Sam Harris Complains He is Being Defamed

Someone used one of Sam Harris’s quotes and turned it into an internet meme:

Harris complains:

Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

The irony. Atheists commonly use this tactic against religious people – take quotes from religious leaders or religious books out of context and makes memes to portray religion in a very bad light. When this happens, atheists respond with laughter and applause. Of course, when the very same tactic is used against atheists, suddenly it becomes bad.

But the hypocrisy runs deeper.

No matter how completely opposed I may have been to another person’s views, I have not behaved like that. I have never knowingly distorted the positions I criticize, whether they are the doctrines of a religion or the personal beliefs of Francis Collins, Eben Alexander, Deepak Chopra, Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, or any other writer or public figure with whom I’ve collided. The crucial boundary between hard-hitting criticism and defamation is knowing that you are misrepresenting your target.

A few years ago, the same Sam Harris used fear-mongering to help orchestrate a smear campaign against Francis Collins. Furthermore, as Tom Gilson noted, Harris willfully misrepresented a portion from Francis Collins book:

It should be obvious that was not what Collins claimed the waterfall did for him. It was just a moment that contributed to his developing view of God, along with many other factors. Harris misrepresented him badly, arguing in obvious bad faith. He is calling Collins irrational, but his proof thereof is seriously lacking.

Surprise. Harris doesn’t like the taste of his own medicine.

As for my opinion about Harris being a “genocidal fascist maniac?” I don’t agree.

He doesn’t have the power.

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19 Responses to Sam Harris Complains He is Being Defamed

  1. GM says:

    What’s with putting scholar in quotations, Sam? There’s usually room for a discussion over someone’s qualifications to discuss a certain topic without calling into question their actual status as an academician, as Aslan pretty clearly is. Unless, of course, you’re trying to defame a person by being passive aggressive.

  2. Ilíon says:

    As for my opinion about Harris being a “genocidal fascist maniac?” I don’t agree.
    He doesn’t have the power.

    Whether or not Harris is a “genocidal fascist maniac” for holding/expressing that view doesn’t address the queston of whether the view held/expressed is correct.

  3. Kevin says:

    Do you believe it is correct?

  4. Luis says:

    At best this is tu quoque, but it doesn’t even go that far because we aren’t told how Harris misrepresented Collins. You quoted a blogger who said Harris did so, but the explanation is missing at both that blog and here.

    Time article about Collins says,

    Finally, one morning in 1978, while hiking in the Pacific Cascades, he came upon a massive, frozen, three-stream waterfall. To him it recalled the Trinity. He writes, “I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

    The full quote from Collins’ book is,

    [C. S.] Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

    Harris’ response to that passage,

    It is simply astounding that this passage was written by a scientist with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason. While Collins argues for the rational basis of his faith, passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons. And if we thought Collins’ reasoning could grow no more labile, he has since divulged that the waterfall was frozen into three streams, which put him in mind of the Holy Trinity.

    It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything. But this truth was not obvious to Collins as he “knelt in the dewy grass,” and it is not obvious to him now.

    Where is the misrepresentation? Trenchant, yes. Pointed, yes. Even barbarous, if you like. But not misrepresenting.

  5. Ilíon says:

    Oh, come on: you know that *you* think the opinion is correct/true. And you think you’re gonna play tu quoque?

  6. Dhay says:

    Luis > At best this is tu quoque, but it doesn’t even go that far because we aren’t told how Harris misrepresented Collins.

    Michael Shermer, in his “The Believing Brain”, Chapter 2, reports Collins’ “journey from atheist to theist, which at first was a halting intellectual process filled with the internal debates scientists typically have with themselves when working on new ideas.”

    “The internal debates scientists typically have with themselves when working on new ideas” are rational, evidential and scientific. Shermer here confirms that Collins’ “waterfall” conversion experience was the final intuitive working-out of a long process of very rational enquiry, and that Harris’ “passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons” grossly misrepresents Collins’ primarily intellectual journey.

