Sam Harris: “science must destroy religion”


It is commonly stated that science and religion are irreconcilably opposed. A recent article by atheist author Sam Harris cranks the argument up a notch by declaring Science Must Destroy Religion.

To be fair, I think he means “science will inevitably destroy religion”, not the rather more alarming “science has a moral duty to destroy religion”, as might first appear, but either way, his argument is worth examining.

The world according to Sam

Sam’s argument has (as best I can read it) the following main points:

  1. Religions “inspire an appalling amount of human conflict” and religion is “fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society.”
  2. Religion is based on faith and not any evidence. “Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so.”
  3. Science and religion cannot coexist – one can only gain influence at the expense of the other.
  4. “To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. …. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.”

A forceful rebuttal

Michael writing on his Shadow to Light blog has analysed some of Sam’s argument, and to my mind shown it to be without reasonable basis. These are some of Michael’s main points:

Science often comes at the expense of religion?

Michael, presumably something like a biochemist, offers almost a dozen examples of scientific discoveries that make no difference to religious dogma.

Religious dogma always comes at the expense of science?

Only one counter example is needed to rebut such a strong claim, and Michael offers the Ninth Commandment (not to bear false witness), and points out that honesty (NOT bearing false witness) is a fundamental of science, not detrimental to it.

Either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not

Here Michael doesn’t disagree with Sam, but simply points out that his statement contains a value judgment – what constitutes “good reasons”?

Religious people use faith to decide historical questions?

Michael argues that historical questions such as whether the resurrection occurred are argued by christians as being the most reasonable explanation of the facts. To argue against the resurrection requires examining what historical facts we would expect to see (i) if it was true, and (ii) if it wasn’t. Without that, Sam hasn’t actually got an argument.

To be fair, Sam wasn’t discussing the resurrection in this article, so we can’t expect that argument here. But we surely should expect Sam to at least justify and illustrate his strong black and white statements about faith.

Scientific assessment of the supernatural

Harris suggests that if there was any basis for supernatural claims like the virgin birth, science could assess the evidence and “these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe”

But Michael asks whether any atheist scientist has ever devised an experiment to verify or falsify the virgin birth? What could the experimental design be? They haven’t done so because it can’t be done – the truth or falsity of the virgin birth is “beyond the reach of science”.

Again to be fair, Sam is using the word “science” in a very broad way to include all rational inquiry, including history, a usage Michael argues against. But it is worth asking whether even historical study could prove or disprove the virgin birth or the resurrection? My reading of historians suggests that most would say history can’t reach either conclusion – in which case Sam is still making a claim that he appears unable to support.

Other objections

Faith is believing when reasons fail?

This sort of statement is so often made with little or no justification by atheists that it must be regarded as something like dogma. Perhaps even a statement of belief made when reasons fail?

It is clearly true sometimes. But to say that CS Lewis, WL Craig, Richard Swinburne or JP Moreland have failed to offer reasons for their belief is clearly silly. Sam may disagree with those reasons, but they are still reasons – as he knows for he has debated Craig, knows some of Craig’s reasons and apparently did not succeed in overturning or dismissing them.

This statement is an ambit claim without merit, only justifiable by ignoring good christian thinkers and focusing on less-informed christians.

Facts on the evils of religion

Much evil has been done in the name of religion, I will admit in shame. But much good has been done also. And much evil has been done in the name of irreligion too.

Harris, in common with many other atheists, seems unable or unwilling to base his views on the evidence which is quite clear:

Thus Harris doubly ruins his argument – it is contrary to the evidence, and he shows himself to be building on dogma, something he criticises believers for. So while it may be true that religion will decline and disappear (though I think most sociologists think this isn’t so), it seems likely this would be detrimental to human flourishing, the opposite of what he claims.

Certainty is …. what?

Sam’s article is only brief, so he had to concentrate his words. Some nuances must inevitably have been lost, so this comment can only be tentative.

But Sam’s absolute certainty is nevertheless a notable feature of this article. An analysis of 30 non fiction books by different authors showed that Harris used many more “certainty” words than any other modern writer tested, and exceeded only by christian writer GK Chesterton. The author of the study (psychologist Jonathon Haidt) suggested this clearly placed Harris among religious writers and away from scientific writers.

This latest article therefore conforms to Harris’ pattern, and suggests he expresses more certainty than a more scientific account would show. I found it diminished his argument, but others may prefer that more dogmatic approach.

Science vs religion?

This argument is (as the cliche goes) a damp squib. There is something an atheist could reasonably say about the decline of religion in the future, and perhaps some things I would agree with. But this little diatribe isn’t it.

So is Sam the man?

Sam Harris is one of the most quoted of the so-called ‘new atheists’. He is reputedly a good and affable speaker. But based on this article and other writings (see, for example, Sam Harris – man of reason?), his arguments seemed to be based more on emotion and style than substance, and sometimes lead him to strange and not very attractive conclusions.

Yet at times his inquisitive nature and open mind (on some questions at least) lead him to some interesting thoughts, like his discussion on consciousness.

If only he could accept that a christian thinks reason leads him to different conclusions to his own, I imagine he might prove a pleasant companion in a discussion. But while he wants so passionately to shut down religion, even if he has to misrepresent it to do so, such a discussion would be pretty difficult.

Photo Credit: tonythesuperperson via Compfight cc


  1. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here, unkleE. I like Sam Harris and often find him to be thought-provoking, but it really bugs me when people (from any point of view) run to extremes like this. I find it hard to believe that religion will ever go away, and I also agree with you that science and religion don’t have to be at odds. You also point out the unfair criticism that boils down to that famous quote, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” While it’s a clever statement, I don’t think it’s a true one. I was a sincere believer for far too long. In fact, that kind of position is no different than the Christians who maintain that all atheists secretly know there’s a God somewhere deep down.

