Sam Harris is my favorite author of non-fiction, but this has not always been the case. He is usually classified as one of the “Four Horsemen” (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens), to the point where he has remarked that some treat them as “one creature with four heads.” I’ve read books by all four men, and they are very different. Harris started as my least favorite of the four, and has become my favorite. How did this happen? Well, it took some time.
Sam Harris began his career as a writer with a book called The End of Faith, written in the wake of, and largely in response to, the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
Despite my atheism, I did not care for this book. It bashes Islam too much for my tastes, and Harris is still criticized for this fact, generally by people who have not read the rest of his work. Reactions like mine to this book are rare among atheists, for one simple reason: most atheists have a far less favorable view of Islam than I do. For more on that, please see my previous blog-post, and the earlier one it links to.
Islam is not the only religion criticized by Harris in his first book — not by any means. As someone who has never had a Muslim attempt to harm me, but who has suffered greatly at the hands of certain Christians, I was far more receptive to his arguments against the Christian religion. Many members of that religion noticed those arguments as well, and Harris was deluged with hate mail, much of it from enraged Christians in the USA. He wrote his second book as a response to this torrent of criticism.
This second book paid much less attention to Islam, and far more, as the title implies, to Christianity. I enjoyed it more, but admit that this likely has as much to do with my personal history as anything else. Still, Letter to a Christian Nation remains the only book I have ever read in a single sitting; it was so compelling that I was unwilling to stop reading it until the last page.
Both of Harris’s first books may be described as “beating the drum of atheism,” an activity which is interesting and useful only up to a certain point. To his credit as an author, he realized that writing more books which repeat this process would be waste of time. He therefore decided to move on to other subjects — and, in my opinion, his books improved greatly as a result of that decision. Here’s his next one:
The Moral Landscape is not a book about atheism, nor religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, and this book considers human values from a scientific point of view: questions of good and evil, and whether or not such questions can be addressed scientifically. Ethics and morality are things for which some people consider religion essential. Rather than belaboring the fact that he disagrees with this, Harris, in this book, simply makes a compelling case that such topics can indeed be addressed using the scientific method.
This was Harris’s first book after he made the excellent decision to move out, beyond his previous focus on atheism and religion. Were it not for this decision, I would not name Harris as my favorite non-fiction author. The arguments in this book are compelling, I learned much from reading it, and recommend it highly.
Harris’s fourth book tackles the topic of honesty, and its opposite:
Is there ever a situation in which lying is justifiable? Most people would say “yes.” Harris disagrees, and, in this very short book, makes a compelling argument for honesty. His move away from the “drum of atheism” continues in this book, and the rule with Harris is simple: the further away he goes from his original topic of choice, the better his writing becomes.
This brings me to his fifth book, the amazing Free Will.
Do I have free will? Do you? Does Harris? It certainly seems as if we do, but Harris takes the point of view that free will is an illusion, and supplies ample evidence to support this position. Denying free will is a dangerous game, of course, for, without free will, how can anyone be held responsible for their actions? Harris does not avoid this problem, but tackles it directly. Reading this book has had a powerful impact on how I view a great many things.
There is more of Harris to read, for those who are interested. I follow his blog regularly (http://www.samharris.org), and he has a new major book release coming soon, as well. Since he keeps getting better with each new book, I am looking forward to it with anticipation.