    Let’s paraphrase Jerry Coyne’s famous conversion experience in Harris’ terms: “It should be obvious that if shaking and sweating can disconfirm the specific tenets of (Judaism and) Christianity, anything can confirm anything. But this truth was not obvious to Coyne as he “listened to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album” and it is not obvious to him now.” Yes, this seems to fit well.

  7. Peter says:

    Since Mr. Harris doesn’t like being misrepresented, he ought to issue a clarification.

    He could categorically deny ever making the statement, or he could retract it.

    Alternatively, he could clarify whether he thinks this possibly-ethical killing of persons for their dangerous beliefs ought to be carried out by a department of thoughtcrime, with some sort of due process and oversight, or whether he thinks there is a space for lone wolves to do what needs to be done outside the constraints of the law.

  8. Luis says:

    If the suggestion is that Harris is claiming the frozen waterfall is the only reason for Collins’ conversion, that is simply not true; see the full text. For instance Harris mentions the role C. S. Lewis played in Collins’ conversion, as indicated in the quote I gave.

    Another option is to say that the frozen waterfall had no role in his conversion, but that is contradicted by Collins’ own words.

    What is being criticized is the fact that a frozen waterfall played any role, large or small, in his religious conversion. It is an apt criticism, and I don’t see any misrepresentation.

  9. Michael says:

    Harris writes: While Collins argues for the rational basis of his faith, passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons.

    Here is the quote from Collins with “his word”:

    [C. S.] Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account.

    As we can see, the decision to become a theist occurred one year prior to his religious experience.

    Harris misrepresents Collins. Deal with it.

    Luis: It is an apt criticism, and I don’t see any misrepresentation.

    It’s a confused criticism, and I see the misrepresentation (which was part of the overall context of a smear campaign).

    Now, as for Harris’s radical, extreme statement about killing people because of their beliefs, I see no misrepresentation of Harris.

  10. Luis says:

    Harris quoted that very paragraph. The one that starts, “[C. S.] Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God…” Immediately before that, Harris gave the context of Lewis’ influence, again in Collins’ own words. Please see the full text. Harris did not omit the “full year” context or the influence of Lewis.

  11. Michael says:

    That Harris quoted that very paragraph means he a) has serious reading comprehension problems or b) is dishonest. Harris accused Collins of deciding “to believe in God for emotional reasons.” As evidence to back up this claim, Harris cites Collins’ religious experience. But Collins’ own words make it clear he decided to “believe in some sort of God” a year before the experience.

    Harris misrepresented Collins.

  12. Luis says:

    The paragraph ends, “As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.” The frozen waterfall was a turning point. He believed in “some sort of God” (his words) beforehand, but it was after the moment with the frozen waterfall that he “surrendered to Jesus Christ”. That’s what Harris is addressing when he says, “It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything.”

    Collins repeated the frozen waterfall story to Time Magazine, with embellishments, so it’s obviously important to him. This is his story of his conversion to Christ. Let’s not take it away from him or pretend that he didn’t mean it.

  13. TFBW says:

    @Luis:

    What is being criticized is the fact that a frozen waterfall played any role, large or small, in his religious conversion.

    What, exactly, is the objection to an aesthetic experience providing a tipping-point nudge in a decision to make a commitment?
    @Sam Harris:

    It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything.

    This is the bit where you misrepresent Collins, Sam (Luis take note). Collins does not claim that a frozen waterfall confirms the specific tenets of Christianity. That would be silly. You’re being obtusely uncharitable in your interpretation of him for the self-serving purpose of making him appear irrational, and I’m not buying it.

    In contrast, Aslan and Greenwald aren’t interpreting your statement uncharitably — they’re merely observing that it’s the sort of statement usually attributable to genocidal fascist maniacs, not rational thinkers.

    Clearly you can’t take nearly as well as you give.

