Sam Harris and 9/11

In a post reflecting on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Dr. Sam Harris speaks about religious practice in sharply negative terms. For instance:

  • Parents teaching religious doctrine to their children is “nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child,” is oppressive, and represents “terrifying ignorance and fanaticism.”
  • Religion itself is “the delusions of our ignorant ancestors.”
  • He says that “One cannot be a serious Christian, Muslim, or Jew without” deranging the young “with fear, bigotry, and superstition,” in “some measure.”
  • What lies at the “core” of religion are “sins against reason and compassion.”

Furthermore, religion is a necessary cause of “the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity.” And if not religion, then ideologies like Stalinism and fascism are used, which “are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions.” Religion and ideology alike play on our “ignorance, fear, and craving for order.”

But by contrast, Dr. Harris asserts that “atheists” (he places this in quotes) only recommend that we be “reasonable, intellectually honest” people who are “unwilling to be duped by the dogmatism of their neighbors.” He asserts that atheists are caring, curious, compassionate, and loving people.

Let’s consider these arguments in a fair and rational way. First, we should agree that religion has been used to justify violence and harm to others, as was evident on 9/11, and on many other occasions. We should join with Dr. Harris in condemning those actions and the use of religion to condone violence.

However, there appear to be some inconsistencies in Dr. Harris’ post. First, let us consider whether or not he is laying “down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others,” as this is the definition of dogmatism.


  • Sam Harris is aware of the evidence that “millions of devout men and womendo no harm to anyone” (emphasis added).
  • Sam Harris knows the opinion of others, that “people of faith…point to all the good that has been done in the name of God” (emphasis added).
  • Sam Harris says that “people at every point on the spectrum of belief and unbelief commit atrocities from time to time” (emphasis added).
  • He affirms that these facts are accurate, writing, “this is all true, of course.”

It seems that Dr. Harris’ post does fit the definition of dogmatism because it writes off as “irrelevant” the evidence and opinion of others in order to justify the principle that religion is universally harmful.

In addition, does this post contain, “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself,” the textbook definition of bigotry? I would venture to say yes. In particular, notice how Sam Harris takes the remembrance of 9/11  and uses the trauma of this experience to build fear of religion and religious people. As he says, all serious Christians, Muslims and Jews must derange their children with “fear, bigotry and superstition” and commit “emotional and intellectual abuse.” This is an intolerant view of a majority of religious people and their parenting.

As Dr. Harris asks us, let’s be “reasonable, intellectually honest” people. Do these dogmatic and bigoted views represent the values of a caring, curious, compassionate, and loving person? Is he being reasonable and intellectually honest, giving fair weight to all the evidence?

Dr. Harris, you can do better than this.