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Home » editorials

Sam Harris Rehashed

Submitted by on July 13, 2011 – 8:21 am13 Comments

By Vrindaranya dasi

“This letter is the product of failure…the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand.”1 With such incinerating and provocative statements, Sam Harris wraps up his Letter to a Christian Nation. The diminutive size of this bestselling book should not deceive you: it is nothing less than a full-scale attack on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in general and religious fundamentalism in particular. With scathing rhetoric, Harris argues that religion is an obstacle to rational thought and a dangerous denial of reality. In this article, I will address three of Harris’s arguments and show that while attacking fundamentalism within the religious traditions, Harris himself would benefit from a more nuanced understanding.

Let us begin with Harris’s contention that God is either impotent or evil. In considering disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Harris questions what God was doing when elderly men and women prayed to him as they slowly died in their attics, all the while believing that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate.2 God was doing nothing, Harris would undoubtedly believe, for he asserts that “an atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl—even once in a million years—casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.”3

When Harris argues that God is either evil or impotent, an underlying assumption is that suffering is bad and that God would be evil to allow someone to suffer. As we will see, however, there are several problems with tying morality to suffering and its alleviation. First of all, how do we define happiness and suffering? Can we objectively impose definitions of these terms on the world and if so, on what basis? Although considering how much suffering an action causes is a useful method of considering morality, it is not infallible. What about actions that do not cause suffering but are morally wrong or instances when the morally right decision causes suffering? Furthermore, who can deny that the transformative power of suffering can be immense?

I do not mean to suggest that we should never try to alleviate suffering, but neither should we see suffering as always bad. Indeed, suffering is often revealed to be a blessing in disguise. As any good parent knows, it is sometimes necessary to allow children to experience the painful results of their actions in order to grow. Thus experiencing suffering can give us a depth that we wouldn’t have otherwise. It is both the door to empathy and the contrast to happiness that deepens our appreciation for that happiness. Thus by labeling God as evil for not alleviating all suffering, Harris demonstrates a one-sided understanding of suffering. The religious traditions of the world would also remind Harris that our earthly existence is only one frame in the movie of our eternal life. If God wants to bring a child to him for eternal happiness after a brief time on Earth, who are we to call him evil? Our attempts to judge God with our own limited logic are futile.

Let us now turn to Harris’s argument in regard to European society and Muslim immigrants. Pointing to statistics like seventy percent of the inmates in France are Muslim, Harris maintains that secular Europe is being damaged by Muslim immigrants and religious tolerance towards them.4 He contends that political correctness and fear of racism have hampered Europeans from countering extremists in their midst and maintains that the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion is a “fantasy.”5 The solution, Harris argues, lies not in interfaith dialogue but in being reasonable and recognizing that other worldviews are fundamentally incompatible with Islam.

As Harris’s suffering model falls short in regard to judging God, his arguments about Islam and European society similarly fall short. By oversimplifying a complicated social dynamic, he scapegoats Islam and fuels the very religious sectarianism he wants to overcome. For example, his statistic about seventy percent of inmates in France being Muslim, while completely ignoring other explanations, implies that Islam is a dangerous religion that leads to criminality. Moussa Khedimellah, a sociologist who has studied Muslims in the French penal system for years, points to a more likely answer: “The high percentage of Muslims in prisons is a direct consequence of the failure of the integration of minorities in France.”6 By ignoring this underlying sociological problem and pointing a finger at the wrong culprit (the Islamic faith itself), Harris’s argument fails to address the real problem—the need to build bridges between cultures—and instead feeds an unreasonable fear that Islam breeds hate and criminality.

Let us now conclude by considering Harris’s argument in regard to stem-cell research. Harris points out that stem-cell research shows the greatest potential for breakthroughs in medicine in all fields. He maintains that although human embryos are destroyed for stem-cell research, the embryos that are used are composed of less cells than the cells in a fly’s brain. “Consequently,” Harris asserts, “there is no reason to believe that they can suffer their destruction in any way at all.”7 Thus to Harris there is no moral reason why the interests of such an embryo should be considered more important than the needs of a person who could potentially be helped by stem-cell research.

Here again we find Harris’s simplistic reasoning on display. He blithely presents the life or death of a human embryo as if it were an easy moral question that can be resolved by punching human suffering into a simple equation. Since a human embryo at three days old does not experience suffering, by Harris’s calculation it basically has very little right to its own life. In contrast, religious traditions hold that all life is sacred and that we are stewards of the mysteries of God. While this belief cannot be proved to the satisfaction of Harris, it leads to a healthy caution in regard to manipulating nature and the mysteries of God, particularly in regard to taking life. Given the numerous examples of humanity’s meddling with nature that have gone awry, most notably in the unprecedented environmental crisis we now face, this caution is prudent.

