Sam Harris and The New Atheist Movement
Sam Harris is a key figure in the current philosophical revolution known as New Atheism. Harris is part of the so-called four Horseman, along with Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. This long essay is a critical description and assessment of Harris’ denial of God and its relationship to our cultural circumstances.
The foundation of atheism is the denial of God. This unbelief in a transcendent Being differs to many people who may subscribe to a religious belief system and its subsequent ways of living. At times, atheism can be presented and interpreted as antagonistic to religious belief systems, particularly as leading atheists focus much of their attention on depicting religious beliefs as irrational, archaic and obsolete. Sam Harris appraises religion and belief in God this manner. This essay will focus on exploring and critiquing Harris’ unique denial of God, his argument against religion and finally his influence in contemporary Western culture.
As is common in atheist rhetoric, Harris does not dismiss God and focus elsewhere, rather, Harris invests a considerable amount of time and academic thought into exploring and articulating the character of God before assuming the task of substantiating the absurdity of his existence. Utilising references to sacred religious texts, Harris describes God as a genocidal and torture-demanding monster, who is either impotent or evil in his role as sovereign over all. Specifically referencing the Bible, Harris depicts God as a being that gleefully sends unbelievers to burn for eternity, demands the genocidal slaughtering of non-Israelites, and requires the torture and death of heretics as occurred during the Holy Inquisition of the 12th century and the Jihadi attacks on infidels in the 21st century. Harris’ disdain for the Christian God is captured in his writing when he states, “We know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.” Based on his interpretation of God, Harris concludes that, “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal’ or they will unmake our world.” Harris’ concern is that if this violent and murderous God, along with the ancient religious texts that normalise his archaic demands, are not disowned by people of logic then the secular world we enjoy will be destroyed.
The Quran along with the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are considered by believers to be divinely inspired by God. Muslims deem the Quran to be the most perfect and miraculous book ever composed, believing it was spoken by Allah and penned by the Prophet Mohammad through direct revelation. The Quran is regarded by Muslims as sacred and its eloquently written wisdom unrivalled, rendering it beyond human questioning. Likewise, Orthodox Christianity holds that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, written by various authors under the supernatural inspiration the Holy Spirit. Sam Harris posits that if God were to author a book it would be imperative that it be of a higher calibre than that of the Quran or the Bible. He also disapproves of sacred texts due to their lack of internal consistency and incoherent style. Harris believes this calls into question an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent deity, who’s writing skills should be perfect. Harris’ argument against Quran may be justified. Composed in the seventh century the so-called perfect nature of the Quran is defended by weak Islamic apologetics. When the Quran’s claims are objectively evaluated, they fall short. Arguments such as its fulfilled prophecies, of which it holds none and its mathematical patterns which when studied turn out to be fudged data or only basic patterns. It’s claims to advanced scientific truths, a technique called Bucaillesim are all scientifically incorrect. In addition to this, the Quran is a closed book, meaning it is devoid of objective scholarship and its contents largely unknown by Muslims who rely solely on an Iman to interpret and communicate their holy scriptures.
Harris’ critique of the Bible as a means to discredit Christianity, is grossly oversimplified. The Bible is a book that has endured millennia of textual criticism from both believers and nonbelievers. Harris does not attempt to address this and avoids the enormous body of sound hermeneutical work undertaken possibly because it does not align with his presuppositions. Hermeneutics can be defined as “The science and the art of Biblical interpretation.” Hermeneutics is a science because it abides by principles that ensure objective and accurate analysis is undertaken, it is an art as it requires skill on behalf of the interpreter in applying these principles. Interpretation of the Bible, as understood by most Christians, is the reading of biblical passages through the accurate historical context and literary style. Fee and Stuart state that, “Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the tension that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.”
