Atheism, Politics, Religion

My Complicated Feelings About Sam Harris


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Last week in my Sunday Curiosities series, I posted a fiery video in which Steve Shives explains why he thinks Sam Harris is a douchebag. Of all the interesting things I posted in that article, I was dismayed to see my item on Harris get the most attention. People on social media were aggrieved that I would post such an “unfair” portrayal of Harris.

Here is the shives video for full context:

Of all the mirror-maze online hellscapes I want to avoid, the self-titled Intellectual Dark Web, of which Harris is a member, is perhaps at the top of that list, in part because of their army of aggrieved defenders who become deeply displeased when anyone says anything negative about Harris. I find conversations about the Intellectual Dark Web ferociously difficult, and I’d much rather talk about Satan, cats, and gay sex.

But, as I thought about the responses to the Shives video I posted, I started to realize that it didn’t do justice to my long, complicated, and ambivalent relationship with Harris. Perhaps that is why I posted that video by Shives: it’s easier to choose a side when you’re such a muddle of complicated emotions. I still stand by just about everything in that Shives videos, but I thought it would be helpful (primarily for me) to articulate my long, complicated, dark journey with Harris. Think of this as a therapeutic vomit of stream-of-consciousness on the dreaded Horseperson.

I do think Sam Harris gets an unfair shake by some people on the left.

I’ve seem some incredibly uncharitable characterizations of Harris, and I think that’s wrong. I’ve seen him described as a rape apologist, and someone who has an irrational hatred of brown people. For all that is wrong with Harris, and don’t think either of those claims are true. I think that, when we criticize people and their ideas, we need to do so fairly. If we can’t do that, we should probably opt out of the discussion and vent our feelings elsewhere.

How do I say this delicately?

I find Harris a deeply unpleasant person. I find him arrogant, self absorbed, easily aggrieved, and strangely fragile. As T1J points out in the video below, there’s an amusing, though certainly not charming, irony to a man who writes articles called, “In Defense of Profiling,” and then becomes aghast when people push back. I think a lot of my negative feelings towards Harris come down to just how much I find him deeply unlikeable. Of all the people I aspire to be like when I grow up, Harris is not on that list.

By the way, be sure to watch the T1J video in full. It’s fair and illuminating, and tracks closely with my feelings on him.

And yet, I admire Harris.

No matter how unpleasant or wrong I occasionally think he is, I do find myself appreciating his intellectual prowess. I think he’s smart, and I like smart people. I think they’re hot. I’m turned on by 3 hour long conversations about artificial intelligence. Does this mean I want to fuck Sam Harris? Jesus Elizabeth Christ I hope not. Maybe I have some gay daddy issues I need to work through.

But this leads me to the things I like about Harris.

I do think some of his talking points are forces for good in the world: his advocating for meditation, his regular takedowns of Trump, his commitment to having long, sincere, and interesting conversation on a public platform. When I started my own podcast I modeled it, in part, after the Waking Up podcast (now the Making Sense podcast.)

Harris helped me enormously in becoming a nontheist.

I can’t miss his greatest contribution to my life: he helped me break from a supernaturalist view of the world. I found his arguments against God compelling, and they pushed me to reconsider my understanding of the world. Now, I’m a happier and more fulfilled person because I’ve let go of the supernatural, and I do have Sam Harris to thank for that.

That said, I think I was aided far more by other skeptics: Matt Dillahunty, Carrie Poppy, The Satanic Temple, and other kinder and more nuanced thinkers. But if it weren’t for Harris pushing me off the cliff, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

I’m annoyed that Harris doesn’t seem to understand the significance of religious tradition.

