Sam Harris: Playing Fast and Loose With the Facts

For some reason, Sam Harris is sort of a big deal to the “New Atheists,” as the angsty suburban anti-theists like to call themselves. What I can’t get is why. Take, for example, his most famous book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. As with all great defenses of reason, Harris begins by telling a story to play with your emotions:

The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. […] The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. […] The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory.

Then, he gets to the “moral” of the story:

These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,” to guess the young man’s religion? (p. 11-12)

He wants you to say “Muslim.” He really does. He claims you can “almost bet your life on it.” Harris has been one of the loudest and most obnoxious voices in the “Islam is not a religion of peace” crowd, largely because he doesn’t think any Western religion is a religion of peace (as with all anti-theists, he has trouble pinning violence on Christianity’s actual teachings, rather than the actions of some of her billions of followers, but what’s a little fact like that matter when you’re trying to prove that the actual teachings of the Western religions are all evil?). But wait. There’s an endnote. An enterprising reader might wonder why a footnote is even necessary, since he hasn’t actually presented any facts yet — only a story. But it turns out, it’s pretty important. It says:

Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetuated more acts of suicidal terrororism [sic] than any other group. Indeed, the “Tamil Tigers” are often offered as a counter­example to any claim that suicidal terrorism is a product of religion. But to describe the Tamil Tigers as “secular”—as R. A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 3 (2003): 20-32, and others have – is misleading. (p. 229 n. 2)

Let’s be clear. The Tamil Tigers are secular. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the LTTE:

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976.

And R. A. Pape, who he references in the footnote, is interested in an unbiased view, as he is trying to determine the political motivations behind these bombings (as opposed to airing personal grievances against God). Pape says: “Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology,” which I might add, is an anti-religious ideology. Even the Washington Post calls them an “avowedly secular rebel movement,” noting that although the movement is “dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions.”

So it turns out, that Harris’ anti-Muslim fear-mongering aside, the biggest threat by suicide bombers doesn’t come from religious motivations, but from a Marxist secular group. Indeed, if one were to be totally honest, we might have to include the fact that a number of the Palestinian terrorists are motivated by something distinct from religion (such as, say ethnic, national and political tensions): which is why you see things like the non-religious, Greek-Orthodox run, Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapping Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Pape notes that Even among Islamic suicide attacks, Pape notes, “groups with secular orientations account for about a third of these attacks.” So Harris is actually wrong on two counts (at least). [Note: my point isn’t that Islam hasn’t lead to violence, it has; my point is that the single-minded religious animus isn’t based on factual evidence, but an unbalanced hatred of all religion].

Turns out, Harris isn’t so much a champion of reason as an anti-religious charlatan. He’s aware of the fact that Tamils, not Muslims, are the number one suicide bombers. He’s aware that the Tamils motivation can’t be religious, because Hindu groups, including Hindu Tamil groups, in Indian (instead of Sri Lanka) don’t engage in suicide bombings. So what’s his reaction? First, to hide this information in a rarely-read footnote. Second, to present the false and misleading information as the introduction to the first chapter of the book, with the absurd claim that “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it” that you know the religious affiliation of the bombers (when he knows that statistically, you don’t).

He knows he doesn’t have an answer to the Tamil argument. If he did, it would be in the text, not the footnotes. So after simply denying that they’re secular (when everyone else says that they are) without providing any … you know, reason, for this claim, Harris continues:

While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbably things about the nature of life and death.

Wait, what? Even though facts don’t bear out my absurd anti-religious claim, you know how zany those religious third-worlders are. They “undoubtedly believe” lots of stupid things! He’s really just saying, “I bet they’re religious!” And of course, since most people in the world are, there’s a good chance he’s right in many cases. But religious beliefs can’t be what’s motivating the Tamil Tigers. For starters, it’s not a religious movement. Second, it’s primarily, but not exclusively, Hindu — so if Hindu beliefs are the motivation for these bombings, he’s got a lot of non-Hindu suicide bombers to answer for. Third, like I mentioned above, countless Hindu Tamils in India share a common ethnicity and religion, without sharing a proclivity to suicide bombing. Turns out, Harris’ view just plain falls flat. So then he goes from awful to worse:

The cult of martyr worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause. Secular Westerners often underestimate the degree to which certain cultures, steeped as they are in otherworldliness, look upon death with less alarm than seems strictly rational.

Wait, I’m sorry. What amount of alarm is strictly rational if one is an atheist? If the only thing that suicide (bombing or otherwise) results in is non-existence, why the fear? What, precisely, is rational about preferring life over death from an atheistic viewpoint? Particularly if potential bombers think that in their suicidal act helps their loved ones gain political freedom, the balance tips towards suicide bombing, in a worldview with no moral boundaries or consequences. Besides that, atheists are more likely than their “otherwordly” counterparts to kill themselves. A 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found:

Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.

So it’s atheists, not the religious, who are more likely to go nuts and kill someone, whether it be a school shooting or a ethnic-political suicide bombing. So Harris is still batting a strong .000 for making rational, fact-supported claims. Let’s see where he goes next. Oh no… it’s another personal story in lieu of facts:

I was once traveling in India when the government rescheduled the exams for students who were preparing to enter the civil service: what appeared to me to
be the least of bureaucratic inconveniences precipitated a wave of teenage self-immolations in protest. Hindus, even those whose preoccupations appear to be basically secular, often harbor potent religious beliefs.

Did you see what he just did? He tried to convince you that “religion = suicide bombing,” by telling a story where teenagers of no given political affiliation self-immolated. But if you assume “violent suicide = religious adherent,” you can get to “religious adherent = violent suicide” in no time.

So let’s summarize. Statistically, the number one source of suicide bombers is one of the rebel groups with the least connection to religion of any kind. Moreover, statistically, those with no religious affiliation are more likely to kill themselves. These stats might make a compelling anti-atheism argument: those who believe in nothing but race, or politics, or national identity tend to be the most fanatical, given the chance — Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., all bear this out. None were fueled by religion, and yet all were psychotically evil. Faced with these stats, Sam Harris, grand defender of reason, runs a factually inaccurate stereotype about Big Bad Islam, hides the facts disproving his stereotype, and then tries to defend them with more stereotypes about how obviously Hindus just must believe crazy things, and suicide bombers just must be religious, offering a silly personal story as “proof.” [As for Harris’ earlier question, “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, ‘you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,’ to guess the young man’s religion?” the simpliest answer seems to be disproportionate media coverage, fueled by people like Harris himself.]

Oh yeah. And we still haven’t made it past the second page of the first chapter. If this guy is the best that the New Atheists have to offer, I don’t think we have to worry about Christianity going anywhere just yet.

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