    I know that guys like Sam Harris are deeply worried that zealots and extremists are going to destroy the world, and that’s not an unreasonable fear. But instead of trying to eradicate all forms of religion, I think it makes more sense to accept that religion will probably always be around and spend efforts trying to encourage moderation and acceptance.

  2. Thanks Nate, it s nice to think we can live on opposite sides of the world and opposite sides of the fence yet still agree on many things.

    I agree with you that moderation and toleration are better tactics for both sides. If someone pushes the separation of religion and science, they will inevitably drive some people away from science – which means being anti-religion is more important to them than being pro-science.

    And I agree with you about saying all atheists know there’s a God deep down. How can anyone claim to know what so many other people really think?

  3. The more the new atheits claim Religion how the death of religion is inevitable the more I think it becomes obvious that they are very very very desperate, I mean I look at it like this Religions are growing around the world more strongly then ever there are 80 MILLION people born every year each and everyone different ideas Beliefs living circumstances culture backround etc. If globalisation leads to a united human society and if it is a democratic one than that means that Ideas are free and avialble to anyone I myself am a good example before there was a internet I never really cared about these deep questions but that I listend to the arguments of John lennox read some books and found them to be very reasonable. than there is of course the fact that the global new society is going to be very very different than the current one since all cultures are going to mix, unless mister harris an co think that in a hundred years indians and chinese are going to be just like americans and they simply forget there entire history and identity. Also we see that Religions do infact change.

    What is so Problematic about harris and other new atheists is that they have absolutly no Idea of how a democratic goverment HAS to operate in order to be democratic that includes neutrality. If schools and universitys would start teaching Religion and philosophy the way the new atheits demanding than the state has lost one of the basic aspects of democracy namely that Every person has freedom of his or her own views.

    Having a rant about religion and than asking to but it on the List of the list of mental diseases might sound as a good idea in there mind but in Practice this would mean that I and millions of other people would be at that point be classified as second class citizens.

    Of course they are arguing that Religions will just disappear naturally but this has no scientific basis not really.

  4. Hi Mechanar, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, I think the experts think that religion is not going away, though they think the boundaries between religions, and between believers and non-believers, might get a little more blurred.

  5. @unkleE

    Religious believers, overall and with many exceptions, have better health and wellbeing

    I see that despite my previous prompting about the silly ” religion is good for your health” surveys. You are still coming up with that rubbish.
    Perhaps you would like to explain why then the tables showing life expectancy by state in the US:
    have a more or less reverse correlation with the tables showing degree of church attendance:

  6. Hi Gordon, I decided the best way to respond to your comments was with a separate post – Do religious believers have better health and wellbeing, like, really?.

    That post shows that I am not quoting “silly surveys” and “rubbish”, but properly designed medical studies carried out by competent medical and psychological researchers and reported in respected scientific journals that do indeed support the conclusions I referred to.

    If your beliefs are troubled by this evidence, wouldn’t it be more rational to accept the science and question your beliefs?

    I have also explained the US state data you refer to, and shown how it can’t be used to support the conclusion you would like to draw.

  7. @unkleE
    Where is your evidence that that these surveys were properly designed? Why have you not attempted to explain the reverse correlation between longevity and religiosity across US states?

    These surveys are poorly designed because they compared committed evangelicals to general members of the population. You would have gotten the same result had you compared committed Nazis to the general German population in 1935.

    There are two effects at work which were not catered for in the sampling:
    People who know where they are going in life have a positive disposition, including a positive attitude to their own health.
    People who conform to the majority and state approved or recognised philosophy have their beliefs reinforced and their anxieties allayed.

  8. “Where is your evidence that that these surveys were properly designed?”
    Hi Gordon, did you look at the references. Most references describe the methodology. When you have looked, please let me know if you have any specific criticisms of them.

    “Why have you not attempted to explain the reverse correlation between longevity and religiosity across US states?”
    I discussed that in the post. Did you have any disagreements with that?

    “These surveys are poorly designed because they compared committed evangelicals to general members of the population.”
    No they didn’t. I don’t think you read the references did you? If so then you just made that up. May I suggest you read the references before you make statements which are quite wrong.

  9. Christians HAVE to twist their mind into a pretzel to believe what they do. The bizarre rationalizations and constant, never-ending mental gymnastics are both amusing and kind of sad. We KNOW that the Jews were never captive in Egypt, that there was never a world- wide flood, that the earth is MUCH older than a few thousand years, that the sun moves, not the earth, and that polygamy, slavery, bride-price, genocide and animal sacrifice are reprehensible. Yet christians will defend all of this ignorant, bronze age drivel and practice self-deception, denying ANY new scientific fact that disproves what they want to believe simply because they need comforting myths to face life.

  10. Hi Lindsay, thank you for reading my blog and commenting. I am always intrigued about how people end up here.

    “Yet christians will defend all of this ignorant, bronze age drivel and practice self-deception, denying ANY new scientific fact that disproves what they want to believe simply because they need comforting myths to face life.”

    Some christians, perhaps most christians, but not all christians. You may be interested to know what I think about those matters you raise – see Face to face with the Old Testament. I hope you check it out and see a different view.

    These Old Testament stories are not critical for christian belief – we can believe them to be history or legend, or a bit of both – the important thing is the New testament, primarily the gospels. And they are quite a different thing!

    Best wishes.

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