In Defense of Sam Harris, Sacred Cow Butcher

Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.

This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization WakingUpof non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.

But then Ben Affleck happened.

When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.

But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.

The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.”  What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.

What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.

Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.

And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.

While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.

One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”

If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now  become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.

It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.

Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?

In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.

But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.

The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.

From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.

So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on October 28, 2014, in buddhism, Enlightenment, Meditation, meme, no-self, psychology, Wisdom and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Great post Ron! Would love to hear your comments on Waking Up in a future post as I just finished reading it.

  2. Hm. I started reading Harris’s blog after reading and enjoying Dan Harris’s “10% Happier”. I got a different Sam Harris to what I expected.

    Prior to Dan Harris’s book, I had read Tim Parks’ book “Teach Us How to Sit Still”. In both 10% Happier and Teach Us… the authors awoke to a different perspective on life and living.

    Sam Harris, on the other hand, seems welded to a pro-Israeli perspective (understandable from someone who obviously feels an affinity for the Israelis because of his own cultural milieu. However, when he began to rationalise the murder of Arabs, I began to feel a bit too uncomfortable. This is on his blog* – it’s not just me putting words into his mouth.

    And this made me look at other things a bit more cynically. Now I focussed much more on his self-definition as “Writer, Philosopher and Neuroscientist”. I drew the (perhaps unfair) conclusion that he was really struggling putting his ego to bed. And then I noticed how so many of his blogposts were (sometimes quite offensive -as in “not defensive”) rebuttals of people who spoke out against him. “This is a guy,” I thought, “who is really very caught up in the image of Sam Harris.”

    Where, I wondered, were the benefits of meditation for Sam Harris? He seemed caught up in the identity of himself as a writer, a philosopher, a neuroscientist, an Israeli apologist, an atheist, an anti-Muslim (and anti-Christian et al.). He seemed to be caught up in the fires of anger and self-righteousness. He was surprisingly un-benevolent to his detractors.

    All of which put me off him quite a bit. I unsubscribed from his blog and have left his book for the time being.

    *specifically at http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/why-dont-i-criticize-israel. To my mind, he is saying that while Israel may bomb towns and shoot young children at point blank range, the real guilty parties are the Arabs who drove the Israelis to it. This kind of defence has always been repugnant to me, whether it is used to defend rapists by blaming the victim for being a slut, or by states who kill innocent people and blame their enemies.

  3. Those are interesting points. I don’t want to leave the impression that I have looked at all of Harris’s positions or accepted them all. No doubt that I disagree with him on a lot of things, l just don’t know what those are yet as I’m a newbie to a lot of his work. I’ll read the link you sent and consider that. Given your description, I’ll likely disagree with him. But on the other hand, I disagree with the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, and Albert Einstein on a bunch of things. Still, I would say similar things about them and admire some of the stands they took in the face of dogmatic ideologies.

    People… why do they have to be so complicated?

  4. Hi Ron,
    Love your site and enjoy your posts but I think you’re wrong here. Some of the things Sam Harris says are very bigoted. Hateful even.
    Nick

  5. Thanks for sharing Nick – I value that feedback and am always up for learning. Is there anything I should watch or read to help me understand your perspective better?

  6. Hi Ron,

    This article is pretty good. It links to a number of other articles as well. It’s long, but well worth reading to the end

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus

    I find his pro-war and pro-torture stances abhorrent and some of his comments about Islam are extremely right-wing and bigoted. In fact, he has said, and this is a direct quote (it’s in the article above): “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”

    Anyway, this is just my opinion, and when he’s not speaking about Islam, he has some really interesting and wise things to say. Like you say, “People…why do they have to be so complicated?” 🙂

    Nick

  7. I read the article and while it was illuminating, it made me wonder about the author as much as Harris. The author sounds rational for the first half, but gets pretty heavy handed after that. He’s almost guilty of Harris-phobia. I’m going to read the End of Faith and find out more about what he’s talking about in context before I make up my mind. – people, complexity within complexity.

    However, I want to point out that the major theme my own article here is not so much Harris and his work – but the role of faith in hijacking identity. Something which, to my mind, no one in the atheist or faith communities are addressing.

  8. Ron, you might want to check out Sam Harris’ blog page titled “Response to Controversy” at http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2 He categorizes and summarizes his views there and addresses what he considers distortions. Cheers.

  9. Also, thanks for your analysis. It seems unlikely that promoting an understanding of how faith (or any ideology) hijacks identity will ever be a cause that sectarian-minded people will want to champion.

  10. Ron, I am disposed to look kindly on your opinions and expression of them, but I am about 180 degrees from you on Sam Harris. Maher along with Harris get no slack from me when they go off on their culture-bound bigoted rants. I would put Maher and Harris in the position of “the popular kids” who are bullying Affleck (and Kristoff, and Michael Steele, in this discussion). Affleck is heated and super-expressive– but he’s also making the better argument, in my opinion. I first encountered Harris’ writing in the Shambhala Sun and Tricycle; I couldn’t believe they gave him so much uncontested space, allowing him to misrepresent Buddhism and disrespect every other religion in every aspect.

