A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Misquoting Harris


Yesterday morning, I stumbled upon this article by Madeleine Bunting on The Guardian website. It seemed to be the usual moaning about “new” atheists being too aggressive, intolerant and ignoring the real debate about the “remarkable benefits” of religion. It was most irritating, but repeated themes that are ever more common in the popular press. Then I read this (I have left in the typo at the beginning, a habit for which The Guardian have been notorious for many years).

In a another passage [Sam] Harris goes even further, and reaches a disturbing conclusion that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”. This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.

Excuse me? I’ve read The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, but I couldn’t ever remember Harris saying that. I typed the quoted phrase into Google, and was distressed to find that many people were attributing the same phrase to Harris. Surely I would have remembered him saying something like that! Curiously, like Bunting, nobody was offering a page reference. Eventually I tracked it down to p52-53 of The End of Faith. I took my copy from the shelf to see for myself, and my suspicions were confirmed – it was taken completely out of context. Here’s the full passage.

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

The link between belief and behaviour raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas. (The End of Faith, p52-53.)

Whether or not you agree with Harris, it should now be clear to you just how wildly his point differs from the one that is implied by the cropped down version quoted by Bunting.

Harris is simply saying that when people hold beliefs that lead to them committing acts of violence and murder, and killing them is the only way of protecting our selves, then it may be justified. As he rightly points out, this is the thought process that has taken many democratic countries to war, and will continue to do so.

Does this sound like the sort of reasoning that inspired the Inquisition? Bunting clearly wants to create an image in her readers’ minds of an atheist interrogating a normal, everyday believer, torturing them and then finally murdering them in cold blood simply for holding a harmless belief in God. What Harris is actually arguing is that it is better for the would-be fundamentalist terrorists to be killed by us first, than to wreak their havoc on innocent lives.

Just imagine that we had a time machine, and therefore the ability to travel back to September 10, 2001 and slip cyanide into the drinks of the terrorists who attacked America, thus preventing the disaster and saving thousands of lives. How many children would keep their mothers and fathers? Whether you would or not, please realise that this is the point Harris is making.

Madeleine Bunting finds Harris’ conclusion disturbing. What I find disturbing, is that a professional journalist writing for a national newspaper could so flagrantly and irresponsibly mislead her readers. Either she has not checked her sources thoroughly, or she has deliberately and deceitfully distorted Harris’ words in order to convey a meaning he did not intend. Whichever way it happened, she has no excuse. Whether through laziness or intellectual dishonesty, it was disgracefully unprofessional.

We atheists believe staunchly in the right to free speech and the importance of debate. However, it has to be done fairly. When incidents like this occur, nobody wins. The one side is misrepresented, the other misinformed, and no progress is made by anyone.

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17 Responses to “Misquoting Harris”

  1. I saw this article as well. I thought I remembered that that quote had been misrepresented but I didn’t have the time to do a full search through End of Faith to make the point. Glad you could help clear this up!

    I did write up my quick reaction to the article: http://atheist1.com/blog/2007/05/06/neo-atheist-failure/

  2. I was going to write something similar about the same article and make a point about the bankruptcy of quote mining, especially when the quote in question uses morally emotive language as Harris has done, and above all when ignoring a fundamental auxiliary verb in the quote itself: “may”.

    I’ve previously written about Bunting’s selective quoting elsewhere, so this view of hers didn’t come as any great surprise, but it is indeed disturbing that somebody of that ilk is able to put public voice to this without any editorial checks or balances.

  3. It’s called “Lying for Christ”. Perfectly acceptable …if you’re a devout Christian and you find an idea threatening to your beliefs, and you have no other means of refuting that idea.

    This article was discussed over on the Dawkins site yesterday. Some comments on the same quote too.

    Just imagine that we had a time machine, and therefore the ability to travel back to September 10, 2001 and slip cyanide into the drinks of the terrorists who attacked America, thus preventing the disaster and saving thousands of lives.

    Just imagine if our all knowing, all powerful God had done the same thing. Oh wait. A time machine is more plausible.

  4. Bunting’s article is pretty dismal, but Harris could have expressed himself better on this point. It seems that what he thinks might justify the use of deadly force is actually the threat of imminent violence together with the lack of practical alternatives to stop it, not just the abstract belief. I think it would have been better to have avoided a sentence that suggests it is the belief itself. Of course, that is wearing my retrospectoscope; no one is perfect in how they express themselves, and Harris is usually very good.

  5. Russell Blackford said:

    Harris could have expressed himself better on this point. It seems that what he thinks might justify the use of deadly force is actually the threat of imminent violence together with the lack of practical alternatives to stop it, not just the abstract belief.

    I know where you’re coming from, but I can’t agree. I do think that Harris’ choice of words left him vulnerable to quote mining, but I don’t think that should matter. If you read the passage in full, his meaning is quite clear. People, especially journalists, should be honest enough to quote properly. We shouldn’t have to phrase things in such a way that we are protected.

    As an aside to everyone, I noticed one commentor on another site had previously quoted the same phrase from The End of Faith, distorting Harris’ words in the same way. He finished, defiantly, by saying “Google it if you don’t believe me!”. How about “read the book if you don’t believe me!”?!

  6. 115. Comment #38458 by John P on May 8, 2007 at 7:14 am

    With regard to the Harris quote, a good blog here, with the ENTIRE quote, in context.

    https://aloadofbright.wordpress.com/2007/05/08/misquoting-harris/

    I read the same Harris quote, originally in context, and I was disturbed by it then. I’m still disturbed by it reading it again.

