Incendiary "unbeliever" Sam Harris has become a pundit du jour in these times of high religiosity, popping up on TV and radio talk shows from "The O'Reilly Factor" and "The Colbert Report" to tonight's appearance on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." His latest tirade against the god-fearing -- "Letter to a Christian Nation" -- has shot up bestseller lists, enhancing his already considerable reputation as an iconoclast spokesman for today's weary godless.
But despite his fame, Harris himself is something of a mystery. He won't say where he lives. Or where he grew up. Or what his parents do professionally. Or the name of the university where he's pursuing his doctorate in neuroscience. At the request of friends and family, he never acknowledges them by name in his books. He will allow that he's 39 and didn't start out an atheist, though he was raised in a secular family. He is deliberately vague because, he said, murderous religious fanatics know their way around the Internet.
"I have some significant security concerns," Harris said Friday. "The Salman Rushdie effect is something I'm cognizant of."
Other personal revelations aren't so closely guarded, however. The fact, for example, that all Harris' deep-thinking about religion originated from a psychedelic trip in 1986 on the synthetic drug MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy). Or that he dropped out of Stanford University to write a novel and instead spent 11 years exploring spiritual practice, meandering through northern India and Nepal and exploring his mind at retreats in Massachusetts and Marin County where he would meditate for 18 hours a day and refrain from speaking for up to three months. Ultimately, he got a philosophy degree at Stanford. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks inspired him to write his first book, the 2004 bestseller "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason." He expects that once his dissertation is finished, it will lead to his next book, a close look at the "biology of belief."
When he first arrived (10 minutes early) for a cup of coffee in the lobby of the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica, Harris exuded a genial but buttoned-down sort of presence; it would have been a stretch to imagine him all blissed out on a mountaintop -- at least initially. Just back from his New York publicity tour, he wore a crisp blue, short-sleeved shirt and jeans, and carried a pen and paper that he set aside once he began to talk. As the conversation wandered into the murky subject of consciousness and Harris described those contemplative years, he drifted into more metaphysical spheres.
"In the beginning, it's pretty amazing how much distraction is borne of talking and how difficult it is to be in conversation with people and be truly aware of the contents of your own mind and the intentions that are arising," he said.
Speaking of intentions, Harris, with publisher Alfred A. Knopf, is exerting extra effort this month to drum up controversy for his new book, sending copies to his favorite "demagogues" and every member of Congress, even trying unsuccessfully to buy an ad for it in Christianity Today.
The most notable response from the conservative right has come in a review by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who offered a cursory mention on his website, concluding that "it's all been said before."
An unconventional atheist
Still, Harris has maintained the considerable momentum generated by "The End of Faith," published by W.W. Norton and winner of the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Harris couldn't find a publisher to accept it. Even after Norton took it on, some editors refused to meet with him. The book has spent nearly 20 weeks on bestseller lists.
Presale orders of "Letter to a Christian Nation" earned the book a spot among Amazon.com's top 10 a month before its Sept. 19 publication. It debuted at No. 7 on the bestsellers' list and is now in its sixth printing with 110,000 copies in print and a mammoth $200,000 ad campaign behind it.
The idea, Harris said, was to write a slim book that nonbelievers could hand off to their faithful friends and say, "Read this and get back to me."
In the world of ideas, Harris is valued as much for insulting both the delicate "we are one" sensibilities of the liberal left and the Christian tenants of the conservative right. He argues with equal fervor against multiculturalism, religious tolerance, the piety of Christian missionaries (whom he considers "genocidal"), and the "moral intuitions" of Mother Teresa (which he calls "deranged"). He roots his arguments in eclectic ways, backing everything up with Christian, Islamist, even Jainist scripture, Gallup Poll surveys, unassailable science, history and a clear-eyed assessment of the world's suffering.
As Harris repeatedly points out, the blindly faithful account for most of the world's 6 billion people. In America, he said, faith plays an increasingly important role in government, a fact he and his liberal following find chilling.
"Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious," he writes in "Letter to a Christian Nation." "The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency."
Naturally, there are critics (and not just religious ones) who consider Harris an alarmist or just plain wrong. The New York Sun's Adam Kirsch wrote that the book "belongs not in the 21st century, but the 17th." Alan Cochrum of the Fort Worth (Texas) Telegram wrote that "the reward for spending $16.95 and an hour of time to read this book is the same as for whacking yourself on the head with a cast-iron skillet: It feels so good when you stop."
Even Stephen Colbert seemed to step out of character when he gently, but seriously, scolded Harris during an April interview: "People can be rational and believe in God at the same time," he told him during their televised chat in April. Strangely enough, it was his recent appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show that went "without incident." But Harris is hard to place in the polarized conversation that grips the nation these days. He's in no way a conventional anything, not even as an atheist.
"I'm different than many atheists in the sense that mystical experience and spiritual experience are features of human life that I think are incredibly important and interesting and worth paying attention to," he said during his Santa Monica chat, mindful that the comfy sofas around him had suddenly become crowded with visitors.
Then Harris started talking about the philosophy of the mind and his blue eyes started to shine. "We're the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience," he said, with no hint of irony. "And it's actually a false view. Because there's just experience. There's just consciousness and its contents. There's not an 'I' or 'me' in the middle of consciousness to whom it's all relating."
And at that, Harris might as well have been on some snowy Himalayan peak, awake to the world's common threads, uncorrupted by dogma, instead of where he really sat -- in an overstuffed chair, mired in a culture war that had no clear exit strategy.