Sam Harris: Intellectual Coward or Misrepresented Victim?

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 5.45.07 amThe following are my notes from the the video of my previous post. I have pulled out just the section discussing Sam Harris and will post the remainder later (after listening to Kyle Kulinski’s earlier video “cease-fire“.)

This discussion goes to the heart of the controversy over Sam Harris: why so many of his supporters insist that he has been misrepresented, lied about, slandered — that all he ever means is something quite ordinary and uncontroversial . . . . So why, then, is he so often “misunderstood”?

The minutes/seconds markers are approximate. Unless otherwise indicated the coloured indented quotations are by Glenn Greenwald. Uncoloured text is paraphrase.


“And I do think Sam Harris is a uniquely kind of inflammatory figure for a whole variety of different reasons in a way say that Richard Dawkins or even Christopher Hitchens aren’t and weren’t”


“I’ve never encountered in my entire life a public figure who immediately brands any of their critics as being not just wrong but [cannot catch his words] liars. It’s almost impossible to criticize Sam Harris without him claiming that you’re wrong or mistaken but that you’re viciously smearing and lying about what it is he’s saying — in a way Christopher Hitchens never did or that Richard Dawkins doesn’t do.”

[My own comment: Amen. This observation also explains why some of Harris’s defenders are so offended by any criticism of Harris and likewise accuse “us” of “misrepresenting” and “lying” about Harris. — And this is exactly the problem we have experienced from the followers of Acharya S/DM Murdock, too.]


Kyle Kulinski says Sam Harris seems to be becoming more rational. At first he sounded like he was in favour of racial profiling and people said “Hey! What?” but then he said “All I meant was….” — his hedges make his arguments a lot less bad….


Glenn Greenwald responds: This is the kind of thing I mean when I say he is inflammatory etc. There are people in public debate who see their role to be provocative — they have an important role. But if you do this you have to be aware of what you are doing. Dawkins does this very well and he’s unapologetic about it. Sometimes he says he is misunderstood (as we all are at times) but by and large he stands by what he says and means. Glenn G likewise knows his views will offend people and he is prepared to engage in debate to defend them. But what SH does is a kind of intellectual cowardice

He purposely says things in a way to be the most provocative possible [e.g. writing under a heading “In Defense of Torture” and saying that some beliefs are so extreme it’s ethical to kill people for them] He’s not stupid. He understands exactly what he’s saying and how people are going to react. And when people react in the way that he intends (which is to get provoked and to get offended and to get angry) — instead of saying, No, your offence and your anger doesn’t change the fact that this is correct, he’ll say “You’ve lied about my position and that is not what I think. This is instead what I think.” And you’re right [addressing KK] — the things that he then says he actually thinks rather than and the things he said in the beginning are much more reasonable because by that point he’s in the mode where he’s trying to say that he’s been victimized by slanderers and liars who have lied about his position. “

Example — Sam Harris said certain beliefs are so bad you can kill people for having them…Resa Aslan and Glenn G wrote this up and Sam Harris reacted saying we were using the mechanics of slander etc and he then described what he meant in a much more nuanced way — “and all I meant was that people like al-Baghdadi  whose beliefs lead them to do terrorist things/kill others — they can be ethically killed.” —


Robert in Atlantic [unable to catch the reference — both author and article] said this “perfectly encapsulates Sam Harris”. Either he meant some people are so bad and not just their beliefs but their actions are murderous and evil and they can be killed not just for their beliefs but for their actions — and that he has such poor expression and that we misunderstood his original claim and he really meant something so banal, anodyne, that no-one would disagree with ….. Or he meant what he said.

What he meant was the second [that some beliefs are so bad people can be ethically killed for having them], but then when he wanted to accuse his critics of being liars he moved to the first position which is extremely reasonable.

That’s his tactic in general…. and why he’s such a lightening rod for so much of the vitriol.


Kyle Kulinski: After he starts a debate on torture he ends up saying torture should be illegal across the board which leaves one wondering why they were having the debate in the first place.

Glenn Greenwald:

He first comes out as if the brave intellectual being alone to stand up and say torture can be justified sometimes …And when you point out that he’s doing that he says ‘How dare you lie about my position — all I meant was that it should always be illegal.’