    He seems far less “calm and restrained” in his presentation than smug and arrogant. There is a sizable portion of the punditocracy for whom “liberal, Western, modern, rational, materialist” values and ideas are articles of faith that brook no discussion. The possibility that this is just tribalism v.2000, seems not to occur.

  11. I would love to see your thoughts, and others’ responses, about the place of ‘identity’ in spiritual practice. Maybe that could be unhitched from the problematic Mr. Harris and his attendant identity issues.

    • My feeling is that when a spiritual practice leads to an identity it becomes the opposite of a spiritual practice. The point of a spiritual practice is to wake up to reality, and reality in all awakening traditions is that identities are about as substantial as memories, plans, and other natural cognitive processes. They happen entirely in the mind and are created by the mind. They are not a “bad” thing, just as memories are not a bad thing, but not seeing an identity for what it is, and taking it as a permanent, true thing that needs to be protected and cultivated leads to just about all the problems in the world. Once you have an identity as a “christian” or a “muslim” or a “buddhist” then you suddenly have skin in the game. Now you are part of an in group, and others are part of an out group. And the way our psychology works is that we can do horrible things to people in the out group. A true spiritual practice breaks through this dualism and leads to a recognition that what is real has nothing to do with what group or ideology one has. Then it is easy to love, to reason, and when needed, to challenge and try to awaken others when their identities are harming themselves or others.

  12. Your insights here were really interesting and helpful. I’ve read most of Harris’ writings, and find the negative reactions to him to be fascinating. He really could not be more clear about his thought process, his research, his intellectual commitment to tracking reality, and the deep universal compassion that drives them. I encourage everyone who has decried Harris here to read Lying, and then self-assess as to whether or not you might be mistaken about the man.

  13. Identity formation and not having to take responsibility doing screwed up stuff because your the victor and effortlessly indulge in a self serving ideology that ignores terror inflicted upon others. That has a lot to do with whiteness. Harris is a superlative example of the Imperialist double standard. Europeans and Americans were overwhelmingly responsible for engaging in more violence during the 20th century than Muslims or any other group. Look at something like the colonial wars (genocides) in Africa detailed in a book like Hochilds ‘Leopolds Ghost’. I suppose there is a slick evolutionary biology explanation for that that intrinsic ability to ignore harm done to others.

    Think about how All of the Islamic terrorism combined would scarcely add up to a few weeks of the US Holocaust in Vietnam. But Americans and Europeans are not held responsible for that. Does Harris sit around and ask “What is fundamental to our societies belief structure that allows us to rationalize the use of depleted uranium weapons?”. Who are we, The Unleashers of Atomic horror? Once you break out of the colonialist, racist mind-frack then your free to learn all kinds of interesting things. Are you aware that the USA is a major supplier of weapons to Sunni Jihadis? our closest Islamic ally is the Wahabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How does that impact identity formation of Americans? It doesn’t because its too uncomfortable for people to think about, the media politely ignores the issue. What aspect of liberalism supports that? Harris doesn’t care, its not a question he is troubled with.

  14. Ya know the world is full of mystifying and complex questions. Questions about the nature of identity and race for example we could go round and round on forever. But there are some questions that are surprisingly easy to answer that might shed some light on why Harris pisses off a lot of sensitive and caring people. Let’s ask who is responsible for inflicting violence? How much violence? Who is doing the overwhelming majority of killing? It’s readily quantifiable. If the conclusion is that your culture group is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the active infliction of violence then you might want to explore the formation of identity as it relates to violence within your group. Obsessively focusing on how outsiders, say for example people from another religion are dark and evil and backward, might be considered pretty damn ignorant from a certain perspective.

  15. See? Fascinating. In this case we have an arguer whose reasoning is … let’s call it “motivated”. Specious equivalencies (e.g. body count of Islamism vs. Western foreign policy), whataboutery (“Harris is a superlative example of the Imperialist double standard”), and language of thinly veiled disgust have become the hallmarks of very smart people with an agenda who refuse to engage honestly with Harris’ writing.

  16. I hope my disgust with Harris doesn’t come across as too thinly veiled, I want to be totally open about it. Harris’s deconstruction of religion and identity or the relationship between thought and the process of identity construction is fine. I have no argument with that. I spent my teenage years pondering many of the same things. Mind not blown. And that’s where Harris gets off the train. His failure to imagine the role of identity construction in members of his own society pertaining to the ceaseless perpetuation of unthinkable violence against outsiders, whom he conveniently labels as backwards, falls far short of the goal line. IMO. I’ll also tell you straight up what my agenda is; Encourage people to oppose and find alternatives to policies of destruction and violence.

    Harris claim that there exists a fundamental relatedness between Islam and violence then constructing a world view around that opinion is ultimately a canard. Nearly all human civilizations in history have had a blend of violent and cooperative elements in them as does Islam. The Abrahamic religions are all pretty bad but what are you gonna do about it? Start world war three? Lets figure something else out instead. Looking in the mirror is a classic place to start.