  14. Michael says:

    Luis,
    Harris did not say Collins “converted to Christianity for emotional reasons.” Harris said Collins decided to believe in God for emotional reasons –
    “he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons.”

    Harris misrepresented Collins.

    You, trying to defend one of your Leaders, “don’t see it.” I agree that you don’t see it. But so what? Gnu atheists never admit it when they are wrong.

  15. Tania Montgomery says:

    Nice to see how whiny and effete.Sam Harris.is after he’s been exposed for the genocidal racist fraud he is. Complains he “wasn’t ready” for Affleck’s challenges. That that mean Ben Affleck.was “gunning for.me” (boohoo!), one conniption fit after another.

  16. Luis says:

    In his book Collins is talking about C.S. Lewis’ “lunatic, liar, lord” scenario and quotes the following passage from Lewis,

    I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says He is a poached egg–or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

    Collins then says, “Lewis was right. I had to make a choice.” So Collins had believed in God, but the belief not yet blossomed into a conscious commitment to Christ. It was a year later that he “surrendered to Jesus Christ”.

    Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

    Beforehand: “some sort of God”. After the waterfall: “surrendered to Jesus Christ”. Note Harris provides proper context by including both of the above paragraphs: the first one from Lewis, and the second one from Collins.

    Now I don’t know why people are buying into Harris’ framing. What is wrong with a religious experience being irrational or emotional or both? It is what it is. Collins tells us an emotional story of his conversion that involves a three-streamed frozen waterfall that brought to mind the Trinity. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se.

    But Harris sees something wrong with it. So what? There’s no sense trying to rebut Harris by pretending that the waterfall story didn’t really mean anything, or whatever. That is implicitly accepting Harris’ framing, and it’s a slight to Collins. The waterfall story is important to Collins; let’s take him at his word. He had a religious experience. Don’t try to cheapen it by suggesting that he didn’t really mean what he wrote in his book or what he said to Time Magazine.

  17. Dhay says:

    The story continues: Sam Harris’ third blog complaining of defamation, in two weeks, has been updated from a mere video of “The Young Turks Interview” to a video followed by a full blog (mostly) complaining about how “journalists” – the snide scare quotes are Harris’s – have treated him unfairly by “distorting his views in an effort to destroy his credibility.”

    The “journalists” include Glenn Greenwald: “Feeling that these attacks had gone on long enough, I [Harris] decided to call John Cook, the editor in chief at the Intercept”; that is, Harris decided to try to sabotage Greenwald by appealing over his head to his boss, evidently not first looking up the Intercept’s editorial policy, which clearly states, “The editorial independence of our journalists will be guaranteed. They will be encouraged to pursue their passions, cultivate a unique voice, and publish stories without regard to whom they might anger or alienate.” Harris quotes “a snippet” of their conversation:
    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-young-turks-interview

    Me: My criticism of Islam is not racist.
    Cook: It is racist.
    Me: John, Islam is not a race. You can’t convert to a race. And my criticism of Islam applies to white converts just as much as it does to Arabs or anyone else born in a Muslim country. In fact, it applies to converts more because they weren’t brainwashed into the faith from birth.
    Cook: So all Arabs are brainwashed?
    Me: What?
    Cook: You just said “Arabs are brainwashed.” That’s racist.

    Do read the whole; it doesn’t get better. Did anybody spot that Harris here throws in the word, “brainwashed”, with utter unthinking unawareness, and apparently hasn’t a clue why anybody should pick him up on it.

    (By the way, Sam, the Buddhist term for the process and result is not “brainwashing”, but “conditioning”; you did know that, didn’t you; so why did you choose the offensive and inflammatory, “brainwashing”: the Buddhist teachings you espouse say that conditioning affects us all, and that you and I, Sam, are both of us as much conditioned into our cultures and beliefs as Arabs and Muslims are conditioned into theirs; to claim explicitly or implicitly that you and I are “conditioned”, but that Arabs and Muslims are “brainwashed”, is to be – not seem, be – racist.)