“Now whatever else is true, as a writer, if you’re constantly being misunderstood by people who don’t have a history in any other context of lying, maybe it’s time to start evaluating what it is you’re doing as a public intellectual that’s causing so many people to either misunderstand what you’re saying or distorting it. He doesn’t ever seem to engage in that kind of reflection. He’s ready instead to just assume that everyone who is a critic is really just ethically wretched and purposely lying about what it is that he’s saying. That makes it really hard to have a discussion with people.”


Kyle Kulinski: His real beliefs are found in his much more reasonable afterthoughts —


Glenn Greenwald: But as writers you know how your words might be misunderstood so you clarify in advance for those who might misunderstand what you mean…. Glenn also used to have the idea that he was not going to hold people’s hands and explain it all — but “at a point when you’re misunderstood enough you do explain and clarify your view — and my responsibility as a writer is to be as clear as possible — and not trick people into thinking you’re saying something else.”


By the way, here’s another review of a review of Sam Harris’s book on spirituality: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/10/the-self-contradictions-of-sam-harris





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Neil Godfrey

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40 thoughts on “Sam Harris: Intellectual Coward or Misrepresented Victim?”

    1. An excellent exchange that sets out two sides most clearly — I’m glad Chomsky took the trouble to respond to Harris. We’ve addressed it before (e.g. here.) As others have remarked, the curious thing is why Sam Harris seems to think he somehow “wins” the exchange.

      1. I like Chomsky, but before I read that exchange, I read a Harris “fan” saying how Chomsky is now old and senile and not the intellect he was, so I thought Chomsky probably argued incoherently, then I read the actual exchange and I sat there astounded as to how Harris or his fans could think Harris actually “won” the debate.

  1. I don’t understand what Sam Harris did to deserve a significant audience. He seems well-intentioned in a certain sense, but when I listen to his thought experiments (for instance, from his exchange with Chomsky: “Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly …”), I find myself thinking “cute, but this is hardly worth anyone’s time responding it …” There are lots of blog commenters on the internet, of a variety of persuasions, who seem capable of more worthwhile dialogue than does Harris.

    1. Agree — which is why I’ve largely ignored Sam Harris ever since reading End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. He removed himself from my “interest circle” with those books. But here he is, still influential nonetheless — and that’s not a healthy sign despite some of his supporters apparently being willing to disbelieve his extreme statements and insist we should only embrace his truisms. But if they and all of us really do that then Harris has nothing to say. Full stop. Odd.

      1. For sure, I just wanted to bring to the attention of your readers just what kind of a person Harris is because a lot of his fans would put something like that beyond him.

  2. BTW Neil,

    Sam Harris really dislikes Glenn (and I think the feeling is mutual). I am not sure you have come across this Sam Harris interview, but in it he dismisses Glenn as being a blogger sitting in his underpants in Brazil with his dogs and boyfriend, instead of being a good journalist.


    I thought that was rather unprofessional …

  3. By the way, here’s another review of a review of Sam Harris’s book on spirituality

    PZ Myers made a comment earlier this year about how he wishes Sam Harris just stuck to his spirituality!

  4. Firstly I am fan of Chomsky and Greenwald, having read them both extensively. But I can see why Sam Harris does not like Greenwald who have retweeted slander articles and many tweets with image quotes of Sam harris that are taken extremely out of context (and also written an article himself with some inaccuracies in how they portray Sam Harris views).

    Sam Harris has many opinions and ideas worth criticism (especially his viewa on Palestine-Israel) or the benign intentions of US foreign policy. But most articles do slander him by quotes of of context or just not understanding his point. Sam Harris likes to talk fundamental values / ideaa and describe problems via some extreme or abstract scenarios. These are many times thought experiments that leads him somewhere OR he acknowledge that there are other factors that change the outcome (of the thought experiment). For example he repeatedly says torture should expect illegal (but like to make thought experimenta where it should be moral to perform torture). Yet he repeatedly gets branded as a supporter of torture.

    I was very disappointed by the exchange with Chomsky. Had high hopes that it could be a fruitful discussion but they got no where. Mostly because Chomsky just responded with hostile retoric (I think Chomsky is correct in his comparison between 9/11 and the Clinton bombing).

