Sam Harris Is Great, But He Isn’t a Good Atheist Either

This post is a response to Can there be good atheists? A response to Pastor Rick Henderson by James A. Lindsay, Ph.D.  I would like to state that I have benefited from this exchange.  James is probably much smarter than me and I appreciate that anything I have to say would merit a thoughtful response by him.

For some time prominent atheist thinkers have been laboring to demonstrate a foundation for objective moral values.  If they cannot do so they are left with only two choices.  The first is to reject the notion of objective moral values all together.  Some have.  Thankfully, many others like Sam Harris find that unconscionable.  The only other option would be to jettison their claim for atheism.   That is not to say that they would be theists.  Rather, the furthest they could remove themselves from theism is agnosticism.

This sort of option isn’t suitable for those with a keen mind like Sam Harris.  Should he retreat to agnosticism, there would be no discernable foundation for objective moral values, leaving us defenseless to the movements of those who assert a worldview that is hostile to our own well-being.  A third possible option is to muddle along in an endless web of self-contradictions.  But this has no appeal to any serious minded person.

Of all the heroes of atheism, I believe Sam Harris comes the closest to providing a foundation for objective morality that is consistent with atheism.  Since we are not tossing horseshoes or hand grenades the question is, does he succeed?  Getting close doesn’t really get us anywhere.

Before getting into the meat of Sam Harris’ proposal, we should first define what we mean by objective morality.  It is any moral value that is true independent of human construct, opinion or agreement.  We don’t have to like it for it to be true.  We don’t have to want it to be true.  We don’t have to develop a system of thought to make it true.  It would be true regardless.

You can digest his thoughts for yourself by reading his book, The Moral Landscape.  For further enjoyment you can watch him defend his claims in a debate with William Lane Craig here.  Because we are also talking about worldviews, it’s important to identify the necessary parameters of a worldview.    Below are 3 necessary affirmations of any expression of atheism.  You can certainly refuse these but you can’t refute them and be a consistent atheist.

1. The universe only material.  If the universe is not purely material (natural), then we are conceding the existence of things beyond the natural.  These would be things that exist beyond natural explanation. That is by definition supernatural.  If there is supernatural reality atheism is not true. This is not offered as a proof of Christian theism.

2. The universe is scientific.  If the universe is not knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics, we have no confidence in asserting atheism. That would allow for unknown and unexplained forces, i.e. the supernatural or a god. This allows room for agnosticism, but not atheism.

3. The universe is impersonal.  If the universe has a consciousness or will, we are affirming pantheism at the very least, so atheism is defeated.  If the universe is guided by a consciousness or will, we are asserting some kind of theism or polytheism, so atheism is defeated.

These are the unforgiving boundaries of serious minded atheism.  Prominent atheists have noted repeatedly and forcefully that there is no basis for meaning in such a universe.  It is in opposition to his brethren that Sam Harris steps into the arena.

In The Moral Landscape and the debate mentioned above Harris asserts that the bedrock of moral value is the avoidance of unnecessary suffering and the promotion of well-being.  Further, these ideas are woven deeply and strongly into the core of every person demonstrating that they are actually the real and best understanding for our ideas of evil and good.

It is at this point that we should note one very serious problem.  He has essentially redefined good to mean well-being and evil to mean unnecessary suffering.  If you watch the debate you will see how Harris is talking in circles by modifying moral terms.

  • Good produces well-being.  Well-being produces well-being. 
  • Well-being is good.  Well-being is well-being.
  • Evil produces unnecessary suffering.  Unnecessary suffering produces unnecessary suffering.
  • Unnecessary suffering is evil.  Unnecessary suffering is unnecessary suffering.

These statements are identical.  Yet, this serious problem is not his most pressing problem.

Harris is smart, engaging and funny.  I’d love to share a beer with him.  His argument for objective morality is stimulating and at points compelling.  But if we take him seriously, he utterly comes off the rails before moving one significant step toward his desired end.  Tragically, his argument, though grand, rests on no foundation at all.

Logical Suicide:  killing his own argument before he even starts

Harris admits that every branch of science is built on certain axiomatic assumptions.  He goes on to concede that you have to assume that the worst possible suffering is bad and worth avoiding.  While Harris will not have a hard time finding people who want to avoid suffering and enjoy the sublime, he asks us to take this supposed objective truth on faith rather than evidence.

Let’s not gloss over the fact that Harris has let the cat out of the bag.  He is right when he contends that assuming axiomatic truths does not render science unscientific.  This shows that science, though absolutely indispensable, is insufficient on its own to account for knowledge.