Harris’ misunderstanding of Bible interpretation is highlighted when discussing slavery. Harris states, “Consult the Bible, and you will discover the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.” Harris references Exodus 21:7-11 and Ephesians 6:5 as supporting evidence for this position. Reviewing the passage in Exodus utilising the basic contextual principle of Biblical interpretation, it can be seen that the enslaved daughter in this passage is a bond-servant who actually receives rights and protections unprecedented at that time by any other culture of the Ancient Near East. When understood in the correct historical framework, the Israelite community is employing revolutionary social practices. In Harris’ Ephesians reference, he fails to acknowledge the normality of slavery in the Greco-Roman society during this epoch in history. Harris consistently misconstrues the intent of the Bible, failing to capture its purpose as a progressive revealing of God through humankind over many centuries. The scourge of slavery has plagued every society for all of human history. The message of the Bible, whilst it may not directly denounce slavery in its contextual time and place, does move the heart of humankind towards abolition. While Harris uses the apparent silence of Jesus and the Apostle Paul on slavery as evidence for his position regarding a cruel and unjust God, it can be clearly seen that the message of Jesus as disseminated by Paul, was unarguably one of freedom as seen in Biblical passages like “Set the captives free,” and, “There is neither slave nor free.” Harris’ arguments against the authenticity of religious texts, specifically the Christian and Hebrews Bibles, are found to be lacking when adopting the appropriate tools and principles of examining ancient texts such as these. Rather, Harris skews the interpretation, especially that of the Bible, in order to accommodate his own subjective position of the divine being that the text was written to reveal.
The pursuit and discovery of truth is a universal quest embarked upon by humanity throughout history. Sam Harris is evidently a passionate pursuer of the truth. He presents as unafraid to articulate tough philosophical questions and challenge that which he believes obscures or distracts from the truth. In his quest for rational truth, Harris presents science as opposing to religion and faith. He describes their coexistence as an unavoidable conflict, stating that, “science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma is always at the expense of science.” The emphasis on ‘always’ applied by Harris is due to his definitive and largely overgeneralised position that faith is always an obstacle to what is true and is unable to contribute or cooperate in the discovery of truth. Science alone is supreme.
As detailed in his writings, Harris confidence and conviction rests in science and he overtly bemoans those individuals who have placed faith in a supernatural God and a sacred text. Harris describes faith as “nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reason fails.” This, however, is an inaccurate definition of faith. What Harris is defining holds similarity with what may be termed “blind faith,” belief devoid of evidence. Inversely, Harris’ assurance in science alone and his position regarding the faith religious individuals, is a statement of belief itself that extends beyond what can be ascertained by scientific discovery. Furthermore, while he reasons that faith in a supernatural God is blind, misguided and without evidence, this faith and this God that he is far from extinct despite the continual battering. Particularly the cosmological, kalam cosmological, moral, teleological and ontological arguments for God have been clearly articulated and are more reasonably probable than Harris’ denials.
Sam Harris fervently rejects a God that is compatible with science, preferring to believe that science and religion are opposing and irredeemable forces. This, however, lacks evidentiary support. For example, the fact that sixty percent of Nobel Laureates up until the year 2000 were Christians suggests that science and religion are in fact compatible and even complimentary, rather than conflicting. Albert Einstein famously stated, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Both continue valuably in understanding life and human reason. As John Lennox says, “Science and God mix very well. It is science and atheism that do not mix.”
Sam Harris claims there exists a complete lack of evidence to support the verification of a transcendent being. The product of believing in such a being produces religious dogma that is devoid of corroborating evidence, such as the virgin birth, the spirit entering the zygote at conception, and a God who both hears the prayers of all people and answers them according to his wisdom. Sarcastically, Harris describes that in the same way that people no longer believe in or pray to the Greek god Poseidon when sailing, belief in the Christian God should also discontinue. Here Harris makes a fundamental category error, suggesting that those who follow long standing religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam hold beliefs that are not dissimilar to those believing in characters of legend such as Santa Claus and mythology such as Poseidon. Whilst there exists no evidence for the existence of legendary or mythological beings, religious apologists have responded with a wide array of evidence for the existence of God drawn from scientific evidence in natural law to the moral evidence in the human psyche.