While Harris primarily uses his suffering model to justify killing an embryo, he does concede that some might argue that an embryo has rights due to its potential to become a fully developed human. But here again Harris dismisses objections with astonishing ease. Saying that any cell has the potential to become a human, he thereby concludes that human embryos should have no more rights than dead cells sloughed off the body. Leaving aside the practical considerations in regard to the viability of human cloning, can all the moral questions about human cloning really be answered with Harris’s simplistic suffering model? Obviously not. Thus while labeling religious concerns for the soul of an embryo as naïve, Harris fails to realize that his arguments are not only simplistic but also odious: under some circumstances he sees human life as nothing more than a commodity to be harvested.

In conclusion, while Harris has highlighted numerous shortcomings of religious fundamentalists, his conclusions are extreme and his solutions often simplistic. Eradicating religion from society is both improbable and highly questionable. A more feasible approach to solving the problems Harris highlights is to concentrate on building bridges between people of different religions and addressing the underlying sociological, political, and economic problems that are the real causes of violence in the name of religion. While this approach is certainly more involved than Harris’s solution of doing away with religion, it is a far more reasonable and realistic. Developing greater understanding between people is a time-consuming investment, but it has lasting value. In contrast, wholesale rejection never pays off. As Bhaktivinode Thakura reminds us, “Thought is progressive. The author’s thought must have progress in the reader in the shape of correction or development. He is the best critic who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of nature.”8———

  1. Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Vintage, 2006), Kindle edition, locations 795-801. []
  2. ibid., 477-82. []
  3. ibid., locations 472-77. []
  4. ibid., locations 404-9. []
  5. ibid., locations 741-46. []
  6. Moore, Molly. “In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims.” Washington Post, Tuesday 29, 2008, accessed April 20, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/28/AR2008042802560.html []
  7. ibid., locations 293-98. []
  8. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, The Bhagavata. []

———

13 Comments »

  • Great point that Harris’ definition of “suffering” is overly simplistic and, by comparison to other definitions, quite shallow.

  • gopal dasa

    Great article. A professor who studies Islam explained to me that many inmates in US prisons convert to Islam because it provides a framework for ordering one’s life in an otherwise monotonous expanse of time. Prayer at fixed intervals in particular is a powerful way to introduce meaning and a sense of orientation. It is perfectly conceivable that Muslims in French prisons were minimally or not at all observant before their incarceration. There may be little or no causal connection between faith and criminal behavior.

    Good take down of Harris’ treatment of suffering, too. He seems like quite a dramatist in his evocation of hurricane Katrina. Is Harris so omniscient that he was able to observe and document the thoughts and feelings of elderly people who “slowly died in their attics?” What a vast and presumptuous oversimplification of the nature of life, death, and human exploration thereof.

    As you point out, a book like this does nothing to promote dialog and therefore amounts to little more than an aesthetic tract. There may be interesting points to make about faith and reason, but any discussion of reason that neglects to acknowledge reason’s limits is, well, unreasonable.

  • Syamakunda Das

    Nicely written. A good response. Hare Krsna

  • A Christian friend of mine recently wrote a thoughtful article about suffering in relation to infertility: Beating on the Chest of God: Christian Responses to Infertility and Suffering

    Along with Vrindaranya’s article, Mary makes some nice points about the nature of suffering, including this one:

    We are trapped in a culture that is averse to suffering, and as a result we might be missing an important place of encountering God. Because we have forgotten how to suffer, and because we seldom give each other the space in which to do it, we often perceive science and technology as our saviors.