Additionally, this is where Harris commits the same fault of all others who attempt to build a moral argument from reason.  You have to assume a moral starting point.  That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence.  It has to be assumed.  That is the same as saying it must be accepted on faith.

If it’s not a necessary implication of atheism nor demonstrated by evidence, upon what basis would any good atheist accept this as objectively true?  Harris is now asking us to ignore the confines of atheism and play by a new set of rules.  If he has the authority to do so, he has not taken any effort to demonstrate why would should trust him as the authority.

His response to this objection is that the only way to object to his view is if there is something wrong with you.  Though he is not a religious fellow this sounds suspiciously religious.  It is rather god-like to say, “If you disagree there is something fundamentally wrong with you.”

If there is any evidence for his case it is that all people, unless there is something fundamentally wrong them, concede that this is true.  One, that is another way of saying since we want it to be true it must be true.  Or, since most of agree that it is true then it must be true.  This falls perilously short of demonstrating any objective moral values.

If by some evolutionary chance in the future the number psychopath’s outnumbered the non-psychopaths the continuum of human well-being would look quite different from what it does today.  The well-being of psychopaths is expressed in their utter disregard for others and delight in suffering.  William Lane Craig points out that this means that the continuum of human well-being is not identically the same as a moral landscape.  You can read more on that here.  Seen in this light, Harris’ moral landscape could be ever changing, thus not objectively true.

This should be enough to dismiss Harris’ serious but unsuccessful attempt for grounding objective morality.  But if we press it even further, the unravelling becomes inescapably clear.  Harris’ view can be summarized, since we all prefer well-being we should necessarily prefer the well-being of all.  That is not a necessary conclusion.  One could start at the exact same point as Harris and just as reasonably argue for personal well-being, ending up at nihilism.

Moral Absurdity

Finally, consider 2 cases that could not be considered immoral in Harris’ world:

  • Raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug.  There is no diminishment of well-being for the supposed victim.
  • Stealing $500,000 from a billionaire.  What possible diminished well-being could the billionaire experience?

If we were to take Harris’ position seriously what grounds would we have to punish those who committed these acts?  We could conceive of many other similar immoral actions in which no perceived well-being is diminished.  Yet, we all, or at least most, would feel a sense of justice if we were to convict such persons.  Is that sense of justice objectively true or a common delusion?


When I say that Sam Harris is not a good atheist I am not saying he is not a good person.  Rather, I am pointing out areas where he thinks, acts and advocates in contradiction to the necessary implications of his own atheism.

I will happily concede that there is nothing in this post that serves to validate my own position of objective morality being rooted in the character of an eternal God.  I’ve already written too much for a single blog post.

So, what can we know?  We can know that Sam Harris is caught on his own hook.  Rather strangely he does not attempt to respond to these objections.  He prefers to attack the God and morality of Biblical theism.  He is free to do so.  He may be right about atheism.  But if he is, he is wrong about objective morality.

9 thoughts on “Sam Harris Is Great, But He Isn’t a Good Atheist Either

  1. Friday, December 20, 2013
    An open letter to pastor Rick Henderson

    Hello Mr. Henderson. I recently read your post “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”, and thought that I would offer a response on the woefully inept manner in which it was so clumsily composed. You offer a challenge to atheists in your post as well, to which I will rise with relative ease.

    But first!

    Let’s delve into your ridiculously petty construct, and kick out some of the warped 2 x 4s upon which it is teetering, so that you may approach it again with a clearer understanding of what you are referring to. I’ll reference the passages verbatim for you as I respond to them. I understand that your theological perspective allows several hundred interpretations of the same event, so to avoid that, I’ll make sure to address what you said. Not what I think you could or should say. So here goes.

    You begin your post with this statement: “You clicked on this post for one of two reasons. Either you’re hoping that I’m right or you know that I’m wrong. For those of you who are eager to pierce me with your wit and crush my pre-modern mind, allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case. Like encountering a hustler on the streets of Vegas, the deck is stacked, and the odds are not in your favor.”

    Now, aside from your conclusion of what my motivation was for clicking on your story being subjectively incorrect (I clicked because I am always curious to witness the depths of theistic stupidity), it is inherently troubling to think that people “hoping” you are “right” about “No Good Atheist” as a motivation to click on the miniature dumpster you posted, assumes that there are people incompetent enough to believe that absurd proposition. Then again, you are around, amongst, and a member OF individuals on a daily basis who subscribe to the idea of a personal, all knowing, all seeing, intervening, and ever-present creator of the universe, so again, it isn’t surprising that you’d pander to people believing in absurdities like your notion of “god”. I suppose doing so ensures that you have a paycheck every month, another fact of which I am certain that you are keenly aware.

