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Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Jason Lears’s contradictions

Jason Lears creates a portrait of Sam Harris, and the “New Atheists” in general, as individuals who cherry-pick religious writings in order to reveal contradictions in support of their narrow ideological agenda. These atheists, Lears would have us know, refuse to acknowledge the larger truths that might undermine their arguments and ultimately end up creating no more than a caricature of their perceived enemies.

And how does Lears go about exposing this?

By cherry-picking Harris’ writings in order to find contradictions that support Lears’s own argument and ignoring the larger points of Harris’s writings in order to create a caricature of his perceived enemy.

This is perhaps the most unenlightening book review that I have ever read. It reveals little but the reviewer’s own bitterness.

As I read this review I heard the echoes of a previous review concerning William James that briefly veered off topic to criticize Harris, Dawkins, etc. It turns out that it was also by Lears.

This guy sure has an ax to grind. I wish he would be more forthcoming about what he is trying to defend.

B. Kase

New York

May 11 2011 - 12:57am

Intellectually Dishonest

Intellectually dishonest

What tripe… Where to begin? First off, I just wanna say that I don’t give two shits about Harris or his books, and I’m not here to agree with everything or anything he has to say, especially about Islam, but Lears’ diatribe has about as much intellectual honesty as my left nut. Just ask my right nut, who’s a lying bastard.

First off, using the old eugenics line to sum up the history of positive progress via science is something Ben Stein or Glenn beck would do (would do and have done). And when they use that it’s to promote young earth creationism. For Lears to pull out the Khan Noonien Singh card to represent what science has given us is to pull out the Justin Bieber card to represent music.

Lears’ use of Christopher Hitchens support for the war in Iraq is incredibly selective, and the way this is written instantly followed by his list of other atheists infers that Dennet, Dawkins and Harris supported the invasion of Iraq. Completely dishonest—not to mention, wasn’t this supposed to be about Harris?

Lears goes on to suggest that the backlash to 9/11 is practically the sole cause for the uptick in the public presence of atheists in the last decade. Dead wrong, the recent atheist surge in culture has been a result of two things. One, a counterbalance to religion’s invasion of science (creationism in school, the Dover trials, bans on stem cell research, denying climate change etc.). Much as MSNBC is a counterbalance to Fox News, people with facts have to even the scale when misinformation becomes popular. Second, the expansion of the Internet, especially places like youtube where many professors and scientists spend a great deal of their unpaid time countering creationist claims.

Lears goes on to selectively quote Harris,

“Neuroscience, he insists, is on the verge of revealing the keys to human well-being” then the very next sentence is, “To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science.”

Wow, he went from from science is revealing things we don’t yet know, to absolute truth. Shameless. Then he says,

“Harris treats the recognition of legitimate moral differences as a sign of moral incompetence, and it is this sort of posturing that has cemented the New Atheists’ reputation for bold iconoclasm.”

Again, wow. First off, he sticks the Harris flag, yet again, as a representation of all atheists, but more importantly he draws the notion that the progress of some cultures contrasted with others is almost by definition a display of intolerance. Two pages later he talks about Christine Walley’s work with victims of genital mutilation and her work with people there to end such cultural practices as a noble act. Double standard much? Sure it’s easier to ride your high horse when it’s another country, but what about here? What about those 12- to 14-year-old “wives” that were removed en masse in Utah from their single Mormon “husband” by the feds and social services? Should the magic of the words “culture” or “religion” have kept them there? If your response was, “Well, where do you draw the line?” then that is the beginning of a real debate, but what Lears does here is far too simple, and purposefully self-serving. I know many people are not fans of Bill Maher and I certainly don’t agree with everything he says, but one quote of his has always stuck with me, “Don’t be so tolerant that you tolerate intolerance”.

The way he hold’s Harris’ views on torture up on pedestal gives the not-so-subtle impression that he’s rebuking some presupposed tenant of atheism. Had I read this with no knowledge of Dawkins or any like-minded people I would by default be under the assumption that torture was accepted by atheists in general, which is a ridiculous notion.

Lears then goes off on the “verbal overshadowing effect” concluding,

“…research had been run aground by the baffling “decline effect” that scientists have struggled with for decades, a result (or nonresult) that suggests that there may be disturbing limitations to the scientific method, at least in the statistically based behavioral sciences.”