  • Kula-pavana

    Jehovah Witnesses were distributing in the early 1950’s a very interesting book, entitled: “What Has Religion Done For Mankind?” http://www.strictlygenteel.co.uk/religion4mankind/religion4mankindtitles.html
    While showing the often horrific and crazy things done in the name of religion in the last 3000 years, the author was arguing that his religion is an answer to all such misdeeds, and that those other religions responsible for these problems were simply ‘false’.
    As far as I know, this book is no longer distributed by this group, perhaps because it was indeed revealing too much about the evils of organized religion, to which people like Sam Harris object very strongly. But people like Harris have a very valid point (points) which simply can not be dismissed as ignorance based. Religion remains the easiest and most common con game all over the world, and people like Harris are simply a reaction to the religious con games of the past and present.
    Still, there is another side… While it is true that there are a lot of fake diamonds out there, we must also acknowledge that real diamonds exist, that they are very valuable, and that people are always looking for them because they actually need them. I am not sure if Sam Harris is smart enough to understand the value of a real diamond of a religion, but I would not condemn him too harshly – after all, he has good intentions and desires a better humanity, the same as most of the religious folks. The only question is:
    Who will actually deliver the promised goods?
    Talk is cheap, promises are cheap… let us judge things by the results. As religionists, we have an obligation to conduct ourselves in a way which is beyond any reproach and to present spirituality in a way which even people like Sam Harris will find impossible to criticize… a tall order indeed, but perhaps quite possible to fulfill.

    • Religion remains the easiest and most common con game all over the world, and people like Harris are simply a reaction to the religious con games of the past and present.

      Religion, when described and practiced as a means to satisfy material desires with deference to divinity, is very useful for humanity.

      Religion becomes a con game when a certain kind of personality takes the helm and misrepresents divinity. There is also much that could be said about the kind of personality who puts there faith in such a person.

      I would not dismiss religion completely, Kula-pavana. I think the misleading, fanatical personality type displays itself wherever it is allowed. It occurs in many places other than religious institutions.

      Sam Harris exhibits some of these traits, as Vrindaranya pointed out. I think Harris should focus on a means to develop sattvic living and thinking (whatever that might be in scientific terms) if he is going to make a real difference for himself and others.

  • Ishan das

    The fact that we suffer within the material creation, does not point to the fact that God is impotent or evil. Rather it is nothing more than divine kindness. Why is this so?

    Every classical religion offers us eternal life, in the spiritual realm. However, we are disoriented. Instead of understanding that our fulfillment lies in making God’s pleasure the purpose of our existence, all of us within the material dimension, perversely want center-stage for ourselves. This very demeanor puts us in competition with Krishna. Therefore the asylum for the spiritually insane has been created just for us. And that asylum is the material world.

    We have to acknowledge that Krishna, God, could easily have terminated our very existence. Instead he has, out of His unlimited kindness, created this asylum for the spiritually insane, with the aspiration of giving us the opportunity to willingly participate in our reorientation process, so that we can return to the realm of eternity, knowledge and bliss.

    Life in the material creation places all of us under a most sophistocated form of hypno-therapy. In this hypno-therapy, the dream that we are forced to participate in – is gross. The dream is gross! In fact, nothing is happening to us as spiritual entities. We are not born. We do not die. We do not grow old. We never have health problems. But we are experiencing these things as real, because, under hypnosis, we are induced to feel that all of this is happening to me. But this bad dream is necessary. Why?

    Although we are suffering, we are proud. We hanker to see ourselves as most important. This hyno-therapy, this bad dream, is designed to humble us. When we are sufficiently humbled we can begin, not only to enquire into the reason for our suffering, but we can begin to accept instruction for how to end our suffering.

    The material world, then, is a reorientation institution. And our instruction is two-pronged. The two prongs are the word and the schooling of hard knocks.

    It is said, “A word to the wise is sufficient.” But most of us are not wise. Take Harris, for example. The various scriptures of the world are always available. But he is not open to any of it. “The Word”, for Harris, is not sufficient. Therefore, for persons like Harris, he has to learn through the schooling of hard knocks. And in this world, hard knocks come in every shape and form.

    But if his lifetime passes, and still he has not been humbled to the point of submissive enquiry, he can have another go at it, birth after birth. Here is a man who is working so hard to stamp out the presence of God from children’s schools, and still Krishna is giving him the opportunity for spiritual growth, birth after birth. He is a self-proclaimed enemy of Krishna. But Krishna remains his well-wisher.

    This is the real understanding with respect to the illusory suffering of the soul caught up in the cycle of birth and death. The suffering is an imposed bad dream. Nothing is happening to the eternal soul. And if that soul is willing to relent, to let go of his perverse spirit of self-centered independence, then this bad dream has done him the greatest service.

    So much for disqualifying God because we are in this suffering condition. Krishna is kind, and we are rascals. And Krishna wants us to come home and dance with Him.

    Harris has not understood this yet. But there is always hope – even for Harris. Jesus said, “Let them be hot or let them be cold. But those that are luke-warm, them, I spit them out.” Harris is definitely cold. But if he could be convinced, what a great asset to the cause he could be!