    You also posed what you have decided to be a “challenge” to Atheists, but I fear that your knowledge of what a challenge is comprised of needs immediate improvement. Although I extrapolated what you believe to be a challenge, it isn’t at all clear that what you are proposing meets the criteria of that term. As such, I’d say that your communication skills are in an identical state of dysfunction.

    Let me begin with that old, time honored secular effort of explaining things as they actually are, rather than what crackpot snake oil salesmen say they are.

    According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of challenge is: verb – To invite someone to join in a contest. While your PROPOSITION is that any response to this soppy paper will only further prove your case, you failed to engage individuals in a tangible contest with an objectively observable outcome that favored either yourself (the CHALLENGER!) or the respondent. Since the terms of your “challenge” have no meaningful structure or discernable outcome, it must therefore be intellectually and academically identified as theological bantha poo doo.

    It also doesn’t surprise me that you are familiar with “stacking the deck” so to speak, being an adherent to an ideology that teaches children to hate, but in the future you may want to actually have CARDS to accomplish that feat. It is good to finally see a religious leader correctly identifying their character by comparing themselves and what they say to a hooligan in a back alley who’s only interest is liberating a person from their cash. Well done, sir.


    Next you take a moment to define a term. “Before our love fest continues, allow me to define an important term, “worldview.” A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality, Nickleback — everything. Everybody has one.”

    Now, aside from that one word you’ve apparently invented actually being known to the rest of the academic world as two distinct words, i.e. “world”, and “view”, your definition adds complexity where none exists. Once again, according to the Oxford English dictionary, “world view” is defined as a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.

    Let’s continue: “While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:
    1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
    2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
    3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.”

    Let’s deal with number two first. You make a statement here that no responsible atheist can agree to. Allow me to compose a more accurate revision of your number two statement.

    “So far, the universe appears to operate within the boundaries of known scientific principles. It is observable, knowable, and governed by the known laws of physics.”

    Now, this would be a much more agreeable statement. I understand why your perception of the existence of all things is hopelessly enclosed within the pages of your employee manual (the bible), but if you are going to assume an epistemic position of people who are not bound by those confines, you must endeavor to divorce yourself of your personal biases, and actually effort a clear understanding.

    In your first statement, you say that a non-negotiable affirmation of atheism is dependent upon the precept that there is no such thing as the supernatural, which is quite true. We would however, in the context of your statement that follows disagree. It is true that atheists believe that there is no realm that is apart from spatiotemporal existence that would qualify for what you define as “supernatural”. However, you then state that “gods” and “supernatural forces” would be included in that designation. You reveal a critical weakness in your own theology in that in order for something like “god” to exist, it must be supernatural, or non-spatiotemporal. Atheists are open to the discovery of a natural being or consciousness that is responsible for the creation of the universe. Unfortunately for your ideology, as well as that hypothesis, there is exactly zero evidence…so far… that it exists. There is however evidence that the universe operates without the assumption that it was “created”.

    Your third statement is generally accepted as true.

    “Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”

    As I’ve shown, two of the three assertions that you have made are lazily dismissed with a bit of good ole’ fashioned cognition. Additionally, they have the misfortune of not being the mortal blow you said they’d be. Your assertion that everything that happens in such a universe is “meaningless” is categorically false. Without your existence, and the ability to reason your existence (albeit clumsily, for you anyway) you would simply be unable to perceive anything to what you now assign the highest meaning. This is a result of your learning from the observation of your environment, as well as the subjective interpretation of your experiences. Without your understanding of language, you cannot understand the scripture you so ardently adhere to, etc. You are bound to even your most basic editorial decisions and trivial practices being dependent upon a learned set of instructions. Think of how your priorities would change with only slight modifications to the variables of your life experiences. It isn’t difficult to see how “meaning” changes depending upon our environment. Each event that you listed has a subjective meaning for the individual experiencing it, which is the only “meaning” anyone ever derives, from anything. What you are attempting (again, clumsily) is to assert that “meaning” without a centralized authority to tell us what that is, is trivial. It’s one of the most comical propositions that theological quackery has to offer. Any entity that you must choose as a governing authority of morality and by extension – meaning – WITHOUT EVIDENCE is entirely subjective. Unless you can illuminate special information that provides evidence for your inept hypothesis of all things (Christianity), you will continue to enjoy a comfy collective seat on the short bus.

    Your next declaration takes the taco in your broken little sad box of theology.