Throughout history science has been proved and disproved in ways that continue to align this field of study with the Bible. For instance, it was believed for many centuries that the earth was eternal, and that matter could neither be created or destroyed. The eighteenth-century law of conservation enshrined this theory as ‘settled science’ therefore disqualifying the need for a Creator. Scientific convergence in the twentieth century such as relative theory and thermodynamics, however, substantiated that the universe had a distinct beginning. This finding supports the creation story as poetically told in Genesis 1 and John 1 in the Bible. Harris’ argument against God is a belief consistent with his naturalistic worldview, however, while he is successful in critiquing others belief systems, he has been unable to convincingly account with scientific evidence his atheistic belief system that appears to be deeply flawed at the point of origins.
Consistent with the Naturalistic Worldview, Harris is a devout supporter of evolutionary theory. Harris boldly claims that, “Anything that denies we evolved from primates is utter delusion” and he confidently states that the Bible is unquestionably wrong regarding the creation of all things by God. While Harris promotes evolution to a sacred position that requires no questioning, it remains as theory, a hypothesis concerning the existence of all life. The argument concerning origins between the naturalistic and theistic worldviews has been long standing. Debate arises concerning the reality that living organisms stay true to their type, as Charles Darwin himself saw when breeding pigeons. Further evidence against the evolutionary perspective is that scientists have never bred a successfully mutating organism. DNA mutations are in fact often harmful or deadly and whilst changes in fur colour or limb size can occur, they have never proven to create new structures. Another example that undermines the theory of evolution is that living structures are often irreducibly complex in meaning. The evidence is weak in suggesting that these complex living structures could have evolved in small and gradual steps over a long period of time.
Harris states that “The core of science is intellectual honesty.” He does, however, promote evolution as a fact, which in itself fails to be appropriately honest. While evolution is a theory with many detractors, Harris fails to admit that reason has a far larger scope than science. Science and rationality are not synonymous and there exist many rational questions that cannot be answered by science alone, such as ‘why are we here?’, ‘what is the purpose of life’ and ‘how should we live?’ Science, whilst immense in value, does possess limitations. Harris holds a belief system and possess a worldview like all individuals. His faith and certainty rest in science, a worldview often referred to as Scientism. Scientism is the belief that science is the only way to truth. This belief, however, is not compatible with reality. For example, if science can explain all rational life then why have universities not shut down the faculties of arts, history, literature and music? Harris’ self-described ‘no-faith’ is in fact a religious belief system, in which one of the by-products is challenging the predominant theistic worldviews of the cultural context in the West.
As aforementioned, Harris’ approach to disqualifying God and religion is aggressive. His disdain for the Christian worldview is clearly evident;
“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 …”
Despite Harris’ contempt for religion, he appears to exhibit some regard and even praise for the Eastern religions. Harris states that, “When the great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of Western philosophical and theological traditions, the difference is unmistakeable.” This could be considered counterintuitive considering many of Harris’ arguments against religion of which much of Eastern philosophy is. Harris esteems the wisdom originating from the East, while possessing a negative bias towards Western Philosophy and religion. He fails, however, to address the wisdom conveyed in the teachings of Jesus such as in the sermon on the mount. It is widely accepted that this passage of wisdom underpins western thought and culture and such significant wisdom cannot merely be disregarded. We can directly track the West’s skill of invention, value of servant leadership, material prosperity, anti-corruption and concern for the poor back to this one sermon from over two thousand years ago. Harris’ reception toward the wisdom and spirituality of the East, especially Buddhism, appears inconsistent with his stanch intolerability of religion. It can be posited, however, that Buddhism provides Harris with concepts such as meditation, the illusion of self, and peaceful relations. Harris adopts these convenient concepts that allow him to articulate a metaphysical explanation for life and address the human quest of spirituality, while placing no religious demands on his scientific rationality. A heavy critic of liberal Christians, Jews and Muslims it appears that Harris is himself guilty of religious moderation in employing some of the tenants of Buddhism and discarding others.