    Anyway in summary having read both sides I think Harris is mostly right to be dismayed by the conduct of his critics (Reba Azlan is really mostly telling lies when he talks about Harris views)

    1. What? Harris specifically calls for the torture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and says that not torturing him would be morally ‘perverse’:

      “Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.”

      (The End of Faith, p. 198)

      1. I did not know about that specific quote. But looking at that text now it is prefixed by a hypothetical scenario “the bomb is ticking”, and he has a long argument about how can we accept collateral damage and not torture, etc. But I can actually accept that saying that Sam Harris is pro torture in a limited sense, saying that would not be totally wrong, I have to admit (added to the long list of things I think Sam Harris is wrong about)

        His latest writings seem pretty explicit that he thinks it should be illegal though, although he tries to sneak in some loop holes into that so that it could be permissible in extreme cases but he recognizes the difficulties of loop holes being misused.

  5. Some examples.

    If I write in an essay a hypothetical thought experiment that showcased a situation where I think it would be moral to perform torture. But also argued that this does not make torture in general moral and made it explicit that I think torture should remain illigal.

    Then have reviews and tweets from respectable journalists claim I supported torture and think it is moral, I would be upset and thino people misrepresented my views.

    If I write an essay describing a hypothetical scenario describing what if a middle east government who professed to belief that all other nations should believe as they or be destroyed. and we had strong evidence that they were going to act on that belief the it could be moral to do a nuclear first strike.

    I do not agree with this last hypothetical, nor find it very useful. But I think I would be upset if I wrote that and had reviews and thousands of tweets saying “he thinks some beliefs are to dangoures, and it would be moral to kill people who profess this belief” , or “he argues for a preemptive nuclear strike against the middle east”

    1. It appears you are repeating the point of view about Sam’s claims that Glenn finds problematic without addressing Glenn’s reasons for finding them problematic. What you have said is what Glenn says he has trouble with — and he explains why he has trouble with what you have expressed. Can you respond to Glenn Greenwald’s objections?

      1. I am not sure I am. I think it would be right to say Sam Harris has written purposely provocative sentences and headlines and he should not perhaps be surprised about the reaction or quote mining.

        I have not seen Glenn criticize Sam Harris for fear that his writings will be taken out of context by right wing xenophobes and that his writings will fuel anti-muslim bigotry, something that I think could be a reasonable argument to make. What I have seen Glenn write (or retweet) has been mostly simplifications or misrepresentations of his views and calling him a fascist bigot.

        I think Glenn have many constructive things to inform Sam Harris of when it comes to US foreign policy and impact on the middle east, but what I feel he has mostly done is misrepresent him, retweet slander articles or tweets and called him a fascist bigot. Not something that fosters a discussion.

          1. I don’t see any argument other than a general criticism that Sam Harris writes purposely inflammatory things that are easy to misrepresent and that he then labels his critics as lairs. I think Sam Harris has recognized that his writing is easy to misunderstand and as a response has written multiple clarification articles and tried to approach critics so that they do have the right view. When these same critics ignore his clarifications and pull an old quote out of context and say “look here what he says here!!!!” and then have that re-tweeted by respectable journalists that Sam KNOWS have read his clarifications (or he has personally talked to them), that I think rightly makes him upset and label them as liars.

            I mean people can criticize him all day for writing inflammatory or easily misunderstood books/articles that can fuel anti-muslim bigotry and I would not object that much. But I do object when Reza Aslan picks a quote from old book out of context that he has written multiple essay clarifying what is views are (or that his view has changed since then)

            Sorry for repeating myself.

            1. I don’t recognize Glenn Greenwald’s criticism in your outline at all. Glenn is not saying that Harris simply explains what he originally meant: he accuses those who point out what he said as misrepresenting (note, “misrepresenting”, not “distorting” him etc — and then “clarifies” with something quite different from what he said. Even Kyle — who agrees and likes Sam Harris’s milder “explanations” said he had to confess that those subsequent “clarifications” were not really what he originally said.

              Sam accuses those who respond to his original words of being in bad faith yet the two statements are clearly not the same and Glenn gives at least two examples – with which Kyle agrees. Do you disagree with Kyle as well?

              What do you make of Glenn’s comparisons of Sam Harris with Dawkins and Hitchens and how others can disagree with them and how they respond to disagreements?