Jeez, where to begin? Comparing statistical research to the scientific fucking method of using a control and variable to reliably prove if a hypothesis is demonstrably true and repeatable. Somebody skipped fifth grade lab.

It gets particularly annoying when Lears defines pragmatism as though it were Scientology. I’d consider myself a pragmatist but would agree with little if anything concerning his definition of what a pragmatist would think or do, probably because no one can. It’s not a system, for fuck’s sake. It’s not a dogma with set rules, it’s using your own judgment for what you believe to be the most likely realistic outcome regardless of your most fervent ideals; there’s no way anyone could arbitrarily assert the future actions of a so called pragmatist. Unless of course you were a pompous ass, like my right nut, and Lears.

Then boy genius tries to quote Harris again,

“…he points out that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which records feelings of reward and “self-relevance,” also registers the difference between belief and disbelief. When research subjects are presented with a moral dilemma—to save five people by killing one—the prospect of direct personal involvement more strongly activates brain regions associated with emotion. As Harris observes, “pushing a person to his death is guaranteed to traumatize us in a way that throwing a switch will not.” We do not need neuroscience to confirm the comparative ease of killing at a distance: Bauman’s work on the Holocaust, along with many other studies, demonstrated this decades ago.”

Un-fucking-believable. Merely one page prior, Lears warns how the scientific method can be faulty when it comes to observational statistics, as opposed the harder-core obviously demonstrable sciences, then in the next breath casts aside directly readable results from neuroscans for sixty-year-old observations in a comparatively uncontrolled environment. The level of hypocrisy here is brain-melting.


The final rant about what will science lead to if we use our newer techniques in lie detectors and Fifth Amendment implications etc. is right out of an episode of Glenn Beck… Just because we invented guns doesn’t mean kids stealing candy will die by firing squad anymore than legalizing marijuana will allow surgeons to operate stoned. If he’s that worried about future advances for moral reasons, then maybe he should give up some old ones like planes and smallpox vacines. Oh yeah, and writing on a scary computer! Muhahahaha!

In his final two paragraphs he rants about how folly Harris is to think advances in science translate to genuine progress in the developed world. For that I have a big example I would like to shove up his ass. The Arab Spring. You could easily say that no one thing allowed the ongoing spring to happen and you would be right, but frankly one matter tipped the scale so much that it’s pretty much the ace in the hole, and that’s transparency. By transparency I mean cheap cell phones that average people can afford that shoots video they can upload to youtube and facebook without owning a computer. Cheap cell phones that allow people to send locations and information to congregate on mass in ways that they previously could not.

Lears chides while quoting Harris,

“Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on?”

One with awesome cheap cell phones thanks to science, motherfucker!

P.S. Since his lopsided list of atheists influencing culture consisted of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennet, here’s my list.

Carl Sagen
George Carlin
Pat Tillman
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Gene Roddenberry
Susan B. Anthony
Mark Twain
Warren Buffett
Bill Gates
Christopher Reeve
Seth McFarlane
Bruce Lee
James Randi
Jon Stewart
Louis CK
& 95 percent of science-based Nobel laureates who were clearly working on eugenics the whole time ;-)

Ed Peduzzi

New York City

May 10 2011 - 11:44pm

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Scientific = godless = evil?

After struggling through this alleged review of Sam Harris's excellent The Moral Landscape, I was left with three thoughts: I wondered what version of American history Lears is teaching at Rutgers; I doubted that Lears had even read Harris's book; and I fervently hoped that my subscription dollars did not in any way support publication of such trite tripe as this mendacious and simple-minded article. I can't wait for the acerbic retort from the pen of Doctor Harris.

Lears regurgitates the specious allegations that atheism and science were at the root of all evil in the bloody twentieth century. Can we combine those three words into one, since Lears clearly and disingenuously equates rational non-theism, evidence-based science and evil?

Surely, in his study of history, Lears has crossed the bloody trail of religionists, and of tyrants co-opting religion and mass credulity, to pursue their sociopathic agendas. If not, then I offer my condolences for the students under his tutelage.

His unfortunate article was a resounding echo of Christianity calling for the defense of their ill-acquired rice bowl, which scientific discovery and secular humanism is clearly threatening to upend.