In examination of spirituality and the supernatural, Harris states that “Our minds are all we have,”and argues that spirituality is possible without religion. This approach could be labelled as ‘rational spirituality.’ Harris argues that religions have hijacked spiritual experiences and seeks to explain these experiences scientifically whilst simultaneously discrediting religion and the supernatural. Theorising the relationship between science and spirituality appears to be of primary importance to Harris and he proposes that the connection between the two is human consciousness. He further suggests that by exploring the nature of consciousness through deliberate training such as meditation, humans can be spiritually satisfied and subsequently have no need for God or religion. Furthermore, Harris argues that if humans are able to be fully conscious in the moment through mindfulness, the deliberate practice of self-awareness, they would be able to acquire truth concerning themselves, disqualifying the need for religion or God. These conclusions, however, are inferenced from his own spiritual experiences rather than sound scientific inquiry. The scientific evidence Harris does utilise to support his theory regarding the consciousness connection is from neuroscientific split-brain research, which he claims demonstrates the implausibility of humans possessing a spirit and subsequently undermines spirituality in relation to God. This research, however, fails to robustly substantiate his theory, particularly when Harris himself admits that “consciousness is notoriously difficult to understand.”
Sam Harris’ career and the specific atheistic perspective he avidly promotes, rose into popularity following the catastrophic terror attacks in New York City on the ninth of November 2001. Following this tragedy, Harris, already a philosophy graduate from Stanford, published his first book, ‘End of Faith – Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’. This occurred at a time where many people were destabilized by the event, confused and seeking answers as to how and why such terror had occurred in an advanced western nation and Harris’ notion that faith and religion were the culprit may have been tempting to adopt. Harris was not alone in his quest for what he has promoted as rationality in opposition to religious ignorance. Collaborating with other high-profile atheists, specifically Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Harris has become known as a member of what is referred to as ‘the four horsemen’.
The aforementioned authors, the four horsemen, are considered leaders of the purported new atheist school of contemporary western philosophy. In 2007, these individuals held a filmed discussion that became a viral internet sensation, epitomizing the thirst for atheistic content in the twenty-first century. This was further evidenced in the composition of books that centered around atheism, the denial of God, and a re-enlightenment of the western mind, which became highly popular in the west. Stephen Fry captures the sense of a new movement in atheistic thought, led in part by Harris, stating that, “The four had between them broken new ground in the English-speaking world, opening up debate everywhere, empowering humanism and secularism for a new generation, and giving voice to the always lurking and now growing suspicion that the worst aspects of religion, from faith-healing fakery to murderous martyrdom, could both be separated from the essential nature of religion itself.”
Theological inquiry can be affirming of God’s existence and character, while also negating the claims against God’s authenticity. This renders many atheists as somewhat negative theologians. Many of the issues that followers of the ‘new atheism’ movement utilise to validate their position include human suffering, church corruption, religious extremism and the origins of the universe. These topics have been debated by philosophers and humankind in general for millennia and are familiar in their use to discredit religion and disqualify God. The arguments of Harris and other leading atheists in our present cultural moment may be considered new to a new generation but are reincarnations of earlier atheistic thought and philosophy merely applied to a different time period. For example, David Hume stated, “A wise man’s belief is based on evidence.” This is also what underpins Harris’ current philosophical position. Hence, it can be argued that the new atheist movement, while possessing some current momentum, is not new at all. Rather, it is the same old new atheism. What could be considered novel, however, is the extravaganza that follows these zealous non-believers. Habermas describes these individuals as atheistic evangelicals, secular fundamentalists, bombastic preachers, and the masters of hyperbole, portraying God as murderous, irrational and ‘not great’. Subsequently, religion and its subscribers are described as delusional, ignorant, fanatical and poisonous. In addition to this, many of the issues raised could be considered peripheral concerns laced with much enthusiastic and biased rhetoric. For example, an issue Harris discusses is Christians preoccupation with abortion and premarital sex, while overlooking more significant issues such as resolving famine. Harris’ issues with the behaviour of Christian people, however, fail to contribute in a meaningful way to disproving Christian truth claims. The more substantial arguments raised by Sam Harris and company, such as those concerning God’s existence, morality, evil, and inconsistences of the sacred texts, do requiring countering and discussion in our society.
