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Atheist Evangelist

Sam Harris
Sam Harris has written two books in which he says religion fosters divisiveness. Theologians dismiss his arguments as crude and oversimplified. (Jonathan Alcorn for The Washington Post)

It doesn't help that Harris lacks a marquee academic credential, though he is working on a PhD in neuroscience. But because Harris's work has caught on, his ideas have been debated in symposiums at a number of campuses, and Harris has gone toe-to-toe with some of the best and the brightest of the believers.

He seems to relish the experience, and so do his fans. At the New York Public Library debate, the crowd had obviously come to hear him, and when he was interrupted by his opponent a few times, his supporters were angry enough to hiss a little. ("We love you, Sam!" one attendee shouted early on.) Dressed in a dark suit, Harris never raised his voice. He just laid out the anti-catechism matter-of-factly:

"If the Koran were exactly the same," he said, toward the end of the night, "and there were just one line added to it, and the line said, 'If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her,' I can tell you what kind of world we'd live in. We'd live in a world where red-haired women would be killed often. We'd live in a world where people like yourself" -- and here Harris gestures to his opponent, Oliver McTernan -- "would say, 'That's not the true Islam.' Twenty women in Baghdad would have their heads cut off and someone would come forward and say, 'This has nothing to do with Islam. Some of them were strawberry blond. Some of them were strangled."

A Dropout for 11 Years

Over lunch the day before the debate, Harris seems utterly placid, which is a surprise. Reading his book, you envision a firebrand in a hair-pulling panic. To find religion so scary is like being terrified of cellphones -- there is no end to the potential for fright. But Harris speaks methodically, in fully formed paragraphs and without much emotion.

"My writing is angrier than I am," he says, smiling a little and sipping a Coke. "The maniac comes out a bit when I get behind the keyboard."

Harris is 39 and looks uncannily like Ben Stiller. He grew up in Los Angeles, in a home he describes as non-religious. (For the record, his mother is Jewish and his father, now deceased, was a Quaker.) Harris asked that all but the most basic biographical details be omitted from this article, even where he lives and where he studies. Nobody has threatened his life, but he thinks you can't be too careful. Plus, a movie deal is in the works that could make him the focus of a documentary about atheism. He would like to minimize his tracks sooner rather than later.

What he'll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. ("I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.") He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. Harris stood out, she recalls, not just because of his relative youth -- everyone else was a generation older -- but because of his intensity.

"His passion was for deep philosophical questions, and he could talk for hours and hours," Salzberg recalls. "Sometimes you'd want to say to him, 'What about the Yankees?' or 'Look at the leaves, they're changing color!' " At the time, he was supported financially by his mother, though he did work for one memorable three-week stint in the security detail assigned to the Dalai Lama.

"You walk into a room and everyone is beaming good vibes," he recalls, "and I'm looking for dangerous lunatics. I wouldn't recommend it."

During his 11-year dropout phase, Harris read hundreds of books on religion, many of which are listed in the lengthy bibliography of "The End of Faith." His interests eventually turned to philosophy of the mind, which led him to re-enroll at Stanford in 1997, this time to study philosophy. He wrote a lot before and after he got his diploma, but nothing was published.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

"I could have told you what is wrong with religious dogmatism on September 10th," he says. "But after 9/11, I realized the role that religious moderation played in providing cover for fundamentalism."

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