    Because this is a long article, I will deal with Harris’s next complaint against Krishna in a separate entry.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  • Ishan das

    Harris’s second contention is that the Muslim faith breeds hatred and criminality. Not all Muslim preists teach Muslims to be hateful, but some of them do. Suicide bombers are cultivated.

    But this is not the teachings of Islam, itself. This is the teaching of people like those who implemented the Christian crusades against Islamic peoples. Perhaps for political power. Perhaps for economic gain. Perhaps religious fanaticism. So-called religious wars, racial wars, nationalsitic wars are always going on, in the name of this ism or that ism. But this is not the teaching of God as we find it in any scripture.

    So-called Christians may be members of the Klu-Klux Clan. Can we blame this on Jesus? Or on God? Ghandi also confused religion with politics. He was confusing the removal of the Brithish from India with spiritual life. Ghandi thought of himself as an Indian. He was in illusion. Everyone needs spiritual life, whether they be Indian, British, Christian, Muslim. But those with insufficient clarity of mind will think that by making material adjustments our lives will be successful. One who understands that the only adjustment for achieving eternal life is to develop heartfelt love for God – such a person will not become a criminal.

    It is not so much that different religious groups have to learn communication skills and develope tolerance for each other. It is more that one must come to understand, whether one is Hindu, Christian, or Jew, that all of us are God’s children and He wants us to love each other. And more-so, that we cannot really love each other until we first develope our love for God. Love for each other is a symptom, a by-product of love for God.

    So Harris is not thinking clearly when he blames so-called Muslim crime in France on religion, or on God. This crime is symptomatic of people having no relationship with Allah, other than an official idea that “I am a Muslim.” To be an official Muslim or an official Hare Krishna devotee is not enough. We all require sincere practice and realization. When realization is there, harmonious dealings will naturally follow.

    That people will do every manner of craziness, even in the name of religion, is not to be blamed on religion, or on God. It is simply the play of the three modes of materia nature, in the absence of real God Consciouness.

    So we have to be sincere. Not official members. And then others can learn from us.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  • Ishan das

    RE: Harris’ views on stem-cell research:

    Here, Harris plays into our hands. Why stem-cell research? Why any research? Because we do not want to die.

    Yes, we want eternal life. And so also does Harris. So did Ravana. But like Harris, he wanted to go about it by materialistic means, by his own strength, his own resourcefulness.

    Good luck to the Harrises of this world. Mother nature’s assembly line, and disassembly line are in full swing. Bodies come in one end and go out the other, and no amount of stem-cell research will prevent this.

    And as Vrindaranya dasi has pointed out, we have more to fear from the so-called progress of science than to look forward to. Although we have stumbled onto a few of the limitless technologies inherent in material nature, because we have not grown spiritually, we have only become more dangerous to ourselves. The earth, the air, the water, the food we eat – all are contaminated with harmful chemicals. Tidal waves break down nuclear power plants. Monsterous dysfunctional global mind control is the result of our progress in information technology. In one sense, is may be nothing more than the onset of Kali Yuga, and not enhancement at all.

    Of course, everything can be utilized in Krishna’s service. But at present we are more of a threat to ourselves because of our lack of spiritual growth. The Vedas inform us that if we are actually living a godly life, that nature will supply all of our needs. So what is the need for stem-cell research and the like? But this is the material world. As we stub our toes, hopefully we learn. And it is not surprising that many do not determine to make a once and for all solution to this pain-filled cycle of birth and death.

    The Harrises of this world will go on hammering out their messages, persuing their ways and means. Let us understand that this material world is no place for a gentleman (or gentlewoman), and buckle down to the task of making this our last birth here. Let us wish everyone well, knowing that the only way we can help these lost persons is by ourselves making spiritual advancement.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  • krsna das

    How important or not is to define spiritual aspiration at the beginning of one,s personal awakening?

    • What do you mean by “one’s personal awakening?”

      • krshna das

        I know that truthfullness [the last leg of dharma in this age] is very important for real progress.AT this point of time I do not have faith in the process given by devotees of Lord Krishna which is direct devotion to HIM,but I do not want to opose it ether.This is what I call beginning of mine personall awakening.
        I think there need to be more universal process along with the direct for healthy[ based on truthfullness] spiritual purification.
        Can Vaisnava society offer this kind of a process?

        • Shyamananda das

          Krsna das,

          You may want to take a look at Bhagavad-gita 12.9-14.

          Yogesvara Dasa (Joshua M. Greene) summarizes the gist of these words of Krishna: Your faith in me may waver, but my faith in will not and I will love you for whatever you can do.

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