There is one point that Shives brings up in his video that I think is worthy of special attention. Starting at 9:40, Shives talks about how Harris uses the most radical factions of Islam to frame the whole, as if the faith is by its nature violent. His words here are so good and so thoughtful, I have to quote them in full:

Here’s the problem: many muslims living in majority muslim countries and also here in the west, do not believe their faith contains the doctrine Harris declares to be central to Islam. Harris is taking his reading of the Quran as the only legitimate reading. He interprets it as calling on the faithful to use violence to defend the faith, and he assumes that those who argue otherwise, including sincere, practicing Muslims, are being either dishonest or willfully ignorant about what their religion says. I think that’s not only arrogant on Harris’s part — why should his reading of the Quran be the authentic one, especially when it seems to align so closely with that of extremists — it’s also unfair to the millions of Muslims who don’t find a call to violence in their faith. And it seems to me it also demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how religion works, which I would think someone like Sam Harris would want to get right, since criticizing religion is kinda what he’s famous for. Religions are social constructs. They don’t exist solely in the pages of their holy books. they exist through the beliefs and practices of religious people. When Sam Harris says using violence to defend one’s faith is a central doctrine of Islam, that is true for some muslims. But it’s also not true for some Muslims. And here’s the key point as I see it: neither of those groups is right or wrong. There’s no such thing as a more authentic form of a religion, because it’s all open to interpretation.

Harris seems to believe that holy texts provide the bulwark of a religion. While this makes an intuitive sense, especially to those more acquainted with fundamentalism, I think it is objectively wrong. Tradition, in my view, is what is truly driving religion, and holy texts tend to simply be a prototype, or early manifestation, of tradition. That prototype is then subject to the ongoing, evolving stream and lens of tradition. It’s tempting to look at religion as a sort of computer program (a holy book) which infects the believer. But that’s not the case at all: it’s the tradition which interprets the holy book.

I regret calling him racist.

But only because I think words like “racism,” “homophobia,” and “islamaphobia” are shutdown words. Nothing triggers the conservative’s fragile heart quite like hearing the word, “racist,” thus shutting down conversation, and I value conversation above all else. In this way, the words are best used among like-minded activists, but not when discussing the dynamics of identity with those who do not share our leftist, indentitarian, post-modern marxist view of the world. In situations like that, it’s best to use descriptions: “contempt for gay people,” “contempt for trans people.” I think the queen of this strategy is ContraPoints, as she explains in this interview with David Packman:

Now that I’ve brought it up, let’s talk about racism.

I don’t know if Sam Harris is a racist. I don’t know his innermost thoughts. However, I do think he is an occasional accessory to racism, even while he denounces it. Goodness, this is going to require quite a bit more vomit.

In 2017, Harris had Charles Murray on his show. For those of you not aware of Murray, he is the author of the 90’s book The Bell Curve. In one chapter of the Bell Curve, Murray posits that black people are genetically predisposed to have lower IQ than white people. Does this sound horribly racist to you? Well, you’d be wrong, according to Harris, who called the episode “Forbidden Knowledge.” At the beginning of the show, he stated the following:

People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups. 

Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims. About IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations. 

Again, this is what a dispassionate look at [what] decades of research suggest. Unfortunately, the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate, good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather, it was the product of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray’s career and has yet to release him.

As T1J points out in the video above, it is entirely possible that Harris had Murray on his show not to bolster his own racist instincts, but to give validation to his own aggrieved ego against “PC culture.” Regardless, this is where shit gets dark in my relationships with Harris. But let me back up.

An autobiographical note.

I’ve always been something of an edgelord, drawn to the controversial, forbidden, and grotesque. As such, it is probably no wonder that I experienced the powerful allure of the alt-right in 2016. As a white, 20-something, middle-class male, I now understand that the alt-right tugged on certain unexamined, unconscious assumptions I held about the world. I didn’t know I’d always assumed feminists were killjoy, angry women on bicycles until the alt-right reinforced that stereotype. I didn’t know I had racial anxieties until the alt-right pandered to them. I didn’t know I was concerned about my freedom of speech (translation: the ability to say whatever the fuck I want without societal consequence) until the alt-right spoke to that concern within me.

And what introduced me to that world? Sam Harris. This is why I made the much-contested claim in that Curiosities post that Sam Harris was my gateway drug to the alt-right.

How?

I saw Harris hang out and be generally chummy with people who’s ideas I now believe are objectively reprehensible: Stefan Molyneux, Douglas Murray, Charles Murray, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro. He didn’t seem to make any effort to correct them or push back. I don’t mind being friends with people who fundamentally disagree, but Harris seemed to not just be friends, but sympathize with their views. He seemed like he was one of them.