    Here it is: “A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”

    While this drivel inspired a bit of haughty laughter, it was useful for little else. First, you assert that the only good atheist is a consistent one, and then go on to state that calling an atheist “good” is nonsensical, because there is no objective morality. The lecture circuit is full of idiotic statements like these, however more responsibly delivered, but that isn’t really what concerns me. I believe that morality is subjective, and that it pre-dates Christian (or any other religion’s) scriptural example. There are inherently held precepts that seem to guide our morality from a young age, but our intelligence has more to offer our sensibilities regarding our relation to other human beings than any “objective” standard could. We’ve found throughout our recorded history of civilization that murder, theft, perjury and rape are as close to absolute as they can possibly be. Close, but hopefully you’ve already reasoned exceptions to them. Since most of them are promoted and indeed often required by the pious or God himself in scripture, I will have to assume that the morality espoused by Christian theology, is inferior to my own subjectively deduced version. It is that inherent morality that is biological evolved in each person that makes your god seem like a pimp in some dark alley. Should we even touch on vicarious redemption? The act of jesus washing away the sin of the offending human race to gain their loyalty and obedience? It is one of the most irrevocably unethical aspects of the Christian “way”.

    Your final comment about morality is sophomoric. The cold sting of despair? Morality is quite simply the subjective arrangement of governing principles that people use to define right and wrong. You, in your closed, inept dogma system may need a standard to adhere to when considering morality, most of the rest of us derive that from the empirical data collected during our analysis of empathy. When held in comparison to Christian morality, it does a much better job of instructing us.

    Since I am not a religious, goldbricking lay about, the above will have to suffice as a response to your hopelessly ridiculous interpretation of the mechanisms of morality as they relate to the atheist. Unlike you, I don’t enjoy endless paid hours of postulation on how to keep the veiled eyes of the pious veiled, so we will skip on to your conclusion.

    Here it is: “Conclusion: Intelligent people ask serious questions. Serious questions deserve serious answers. There are few questions more serious than the one I’m asking. How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you. One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself — becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question. Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true. If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance. This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you believe. You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.” “Intelligent people ask serious questions.”

    Really? Perhaps questions like “Should I believe in an all-powerful creator entity without any evidence of its existence?” somehow elude your inquiring and ironic mind. Since atheists do not have the opinion that there is an “objective morality”, your assertion that “objective morality” requires an explanation is nonsensical. Here’s a tip: if the “objective” portion of your morality system is dependent upon cultural norms, or can be rendered invalid with exceptions, IT ISNT OBJECTIVE. This is one of the reasons that honest people call the religious hypocritical. It isn’t your “worm” status as a “Christian” that make you a hypocrite, and in need of a savior. It’s that your savior is the hypocrite. “World Views” don’t answer questions. They inform them. I am constantly surprised and saddened by people who are so willing to surrender their individuality. Your shallow understanding of morality is not the basis by which every other human must understand morality. It is not difficult to not only understand your moral position as a Christian, but to demolish its flaccid attempt at creating a standard of behavior.

    So, without getting into the meat of morality, I have dismantled your platform, and shown your “objective standard” to be inherently unethical and immoral. A CRUTCH, so to speak that you use to inform your apparent decision to absolve yourself of the more difficult moral task of deciding whether or not to make an attempt at understanding your existence, and what you should do with it while it is “yours”. Since you believe in all the fantasies of doctrine, you have no accountability whatever to the evolution of society, or its changing moral and ethical landscape. We believe in ourselves, and each other. We learn from our interactions and continue to seek answers to questions that are illusive and important. Our world view is broad, and our convictions are attended to with deliberation and conscientiousness. That is a strong foundation. Strong enough, in fact, to carry and reason through the manufactured ghost stories of man that people like you scalp to the desperate as true. Think about THAT as you’re cashing your next paycheck provided to you by people who can’t afford to give the money they put in the collection platter at your church.

    Your pal in humanity,


    @pastorrickhenderson @huffingtonpost

  2. I’m sad to see you continuing with the 3 false assertions about atheism. Those are not necessary positions to atheism.

    Regarding axioms, you can’t simply dismiss them outright and call it a win. If you aren’t willing to accept axioms, no debate can take place. No logical arguments can be made. Everything is stonewalled if you insist on that, including your own arguments about God.

    If you refuse to accept Harris’ axioms simply because they are axioms, then nobody has to accept your axiom that reality exists. You can’t prove life isn’t just a computer program, so none of your arguments have any merit either.

    It’s the ultimate intellectual cop-out.