    What part of Harris writing am I failing to engage with? That part where he says the self doesn’t exist or everything is like open and spacious because of Dzogchen and neuroscience and physics or whatever? Or the part where he endlessly lists the crimes committed by Muslims? Sure. Picking on the shortcomings of people who live on the other side of the world and whom your society spends a lot of time bombing hundreds of thousands of to death while simultaneously supporting the worst elements of, just doesn’t strike me as intellectually all that bold or useful.

  17. You seem to think you’re arguing against Harris. You aren’t. You don’t like some of what he chooses to focus on. That’s not a problem with his positions. See: whataboutery. You’ve now used the term “outsider” twice in your arguments against Harris, yet if you had honestly engaged Harris’ writing you would already know that in his worldview there’s really no such thing as “the other”. So invoking the term “outsider” is non sequitur at best.

    > What part of Harris writing am I failing to engage with?

    If this is an honest question, then given the context of your comment I’d strongly recommend you read his very latest: an interview with Graeme Wood. It should address many of the sentences in your comment that end with a question mark.

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-true-believers

  18. Brent The article you posted focusing on Isis ideology is interesting. But It’s hard to take Harris seriously. He says that the US should use marines and air power to smash them “in an unpopulated area.” so as to avoid collateral damage and defeat their beliefs. Is that how modern warfare works? Is that how the department of defense plans battle strategy? The joint chiefs are like hey lets lure the enemy into an unpopulated area and smash them while avoiding collateral damage. Harris has an infantile understanding of war and power.

    The conflict in Syria has always been about busting the Syrian / Iran / Russian power block. The US and its closest regional ally Saudi Arabia tolerated the rise of Isis because they are our defacto allies in this greater regional conflict. Saudi Arabia continues to be a major funder of Isis, as the US funds the Saudis.

    Isis stepped over the line by invading Iraq which is supposed to be a sovereign nation but not really after the fall of Saddam. Any US backed war against Isis will have the ultimate goal of taking down Assad – Isis #1 enemy. The US is currently pursuing a policy of arming, funding, training Sunni extremists to fight Assad. The extremists supported by the US are essentially indistinguishable from Isis and in many cases may be former or current Isis members.

    In any event, the eventual replacement of the Assad Alawite regime with US backed Sunni fundamentalists is hardly a win for secularism. Nevermind that Assad is by far the most modern secular actor in the region. Under Assad people could purchase alcohol, dance at discos, ignore the hijab and so on. As per usual, the USA came in on the side of fundamentalists against secular nationalists. Actually trying to understand the real complexity of affairs in the mid east and the United States ignoble involvement would make poor Harris get a headache so I doubt that’l happen any time soon.

  19. I’m going to quote Harris from the article http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-true-believers
    I think his point here is worth teasing out.

    “Harris: I now have a rogues’ gallery in my mind of pseudo-liberals, both Muslim and not, who are reflexive apologists for theocracy. These people will deny, at every turn, the link between deeply held religious convictions and bad behavior. According to them, all the mayhem we see in the Middle East is “blowback.” Everything is a product of our callous meddling in the affairs of other countries. We have no enemies in the world but the ones we’ve made for ourselves by being bad actors and rapacious guzzlers of oil. Many of these people appear to have been bewitched by Noam Chomsky.”

    So is all of the mayhem in the middle east a result of blowback? Of course not. Individuals are responsible for their own actions. Ideology is extremely dangerous. Harris chooses not to talk about the ideology of patriotism / nationalism even as he drinks deeply from those waters. The main point is this. Violence is a big problem. the USA is responsible for engaging in extremely high levels of violence against people from the middle east. I am an American,. I’m not a Syrian or an Iraqi or an Israeli. I’m American. I vote and pay taxes in my own society. If my society is doing more violence than all of the terrorists combined then I feel its a straightforward matter of ethics to speak out against the violence I am most closely associated with. Denouncing the crimes of foreign enemies is not brave, its conformist.

    Currently the USA is arming, funding and training Sunni Jihadists to fight a two pronged war against Isis and the Syrian government. The US is directly supporting religious fundamentalists as it has done many, many times in the middle east. Harris is not only mistaken but he doesn’t even know up from down. I oppose religious fundamentalism. A really solid first step in making that opposition meaningful would be to change US policies to stop direct funding of violent extremists and to stop engaging in violent extremism. Call it a modest proposal.

    • Fascinating. You just spent a great deal of effort, with some definitely interesting things to say. Unfortunately, pretty much none of it actually had to do with Harris. It’s clearly wasted effort to continue to try to point this out to you.

  20. Yeah Brent, From my perspective its pretty simple. Harris is ringing alarm bells about Islam. I say fair enough, Muslims can be scary. Much of organized religion and human history is a blood bath. Anyways I noticed somewhere along the line that all the tyrants Americans wet their beds over generally do a tiny fraction of the actual killing that my country does. Also my country focuses on enemies that hold obvious strategic interest rather than evaluating evil in any objective sense. So we have near total ignorance about central african violence of the past few generations which is far greater than what Isis has done. Likewise Mexican drug cartels have done far more violence than ISIS. However ISIS is sitting on a F-Ton of Oil in a strategically valuable place so all their scary pronouncements and whacky religious ideas become fodder for celebrity intellectuals like Sam Harris who obviously enjoys being in the spotlight.

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