              What do you make of Glenn’s remarks about the responsibilities of public intellectuals and writers?

              1. I think Glenn is wrong in his assessment on Dawkins. Both he and Harris play the same game, the only difference is, Harris makes a claim, then clarifies in his articles that he didn’t mean to say that and he was misinterpreted, and Dawkins makes a claim on Twitter, and then his fans clarify that Dawkins didn’t mean that because he has said something in the past that contradicts that.

                Have you ever noticed how there is often a difference between the headline of an article in a newspaper, and the actual contents, especially in right-wing papers? So take for example a rag like the Daily Mail in the UK, you will get some outrageous headline, like Christmas has been banned in some school so not to offend Muslims, and when you start off reading the article, it follows on from the headline, but right near the end there will be some comment from the school explaining why they will not have a nativity play this year, and you find out that it isn’t to do with offending Muslims at all. So what the paper is doing is deliberately leading with a headline that they know isn’t true, because they have an agenda (trying to make people believe that immigration is bad, native British beliefs are being persecuted etc etc), and they know that if they repeatedly say something, even though it might not be true, it will eventually influence some people into believing it is true. At the same time, to stop anyone from accusing them of lying, they have an actual interview at the end presenting the truth.

                And this is exactly the game Harris and Dawkins play, they lead with statements to influence public opinion, but at the same time, to stop anyone from accusing them of lying or being bigots, they also provide some nuances now and again. So Dawkins admits that grievances often cause terrorism, but then he will tweet that what else but faith could have caused terrorists in Pakistan to blow up a school, that’s because he wants the public to dislike religion, and so he is trying to blame religion for the terrorist attack, but if you point this out, his fans like Coel will come and say “actually, Dawkins hasn’t said only religion causes terrorist attacks, look, here’s an article where he said grievances are often the cause of terrorism”.

    2. Hypothetical scenarios do not occur within a vacuum – we are currently living in times where we are, have been, and will probably continue to be for quite some time, at war with predominantly Muslim countries – therefore, to come up with the highly inflammatory hypothetical scenarios Harris does is rather dangerous because some people will use it to say “look, those Muslims are so bad that we might have to forget about our rules and protocols and go down this path”.

  6. Again, a lot of generalizations without examples. When you reviewed Sam’s b books you did a good job. But this campangn for the last several days is really tiring. It reads like a smear campangn. I have commented several times but have decided that since this blog cannot come up with arguments that support its ad hominem attacks, I just wait until you have something worthwhile on the blog again before I read it.

    1. I don’t know how you missed the specific examples Glenn Greenwald gave around which he built his criticism.

      I am also surprised you generalize my posts that have included the positive Sam Harris Modifies His Views… as like a blanket “smear campaign”.

      I trust you will not find in these posts personal attacks on individuals but a discussion of some very serious issues that do involve criticisms (as opposed to insults, slander, smear) that are grounded in real methods and ideas and are at the heart of a significant social division right now.

      1. I’ve tracked down over a dozen reviews so far and am currently looking for a response from Haidt to Jost’s. Meanwhile I have found a response by a co-author with Haidt to a critique by Jost of another work: http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/2014/12/descriptive-vs-normative-moral-psychology/

        But for practical application and tension-reduction I liked his way of returning us to a fundamental principle we all read in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. 🙂

        What I also found interesting was his description of political debates and in the post WW2 years — those leaders on opposite sides of politics who had also been through the experience of World War 2 were able to still get along personally, as genuine friends. That was the way it was among political leaders on opposite sides here in Australia, too. Something about the experience of the War that seems to have made political disagreements different then compared with today.

          1. Interesting to read this comment from one of PZ’s New Atheist readers:

            I have a diagnostic rule that if someone who *isn’t* identified as an atheist activist starts talking about New Atheists, they are very very very very likely to be spouting bullshit.

            As for:

            Haidt: (I argue in my book that the New Atheists get the science mostly wrong

            What is the context of this statement?

            1. I have yet to read Haidt’s book mentioned here and any other articles by him so cannot comment yet on any of the reviews or other remarks related to his views. What particularly interests me in Haidt’s views, I should mention, is the research (neurological-psychological) evidence for his five (or six) values that the basis of our ethical system.

