Sam Harris’ Disturbing Proposition

I came across the following line in Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

End of Faith, pp 52-53


Seriously? When I first read that line, I had to re-read it several times just to convince myself that my eyes were not playing a trick on me. I re-read the surrounding context to make sure I was not somehow misunderstanding what he was saying. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve got it wrong. He really does appear to mean what his words on the page are saying.

Notice he doesn’t say, ‘…ethical to kill people for what they do, or attempt to do.’ But for what they believe. Not what they’ve done, but for what they think.

He goes on to say, ‘This may seem to be an extraordinary claim…’

No kidding, Sherlock. You’ve got that right – it’s not only extraordinary, it’s crazy mad. What I find difficult to believe is that Sam Harris is still being taken seriously by otherwise thoughtful, level-headed atheists. Since when has it become okay to kill people for what they believe?

And let’s not make any mistake, Sam isn’t talking necessarily about a terrorist who believes it would be okay to detonate a nuke in Times Square or something along those lines. He’s talking about people who believe in God. People who have faith, the sort of faith that Sam believes should be brought to an end. Apparently by whatever means is necessary.

Unfortunately there are terrorists out there who believe in God, and terrorism is a great evil  – no matter what beliefs and motives the perpetrators happen to have. But Sam Harris goes on to lump all believers with terrorists. In his childish imagination that makes them all the same – and therefore just as dangerous. His entire book is a hopeless train wreck of thought and logic.

In Sam’s simplistic worldview, because there are dangerous terrorists who believe in God, the problem must therefore be with faith. And therefore, that makes believers dangerous. The answer according to Sam is obvious: we must bring an end to faith so that we can secure the world from dangerous acts of terrorism.

This is an example of the type of black-and-white thinking that can only thrive in the soil of highly selective facts and the manure of misinformation. Yes, there are crazy people who believe in God and do bad things. There are also crazy people who don’t believe in God – yes, bad atheists – who do bad things. And there are good atheists and good believers who have made the world a better place to live in.

The problem is not faith. Even if you could somehow remove faith in God, you would still have bad people wanting to do bad things in the name of whatever it is they believe in. Just ask Stalin or Mao Tse Tung or the mad atheistic dictator currently running North Korea. They collectively have millions of corpses to their credit.

These sorts of facts of history seem to escape the notice of the likes of Sam Harris. (This is where some atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, jump in and declaim that butchers like Stalin just happened to be atheists. They didn’t do these things because they were atheists. Only religious people can do that. Poppycock.)

We all have faith. Atheists have faith, even if they don’t care to recognize it as such. We all have faith in the ideals and principles that inform our daily living, faith in the things that we think are important and of ultimate value and, hopefully, affect our behavior for the good of other people. (Of course, this is where many atheists would argue it’s not faith. What they ‘believe’ is grounded in science and fact so isn’t really faith per se. This is not only an arrogant position to take – as if no one else is being scientific or factual – but is nonsensical. But exploring this argument will have to wait for another blog. In the meantime, I recommend the reader to look into Alister McGrath’s excellent book The Twilight of Atheism.).

Unfortunately Sam Harris seems blind to his own faith – the sort of faith that is eerily similar to that of militant fundamentalism. They like to sum up the world in two opposing camps because the black and white thinking of fundamentalist’s doesn’t do well with nuance or complexity. In a nutshell, it says: We’ve got the right idea, and people who don’t agree are dangerous and stupid and worthy to be eliminated. And because we have the right ideas on how to fix the world, we are justified in using force.

I’ll go with Jesus:

Blessed are the peacemakers,

Blessed are the meek,

He believed he had the right ideas, but he excluded the use of force to bring them about. And unlike Sam Harris, he did not recommend killing people for what they believed, even if he thought they were wrong.

Fortunately there are plenty of good atheists out there who find the words of militants like Sam Harris embarrassing.