about my writing about torture that should suggest I supported what was going on in Abu Ghraib," says Harris, who supported the invasion but says it has become a "travesty." "We abused people who we know had no intelligence value."
While our soldiers are waging war on Islam in our detention centers, according to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to "modern spiritual practice," he writes. "[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise," he writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists "uncover genuine facts about the world." And he tells AlterNet there are "social pressures" against research into ESP.
Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.
Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."
Playing his part in last year's War Over Christmas, Harris plays it safe with "Letter to a Christian Nation." The book lumbers under a title so heavy, you'd think Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it from prison. While keeping the Christian Nation on notice that Harris remains disdainful of "wasting time" on Jesus, he now calls for something of an alliance with the Right against Muslim Arabs and the "head-in-the-sand liberals" he denounced in a recent editorial. "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living," he writes.
Thus praising the hard Right for its "moral clarity" in the War on Terror, Harris reserves much of his wrath for nonfundamentalist Christians, whom he considers enablers of a virgin-birth sham.
Fine, but the alternative to Jesus that Harris recommends in "The End of Faith" is a menu of messiahs. There is Shankara, an avatar of the god Shiva whose water pot could stop floods. There is the first Buddha and his 8th-century successor Padmasambhava. After materializing on a lotus leaf at age 8, Padmasambhava cast a spell that changed his friend into a tiger.
"That is objectively stupider than the doctrine of the virgin birth," Harris says in the interview, however.
Like any religious moderate, he has picked and chosen what he likes from a religion. On the one hand, there's an obligatory swipe in "The End of Faith" against Pakistan and India for threatening to nuke each other over "fanciful" religious disputes. The equal-offender pose doesn't slow Harris from claiming the supremacy of Shankara and other oracles over Europe's entire secular brain trust. For thousands of years, "personal transformation [...] seems to have been thought too much to ask" of Western philosophers, he complains petulantly, as if finding the entire Enlightenment short on self-help tips.
He likes that Buddhism will make you relax. And "dial in various mental states," he says. In the classic case, he says, "you see various lights or see bliss." And like a Scientologist cleric promising you the state of Clear, evicting alien ghosts ruining your life, Harris expresses a faith that his own style of pleasurable mental exploration ushers in good deeds. Meditation, he says, will drive out whatever it is "that leads you to lie to people or be intrinsically selfish."
So it purges your sins? "You become free to notice how everyone else is suffering," he says. Well, some more than others.
We all need our illusions. But doesn't his, a mishmash of Buddhism and "Time-Life Mysteries of The Unknown," weaken his case against Christians? His answer is that Buddhism is a superior product for including the doctrine of "non-dualism," or unity. "The teachings about self-transcending love in Buddhism go on for miles," he says. "There's just a few lines in the Bible." And hundreds in Dostoyevsky and the Confessions of St. Augustine, but never mind: Harris's argument that "belief is action" rests on treating works like the Old Testament not as complex cultural fables but something akin to your TiVo instruction manual.
Though it lapses in skepticism, Harris's work has won a surprising following among nonmystics. Times science writer Natalie Angier felt "vindicated, almost personally understood" reading it, she wrote in a review. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has practically adopted Harris as the American Robin to his Batman in confronting unreason wherever it may lurk in the hearts of men. "The End of Faith" should "replace the Gideon Bible in every hotel room in the land," blurbs Dawkins.
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When that happens, Muslims will check into the Best Western and find a text cheering their torture.
Legendary for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, American attorney Clarence Darrow wrote of his admiration for his forbearer Voltaire, the original 18th-century renegade against the church. He thanked Voltaire for dealing superstition a "mortal wound" -- and for an end to torture. "Among the illustrious heroes who have banished this sort of cruelty from the Western world, no other name will stand so high and shine so bright."
And then among those who want to bring it back, there stands Sam Harris.
"They're not talking," Harris is telling me, imagining a torture scenario where the captives clam up, "quite amused at our unwillingness to make them uncomfortable."
No, it's not the sticky (and real) case of Jose Padilla, the detainee who may have been reduced by his treatment to mind mush, possibly ruining his trial. Instead he's sketching out a kind of Steven Seagal action movie scenario in which we lasso Osama or his gang, maybe on the eve of a terror plot. What to do?
"We should say we don't do it," Harris says of torture. "We should say it's reprehensible." And then do it anyway, he says.
So there it is. In Harris's vision of future America, we will pursue "personal transformation" and gaze into our personal "I-we" riddles, while the distant gurgles of Arabs, terrified by the threat of drowning, will drift into our Eastern-influenced sacred space, the government's press releases no more than soothing Zen koans.