              (I’ve finally completed Boyer’s book and have read chunks of some other more recent works and there is little doubt in my mind that Harris, Coyne and Dawkins really are flat wrong when they declare that someone just takes on certain religious beliefs and as a result goes out and kills others “because” of those beliefs.)

  7. After reading through this thread, I’d have to say that I can certainly see their point. You have definitely not been honesty or accurate about most of your claims about Acharya S, Neil:

    “Neil Godfrey at his standard M.O. again ‘poisoning the well’ and marginalizing Acharya S/Murdock while creating a caricature of her of his own making:

    “This thread exposes many intellectually dishonest statements by Neil Godfrey intentionally smearing Acharya S but, apparently, Godfrey believes that he is above reproach no matter how low he stoops. Neil acts as if we have no right to respond to his false and inaccurate claims. We need people to grow a pair and call him out on it. It’s pretty obvious now that Neil Godfrey is on his smear campaign again and is just going to spread these lies at every opportunity.”


    They have many valid points.

    1. You evidently fail to see that your response here is exactly the same type for which we are criticizing Sam Harris. My point is that it is impossible to criticize anything Murdock or her supporters say without being accused of being a liar and worse. And that’s exactly what you are doing when I even point this out! Irony, irony, irony . . . .

    2. I don’t know about the history of the Neil-Acharya S debate, and to be honest, neither do I have the time to find out.

      However, I have one issue with the post you referred to – you seem to be suggesting that because Acharya S is suffering from cancer and is unable to respond, no one should be able to criticise her work. I find that really absurd. When you are in the public sphere, you know that your work will be scrutinised (and even criticised) even after you have died, and that’s the way it should be.
      Now if someone made an allegation against the individual, and not their work, then in certain circumstances I would agree with you – for example, if someone makes an allegation that doesn’t have much evidence for it, knowing full well the other person cannot respond, then I think that is immoral. However, I haven’t seen Neil doing this, so if Neil is continuing to criticise her work, what’s the problem?

      (BTW, I hope she makes a speefy recovery).

  8. The same refrain is being posted by PZ Myers The Harris Formua and Mano Singham: In defense of the indefensible.

    From Mano S

    Consider the following scenario.

    A Muslim terrorist has got hold of a massive nuclear weapon that can be triggered by remote control and has placed it in a secret location in the heart of New York City. You are his prisoner in a room where he has his finger on the detonator button. He gleefully tells you that he is going to set off the weapon killing and injuring tens of thousands of people unless you agree to his demands. What demands? He points to a woman cowering in the corner and says that if you rape her, he will not blow up the bomb and will give himself up peacefully.

    Wouldn’t rape be justified in such a situation?

    From PZ

    It’s nice to be able to sit back and let Mano take on Sam Harris. He’s laid out all the flaws in the standard Harris formula.

    Invent incredibly contrived scenario in which all that you love and hold dear is imperiled.

    Make the villain Muslim, especially a “Muslim jihadi”, who are especially dangerous because they look like all other Muslims, except that they are amoral fanatics who will die to kill you.

    Resolve the scenario with an otherwise morally reprehensible solution that we would not accept in any real-world situation.

    Sit back, preen a bit about how he is the only person brave enough to contemplate the unthinkable so coolly and objectively.

    When people point out the absurdity of his excuses and his perniciously vile efforts to justify amoral acts, fall back on accusations that his critics didn’t actually understand what he wrote. He didn’t mean “Muslims”, he really meant “People other than Jerry Seinfeld,” for instance.


    He isn’t using reason at all. He’s making appeals to strong emotion . . .

  9. I just saw a number of comments on this website and they are intellectually bancrupt. Your Harris bashing reflects your intellectual dishonesty, delusion, falsification etc… You just do not get it ! Majid Navaz coined the name regressive left. But you have nothing of the left, your are just regressive.
    The politics of Chomsky is a disgrace to intellectual honesty and is driven by pure ideology. What to say about Greenwald ! As Harris puts it he would be precipiated from a 5 floor building if islamic law would prevail.
    I am not a unconditional supporter of Harris, but of reason and truth I am.
    We are in a “Kulturkampf” and this has to be fought against you and similar lunatics of that sort.

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