While much of the current atheistic thought has pre-existed for some time, the new atheist movement and popularization of current philosophers such as Sam Harris has flourished in contemporary culture. Western culture continues to become increasingly secular and has shifted away from religious affiliation. This has resulted in the rise of the ‘nones’, those individuals who identify as non-religious and feel most aligned with atheism or agnosticism. This category of individuals consist of a younger demographic and represent a larger group in America than that of the Catholics and Protestants between 2007 and 2014. Similarly, in Australia between the 2011 and 2016 National censuses, no religion increased by seven percent leaving non-belief as the largest group in Australia, ahead of Catholics. The rise of Islamic sanctioned violence and terror not only in the Middle East but in many western nations may have contributed to this through creating a disgust for religion in general. Furthermore, Christianity has been publicly tarnished by child abuse scandals and bible literacy is at an all-time low. These factors amongst many others contribute to the current destabilisation of faith in God and religious alignment, resulting in a search for meaning outside or beyond traditional religious places. Harris’ popular rational atheism merged with an embracing of spirituality has proven to be an influential combination. In a cultural landscape of spiritual barrenness, Harris offers his converts a spiritual experience through conscious meditation and the transcendence of self, while allowing his followers to hold their staunch atheistic position.
Sam Harris’ negation of God is vast, it touches many elements of philosophy and theology and has become a weighting opinion in our contemporary western culture. The assessment of Harris’ denial of God has focussed on his self-proclaimed rational scientific approach to God and religion, including the sacred texts of religion and spirituality. Further to this Harris’ claims of spirituality without God or religion are remarkable but lack significant evidence. Harris’ denial of God echo similar long standing atheistic and theist questions concerning God however Harris and his counterparts have approached the argument with a sarcastic tone and bombastic preaching to win a new generation of atheist converts. The cultural ingredients leading to the prominence of Harris’ assertions and the new atheist movement are considered consequential. Despite the hyperbole Harris and the other horseman, God remains immovable and religious practice among most people remains treasured and meaningful.
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 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2007), 67.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 55.
 Matthew 25:41
 Deuteronomy 13:6, 8-15
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 4.
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith (The Free Press, 2004), 81.
 Harris, The End of Faith, 224.
 Harris, The End of Faith, 14.
 Nabeel Quershi, Seeking Allah, finding Jesus, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 228.
 Quershi, Seeking Allah, finding Jesus, 229.
 2 Peter 1:21
 Harris, The End of Faith, 17.
 Quershi, Seeking Allah, finding Jesus, 230.
 Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, The Quran and Science: The Holy Scriptures examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge, (New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2003), 218.
 Kevin J Conner and Ken Malmin, Interpreting the Scriptures, (Portland: Malmin Publishers, 1976), 1.
 Conner, Interpreting the Scriptures, 1.
 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its worth (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1993), 17.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 14.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 16.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 14-19.
 Luke 4:18
 Galatians 3:28
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 62-68.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 63.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 67.
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 Albert Einstein, “Science and Religion” Nature 146, (1940): 606.
 Lennox, Can science explain everything? 49.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 64.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 64.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 68.
 Lennox, Can science explain everything? 31.
 Charles Colson, How Now Shall we Live? (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 51.
 Colson, How Now Shall we Live? 52.
 Sam Harris, Waking Up, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2014), 62.
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 Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 83.
 Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 84.
 Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 89.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 66.
 Lennox, Can science explain everything? 27.
 Lennox, Can science explain everything? 26.
 Lennox, Can science explain everything? 25.
 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 74.
 Harris, End of Faith, 215.
 Matthew 5-7.
 Joshua McDowell and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 311.
 Harris, Waking Up, 2.
 Harris, Waking Up, 7.
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 Christopher Hitchens et al., The Four Horseman (New York: Random House, 2019), 1.
 Hitchens et al., The Four Horseman, 1.
 Hitchens et al., The Four Horseman, XIV.
 Denys Turner, “How to be an Atheist”, New Blackfriars 83 (2002): 318.
 David Hume, “Of Miracles”, An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748): 97-98.
 Gary R. Habermas, “The Plight of the New Atheism: A critique”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:4 (2008): 815.
 Habermas, “The Plight of the New Atheism: A critique”, 817-818.
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 Australian Bureau of Statistics: “2016 Census data reveals “no religion” is rising fast.” 27 June 2017. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/7E65A144540551D7CA258148000E2B85 (accessed November 18, 2019).