    Now I’d like to say something about the topic in general, that I think you need to understand if you want to have any real discussion on morals with atheists. From the atheist’s viewpoint, there is no God, hence no source for objective morals. Morals only exist as a concept, as we define them, so naturally there aren’t any objective morals from that viewpoint.

    However, due to very simple reasons of our nature, we do have a framework from which to derive ‘best’ morals. If you accept the framework, then there are objectively best morals that can be deduced logically. I think that’s what most atheists mean by objective morals if they choose to use that term.

    You actually do accept the framework, but you’re contesting it simply because you think it’s an easy win. That’s not a very mature way to have a discussion, and if both sides employ that tactic, then every discussion comes to a draw at the question ‘Is reality real?’.

  3. Rick – you make the same claim here that you did in the original post,
    “If there is a supernatural reality atheism is not true.”

    That is simply an assertion you are making.
    I see no argument for it.

    There are many atheists who believe in psychic phenomenon, ghosts, etc. The belief in supernatural realities does not in any way shape or form equal the belief in a deity.

    I don’t see how or where you make that logical leap.
    You simply seem to assert it.
    Please explain.

  4. And as a side note… you also said “If by some evolutionary chance in the future the number psychopath’s outnumbered the non-psychopaths the continuum of human well-being would look quite different from what it does today.”

    I can’t help but feel that you may not understand the theory of evolution or the way in which natural selection works. Natural selection would never favor psychopathy, and as such the number of psychopaths would never outnumber the non-psychopaths.

    Natural selection is not random or up to chance.
    Mutations are random and up to chance, but the mechanism by which they are selected is a guided process via environmental pressures.

  5. Rick,

    I have to echo the argument that your definition of atheism is made up, and this tying it to morality is simply false. Go to wikipedia.
    As for your foundation for morality, I’d say your argument threatens your own position more than it does anyone else’s. If your morality depends on a hierarchy – an authority telling you what is good and bad – how can you call that morality at all?
    Personally, I think there are many good religious people as there are many good atheists. I’d say those who embody it the best are those who realize that the rules are only one part of any moral code.

  6. I would add to Dale’s reply and say that at best your own morality is subjective as well.

    I can only assume that you believe slavery to be immoral (I hope I’m right on that). I also assume you do not take your children to the edge of town and stone them to death if they are rebellious or stubborn, because that would be immoral.

    If I’m right on those two assumptions – then how did you decide that those acts would be immoral given they are biblically supported?

    Deuteronomy 21:18-21
    Leviticus 25:44-46

    They come directly from God, and as you’ve said many times ‘If something is objectively true no one has to agree for it to be true.’ So, even if we don’t understand it or like it, these are the laws that God has laid out for us, right?

    But, at some point you decided that stoning your child to death was probably not the ‘right’ thing to do. You also decided at some point that owning another human being as property was also not the ‘right’ thing to do. And I would agree with you on that.

    But, is that just our opinion?
    Because it is not biblically supported.

    God supports slavery.
    God supports the stoning of stubborn children.
    And objective morality is always right, regardless of what we feel about it.

    So – either you accept the objective morality of your God and support slavery and the stoning of disobedient children are morally good, or you have to accept that you also make ‘subjective’ decisions based on your OWN ideas of what is right and wrong, regardless of what your God says.

  7. I would finish that off by saying that if in fact you do not think slavery and child abuse are morally ‘good’ then by your same argument you would not be a ‘Good’ Christian (in the same way you claim there is no such thing as a ‘Good’ Atheist).

    To remain consistent with Objective Morality you have to accept ALL of it, not just the parts you agree with.

  8. Robert,

    I hear you, and I take your point though I think it can be interpreted as God ordering slavery only in the most literalist sense. After all, even though not all of us think the bible is nonsense, those of us who are atheist see it as something written by people, not any god.
    What scriptures like that indicate to me is that with all the mistranslation, misinterpretation, and conflicting messages, the bible is at best a divinely-inspired work. Of course some of us (I, that is, but also some major faiths) believe it is the work of some noble, and some not-so-noble people, and in part allegorical. Some, of course think it is trash, and other the direct word of a god.

  9. I have not read any other comments but the last 4 titles of your posts (i did read the one on joyce meyer and joel osteen) are dripping with negativity and verbal anger. If I wasn’t a Christian and saw this blog it would not want me to love jesus more, it would make me think Christians are arrogant and question what right they think they have to slam others so badly in the name of Jesus. Be careful what you are posting brother. Jesus had a righteous anger, and that we should for those who are corrupting His kingdom but that post isn’t righteous.. that post reads more angry and bitterness than anything.

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