    The Islamic world does not represent anything remotely approaching an existential threat to us, to countenance war in a situation where we (the west) are vastly more powerful, where our actions could potentially result in thousands, perhaps millions of innocent deaths, is unconsionable.

    The course of the Iraq war, and the ongoing hysteria sorrounding Iranian efforts to process uranium, have the potential to kill vast numbers of our fellow human beings.

    As rational humanists, we consider all humans part of a single family, regardless of nationality, religion or preference for reality television. The vanishingly small threat of terrorism, should always rank far lower down the totem pole of potential threats than the wanton lunacy of deliberate and pre mediated war.

  7. Brian Coughlan said:

    I read the same Harris quote, originally in context, and I was disturbed by it then. I’m still disturbed by it reading it again.

    I appreciate your feedback, but are you arguing that Bunting did not take the quote out of context? If you are not, then your comments, while interesting, don’t really relate to this discussion thread.

    You may be disturbed before and after reading the full passage, but are you disturbed for the same reasons? All I have really tried to argue here, is that Bunting has quoted out of context, and portrayed a meaning that Harris did not intend. I would prefer to defer discussion of the meaning Harris did intend for another day.

  8. Mea Culpa. You’ve hit the nail on the head. We were having a discussion on the Dawkins site, and your article was referenced, and I posted my thoughts from there here, so yes it was a somewhat off topic. I’d have to agree in retrospect, that she was a little disingenous with the use of the quote.

    • [i]“We may be genetically similar, but cultural differences place some members of the human family outside of the bounds of civilization. Dealing with these leftover barbaric tribes and their superstitions requires drastic measures for the safety of the rest of us.”[/i]

      Atheists aren’t the first group in history to have had this idea. It didn’t work out too well, for the last group who had it. You’re that blinded by your moral outrage towards others, that you can’t see that you’re gradually reaching a point, where you’re willing to advocate exactly the same behaviour yourselves.

      Emulating the murderous tendencies of militant Islam, isn’t going to make you morally superior to them. For all your alleged superior intelligence and logic, apparently you’re having difficulty figuring that out.

  9. tobe,

    I couldn’t agree more. All the people who paint Dawkins and Harris as “extremists” usually haven’t read them or are misquoting them.

    Brian Coughlan,

    I’m going to pick up on your off-topic comments and disagree that “all humans are part of the same family.” We may be genetically similar, but cultural differences place some members of the human family outside of the bounds of civilization. Dealing with these leftover barbaric tribes and their superstitions requires drastic measures for the safety of the rest of us.

    The threat of terrorism is in no way “vanishingly small.” And the barbarians are quick to jump on any new technology civilization has to offer and turn it against itself. Do we have to lose a city (or several) before you will recognize the ideological threat of barbarism, martyrdom, and global insurgency for what it is? Really, I’m sorry sir, but to say things like that, you just must not have been paying attention.

  10. You know, when you put the passage in context, it’s still creepy, and your defense of it is disgusting. Moreover, Harris is absolutely full of shite when he says the war was or is a war of ideas.

  11. @ Joe

    Even if I grant your claim to creepiness, it is still a far cry from what Bunting was trying to convey. Which is the only point I was trying to make, that the quote was out of context.

    I’m not sure that I did defend Harris, I was just trying to show that his meaning was very different from the one Bunting tried to convey. Either way, would you care to elaborate on why it was “disgusting”?

  12. I don’t think you’ve managed to understand what Harris is clearly saying– that it may be necessary for “brights” at some point to kill believers merely for their belief. You pretend that Harris simply means that the “brights” would only do this if they were being attacked, but that is not what he said. He is saying that– and this is part of his larger argument– since religion leads to violence, then we will be justified in killing religious believers FOR THEIR BELIEF, not the acts that may stem from their beliefs (hence “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”– a proposition is never an act). We are not at war in Afghanistan because of al-Qaeda’s beliefs, we are at war because of their acts). Diregarding Harris’ (and every other new atheist’s) silly, demonstrably false argument that faith is the cause of all the violence in the world, it is not that he was misquoted, it’s that you failed to understand him.

  13. However you try and interpret it, as Chris says, the central point is, that Harris is claiming that it is conceivably justifiable to murder theists, and pre-emptively, no less.

    In believing and accepting this, Atheists can in no way claim to be morally superior to the militant elements of Islam. As a theist, the more I’ve read about atheism over the last several days, the more a sense of extreme unease is growing.

    It’s funny, you know. Initially, I had the idea that there would possibly be some attempt made at an Atheistic justification for their own jihad, but I didn’t expect to seriously find it. I had almost allowed myself to be sucked in by Harris’ lip service to Atheistic moral superiority. Lo and behold, however; it turns out to seriously be there.

    Atheism has just made itself a new enemy.

  14. Wow! :O What does context lend this quote? It goes from soundbite shock tactic to bullshit militarist propaganda – You’ve actually made Harris look MORE of an arsehole Bush-supporter by shedding light on the text. He’s more attractive in the dark..

  15. [...] the free encyclopedia) A fuller discussion of the remark and its full context is found here — https://aloadofbright.wordpress.com/2007/05…quoting-harris/ And Harris himself elaborates on it here — [...]

  16. This is not the only time that Sam Harris has been misquoted from “End of Faith”. It is one of the oldest tactics I know by the Faith Set in their frantic search to create some sort of Atheist Inquisition paranoia. I’ve read the book, I know what he says, I understand where he is coming from. There are learned people who have made this point in books devoid of any theist/atheist context (Michael Ignatieff from “The Lesser Evil” for one). It has weight.


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