Ronald Palmatier

Seattle, WA

May 4 2011 - 6:00pm

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Climbing the mountain

It has been a while since I’ve read a full-throated defense of moral relativism, and frankly, it is about time. It’s a pity. however. that Lears chooses to aim his barbs at Harris, who otherwise would probably be an ally. Is there a difference between the man who claims to know the only way to the top of the mountain, and the man who claims only that the top of the mountain exists? Lears seems to believe that if, like Harris, you claim that absolute moral truth exists, then you must also stipulate you know that way to it. When I read Harris, all I think he is saying is that we should start figuring out the way up that mountain together, and that science is, unlike other methods, and especially unlike religion, the surest way to figure out the way.

Keith Murphy

Toronto, Ontario, CANADA

May 4 2011 - 4:06pm

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Great article!

Thanks for taking the trouble to demolish this junior high school thinker. Other comments reveal that there’s still a lot of kneejerk leftist atheist materialism around.

M. Shulgasser

Callicoon, NY

May 3 2011 - 6:17pm

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Don't strain yourself

David Jaffe writes that he doesn't know where to start criticizing this review, and then he does exactly that and nothing else, giving no examples to back up what seems to be no more than his opinion. That was rather easy, wasn't it, Mr. Jaffe?

Anwar Husain

New York, NY

May 3 2011 - 12:44pm

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Name that tune

The article starts: “During the presidential campaign of 1964, a bit of doggerel surfaced among liberal wits,” then quotes “We’re the bright young men,/ who wanna go back to 1910,/ We’re Barry’s boys!/ We’re the kids with a cause,/ a government like granmama’s,/ We’re Barry’s boys!” Lears is wrong about that being “doggerel”; it’s from a Chad Mitchell Trio song that was quite popular in 1964. Lears was 17 at the time, and may have heard the song when it came out; but if so, his memory has faded, and he didn’t do the research needed for his topic sentence—an embarrassing start for an academic who makes a living by pontificating about pop culture. The article’s last paragraph, which comes after way too many polysyllabic words aimed less at communicating than at impressing raw undergraduates, says that Harris’s “self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance” and that “he might consider spending more time in his lab.” Back atcha; Lears should rewrite this mishmash in English, and this time do more basic fact-checking.

Mike Jackson

McNeal, AZ

May 3 2011 - 6:39am

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Tool of power

Jackson Lears has written a penetrating article evicerating the arguments and thinking of atheist pseudo-iconoclast and onanist of state power Sam Harris. The prevalence of thinkers like Sam Harris on the corporate media circuit is a testament of their usefulness to the doctrinal system of power. This is also backed up by their post 9/11 rhetoric, words that one suspects George W. Bush might even cringe at.

“When your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.” Is Sam Harris serious?

Lears shows in his article that one need only look at Harris’s own words to expose the onerous views and downright rickety argumentation that is on display in his popular books. More than this, the mindset and thinking that Harris’s books show is someone enamoured with the West and seemingly ignorant of or ambivalent about its crimes. Muslim or Arab people just don’t matter as much as white Westerners do; which, to be fair, is the position of American foreign policy and we wouldn’t want (or just don’t expect) Sam to buck the trend now. It has been very profitable for him.

Harris is ignorant of the mulifaceted nature of religious belief and religious people, ignorant of history and, perhaps worse for a scientist, he is ignorant of the history of science and philosophical thought on science

It just goes to show that being an atheist is not the end of rational inquiry, it is the beginning. Doctor Harris has some way to go.

Steven Munro


Apr 30 2011 - 4:59pm

Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris

Bias and misrepresentation

Quite literally, I don't know where to start criticizing this—the nastiest and most biased book review I've ever read at The Nation. This is no exaggeration on my part—please have reviewers disagree and criticize books, but for Christ's sake (pun intended, given the author), please have them fairly represent the author's views. I actually read the books that Mr. Lears reviewed, and I have to ask whether he did. He pulled short quotations from them, but so misstated Mr. Harris’s views that I'm flabbergasted. I would liken this to reviewing the story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree, and telling readers that the author asserted that young George believed all cherry trees must be eradicated! I'm amazingly disappointed by this review—not by the reviewer’s positions but on his misrepresentations of the author's very clear positions. Please don't countenance such execrable scholarship in future reviews.

David Jaffe

Portland, OR

Apr 30 2011 - 4:14am

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