Next think I knew, I was watching Dave Rubin talk about how the left is poison. I was listening to “race-realists” talk about how it is clear-as-day science that non-whites are less intelligent than whites. I was listening to Jordan Peterson explain why it is morally wrong to use trans people’s preferred pronouns. I was listening to “red pill” advocates dispense their sexist tropes. I listened to Sargon, and (to my shame) took his concerns about free speech seriously.

No, Sam Harris didn’t lead me down this road himself. But he legitimized some of these ideas by being such non-confrontational buddies with people like Rubin, Shapiro, Murray, and Molyneux. If he didn’t have a problem with Charles Murray’s Bell Curve theories, then I should reconsider my views on race, Shouldn’t I? And because my role model didn’t send up any flairs of warning, I started listening to his guests.

All of this could be blamed on my own naïveté. All of this could be chocked up to my own lack of skepticism. It isn’t Sam’s fault that I’m an occasional sheep.

But I’d argue that it is the responsibility of any public figure to do their best to make sure their ideas are represented clearly, and it is Sam Harris’ responsibility to differentiate between his ideas and those of his guests. Because, like it or not, people are often uncritical, enamored of celebrity, prowess, and conversational skill. I certainly was.

All that said, I started to harbor terrifying racist feelings.

I started to dread that it was all true: what if it was, as Harris suggested, uncontroversial, plain-as-day truth that intelligence varies among race? Did that mean my southern prejudices against people of color – my gnawing suspicion that they were less capable than me – were true? I was too frightened to verbalize any of these thoughts, because I knew my predominately left-leaning audience and friends would crucify me. I knew that I was looking down a scary, race-realist, white nationalist slide. I cultivated these thoughts in silence, and I believed them, even while I was absolutely disgusted and ashamed of myself for having them.

This is what I’m trying to say: no matter the positive aspects of Sam Harris, he was still my personal guide into a very dark, racist place. It would be easy to say that I was taking him out of context, misunderstanding him, or that I’m too lowly an intellectual to truly apprehend the nuances of his genius.

But none of that matters for me: I’m a southern, white 20-something guy who’s absorbed a lifetime of subtle bigotry. It was too easy for me to take Harris’s conversations and nose-dive into an objectively evil place. If there is one thing I wish Harris had more respect for, it’s the fragility of the human mind, and how easy it is for a public intellectual’s words to influence fans in horrific ways. I wish he could have understood more fully how his un-selfcritical conversations about race would give validation to racist biases within my white, male, southern heart. I’m not going to blame Harris for my own actions and thoughts, but I have decided to no longer listen to him — he is too associated, personally, with the darkness of race realism. That may not be an objective fact about Harris — I won’t try to divine what goes on in his magisterial skull — but it is true for me.

I thank God for the many leftist creators who pulled me back, slowly, from the race-realism trap, and spoke to my dudebro iconoclasm: ContraPoints, The Liturgists, Science Mike, Michael Brooks, Chapo Trap House, Hbomberguy. The list now goes on and on. I’m enormously grateful to the explosion of leftist creators who push back, hilariously and with skill, against the ideas of the right.

In conclusion

Sam Harris remains a complicated figure to me – someone I admire and resent. I think this speaks to the complicated relationship we forge with creators: is it wrong that I still relish memories of reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, even though I know he’s a horrifying homophobe? Can I be horrified and appreciative simultaneously? Can I love Michael Jackson’s music while knowing what he did to boys? Can I still admire Tesla, even though I know he was an antisemite?

I’ve decided to let myself stay in that unpleasant place, embracing the whole complex range of emotions. Sam Harris took me to a dark, terrifying place which could have derailed my whole life. At the same time, Harris helped me think more critically, and helped release me from the shackles of unhealthy religion. Which is more true? I can’t even begin to sort through it.

Both Sam Harris and I are, after all, human beings, and human beings are unbearably complicated. I’m reminded of the wise words of Solzhenitsyn:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Now can we please get back to talking about Satan and gay sex?

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