    The conversation continued like this for 40 minutes…

    I’m glad he spared me the whole transcript. Harris means that as a condemnation of Cook, but it condemns Harris, who seems to have phoned Cook to harangue him into reversing his publication’s editorial policy, and on the above evidence, delivered a 40 minute polemical rant which Cook gave “politically-correct” (read, unacceptable to Harris) responses to. In the end, Harris lost his rag and rudely and abruptly (“I actually hung up on the man. (I haven’t done that since high school.)”) hung up on Cook.

    Greenwald has repeatedly described me as a dangerous bigot in print and on social media…

    And do you know what, Sam, going by the evidence of your blog, I think Greenwald is correct in describing you as a bigot.

  18. TFBW says:

    For a guy who believes in the non-reality of the self, he’s awfully touchy about his image.

  19. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > : …In fact, it applies to converts more because they weren’t brainwashed into the faith from birth.

    “Brainwashed”, he says, with utter unthinking unawareness, and apparently hasn’t a clue why anybody should pick him up on it.

    We’ve recently seen similar claims and behaviour from another Buddhist, from Susan Blackmore, who reports on the RDF website that, “A hundred walked out of my lecture”.

    I was invited to give a lecture on memes by the “Oxford Royale Academy”, an institution that has nothing to do with the University of Oxford but hosts groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes and, I guess, some kind of simulation of an ‘Oxford experience’. I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully.

    https://richarddawkins.net/2014/08/a-hundred-walked-out-of-my-lecture/

    She certainly did; she is a “vociferous atheist” (and Buddhist, and religion-hater, like Harris), and evidently set out to offend as many religious people as she could, her nod to fairness being that she “made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.” She went as far as to show one of the famous Danish cartoons, which is – whether or not it should be is a separate issue – as in-your-face offensive to most Muslims as you can get. “By the time I moved on to showing Internet memes and viral videos more than half the audience was gone,” sufficiently severely affronted that they walked out; on their way out, she even heckled some.

    I think we can assume that some of those who did remain were also affronted, but had either an over-riding academic interest in the subject, or were too polite to walk out. Blackmore does know she set up a very hostile atmosphere, because she reports that afterwards there were “some brave believers who had dared remain.”

    Yet she considers herself the blameless victim: ”I felt shaken and exhausted and hoped for support [from the chairman]. After all, he must have known when I was invited that I was a vociferous atheist, and since I was invited to talk about memes he must have expected me to mention religions. But his face was like thunder.” No, Susan, that sort of gross crassness is unbelievable, hence never to be expected.

    Then “I staggered up the High Street confused and upset…” and evidently thinking of herself as innocent and offended-against. “Should I have said that the Koran, like the Old Testament, is a foul book full of hatred and violence; that they hold the beliefs they do only because they were infected with this horrible religion when they were too young to object? That they could escape … ?”

    And there you have it starkly: for all that she dresses it up in (the arguably pseudo-scientific) terms of “memes” and “memeplexes”, Susan Blackmore and Sam Harris share that same offensive, bigoted vocabulary of “brainwashed”. Neither of them sees the slightest problem with using it; both think those who react to “brainwashed” by objecting are not offended-against but offensive.

    Susan Blackmore and Sam Harris also share Buddhism – Harris’ denial that he is a Buddhist is laughable, and brings to mind the idea that although a sign might say, “Eagle”, if it waddles like a duck, swims like a duck … it’s a duck; and he himself documents his long involvement with Buddhism, including his current Dzogchen phase. Likewise, Blackmore’s website details her experiences during Zen and Vajrayana meditation retreats – including compassion training.

    Both of them will have received compassion training, which should have developed their ability to show empathy and loving-kindness to all; in the light of, “brainwashing”, I have to question whether they have in fact learned and practice those virtues.

    They seem both of them avid for spiritual teachers and spiritual experiences, but lacking in what might be called spiritual intelligence, that which would bring and integrate the insights from that experience into everyday life.

    Very lacking.

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