The Problem with Sam Harris, TDS and Atheism

Sam Harris’ little rant on the Trigonometry podcast recently is concerning for a number of reasons.

You can find the full interview on YouTube, but for a short extract of the most critical comments, I offer the Sky News link below.

Clearly Sam Harris has Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) as does the most prolific contributor to our forum. Why this is a concern is that it enrages even intellectually smart people to the point that they stop thinking past their next infantile knee jerk reaction.

I initially had a lot of respect for Sam Harris’ views on things, as he is highly opposed to religious dogma and ideology, which he claims clouds practical and logical thinking. As a pragmatist, he was sending a message to which I can relate.

This latest rant of his however, totally changes my perspective on atheism and the future of democracy in the West.

Sam’s key message is that humans have a moral code inherently built into our DNA, we therefore do not need any form of religion to help guide us through life. Clearly this rant of his illustrates that he has no moral code other than the end justifies the means. The problem with that moral code is that without rules of engagement, the end is in fact meaningless.

This unfortunately makes me reflect on the source of my own moral code, and I must concede that it is based on the Christian faith, in spite of the fact that I am not a practicing Christian or in fact a true believer in the presence of an almighty God.

Without that residual moral code, I have nothing. The concern therefore is that as we walk away from a unifying religion driving our moral code in the West, do we end up with the end justifying the means, and in fact nothing being of any relevance?

The second major concern is that of the future of Western democracy. Sam Harris’ approach more or less seals the fate of Western Democracy. What he is saying that politically, the end justifies the means. His team needs to win at all cost, screw the rules.

This automatically raises concern in the opposing camp. If your side has the motive to cheat, all they have to do is have the means and the opportunity, and they will.

This more or less guarantees that election fraud will become increasingly a problem and that the opposing side will no longer accept the outcome of an election, because if the opposing side wins, the impact on us will be so devastating, (like and asteroid hurtling to Earth) that we have to overturn it.

Trump is not the primary threat to democracy, our reaction to him is. Trump is more akin to a canary in a coal mine, his demise signals that things are about to be blown apart.

The question is, what can we do about it?


Yes and they are going to try and just gloss over the fact that Zuckerberg has now admitted the FBI told him to censor posts during an election. There will be no end to the lengths these cheaters will go to cheat. It is a problem in search of a solution.

The role of religion, or lack of it, seems rather mixed. There are plenty of atheists on the right, who don’t believe in Jesus, and who don’t even believe in Trump, but who still would support Trump over the Democrats. And Sam Harris is against wokeness - also widely considered a threat to democracy - he’s just against Trump even more than he is against wokeness. This position - that Trump is the greatest danger, and wokeness is the second greatest danger - is fairly common among intellectual liberals. They perceive Trump as a dangerous demagogue rather than as a populist hero.


Since we sane folks profess to understand the difference between substance and imagination or empty vilification when we label things, what is the substantive difference between someone who detests Trump for sound and enumerated reasons, and someone who has TDS? Answering my own question, I’d say that the charge of TDS basically boils down to an attempt to pathologize people who do not approve of Trump and has about as much legitimacy as a wokie accusing one of us of ‘transphobia’ for not supporting their agenda – no legitimacy at all. One might as well say that people who do not approve of Biden have Biden Derangement Syndrome. Quite unfortunate for the good-guys to adopt progressive’s dirty tricks like that.

He said nothing of the sort. He says that his/our moral code – which detests that sort of thinking – is built in to our DNA. One might have exactly the same code as a Christian, but suppose a different origin for that code.


I have never been a Sam Harris fan. I find him insufferably smug, dull and uninspiring. Nevertheless, his rant should hardly be a challenge to a perspective on atheism. It may be true that many parts of the Western moral code are the result of Christian influence. In fact, even if I concede that the Western moral code is Christian in its entirety; it does not therefore stand to reason that Jesus Christ was the only son of God who was crucified, died and rose again from the dead on the third day. Christianity is false in both premise and conclusion.

Atheism is not predicated upon the beliefs of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Denett, et al.

Atheism is predicated upon the belief that every pope, imam, high priest, rabbi, monk and believer are just flat-out-wrong. It has nothing to do with buffoons like Sam Harris.


When Sam Harris stated that the effort to suppress a new story in order to swing the results of an election we “warranted” then yes, he did state that the ends justify the means. And, he went to great lengths to explain his “reasoning”… which was ludicrous.


The latter might say they’d prefer dead kids to Trump. Or they might say he should have a show trial and then be executed. I know you haven’t used the word “show,” yourself Ray, but it’s been implied given the focus on the singular outcome that you’ve called for.

But you won’t find many at all with the same level of seething personal hatred, harboring violent fantasies and the lot. That’s what makes TDS a unique thing. As unique as Trump himself, not belonging there with the other Presidents and all.

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@RayAndrews Gad Saad interprets this so much better than I could.

This is significant because it has polluted the mind of an intellectual that claims to be open minded and free of ideological dogma,

I enjoyed Sam as a foil to Jordan Peterson, he provided an alternative perspective, TDS has dstroyed his credibility for me.

@Obamawasafool it challenges Sam’s claim that one has an inbuilt moral code, not reliant on scripture, this suggests that is BS. Atheism has no moral code.

Exactly, we are on the same page here. I think so is Jordan Peterson. The scriptures are what is important here, wisdom handed down thorough the ages from as far back as the Mesopotamians.

As Jordan Peterson puts it, my moral compass is I act as If there is a God, which does not require me to actually believe in one. This is the conclusion that Jordan Peterson has come to. I am rapidly coming to the same place. We need a common rule book, where it matters more how the game is played and not who wins and loses. Without that we have nothing, and winning or losing has no meaning.

Sam Harris just showed me that without this rule book, he has nothing. He is a pathetic self centered little moron.

Fairness is what is absolutely essential in a functioning society, in a corporate environment and how we treat each other. It is far more important than the outcome. The Woke folks miss this entirely, clearly so does Sam Harris.


Some folks might hold an extreme view, no argument there. But extreme political views are a normal part of human tribalism, not some new ‘syndrome’ . Perhaps I should invent ‘Pence Derangement Syndrome’ for the people who wanted to hang him and broke into the Capitol to do just that? Let’s leave this sort of tactic to the wokies.

Ok, sure. Hatred of Trump is not a qualitatively different thing that hating Trudeau, but I grant that in it’s quantity, and in its level of vituperation, yeah, perhaps it does warrant a term just for itself. But it is not a derangement, it is what should be expected of anyone who respects democracy and the dignity of the office. Hating Trump too much is like brushing your teeth too often – not a Derangement, even if some of us do take it a bit too far. We all have our excesses no?

No fair! Invoking Saad is like calling your dad to a schoolyard fight – of course he’s going to win. But, if Saad thinks Harris is beyond the pale, then, nuts, I yield.


There is a difference between being a heavy drinker and an alcoholic. TDS is when you are so blinded by your hatred you lose all self control. Sam Harris lost all rational control - that is deranged. Can you think of any examples where folks have lost total control over Trudeau, Pence or even Nancy Pelosi?
The difference is not that you want to hang or attack these politicians, but that you are prepared to tolerate massive collateral damage (children corpses in the basement, the total destruction of the legal system or democratic process) just to eliminate them?

If you could set off a local nuclear device that would obliterate Washington DC just to get Trump, Pelosi or anyone you don’t like, that is TDS. One could argue that one would have done that to get rid of Hitler or Stalin. That in my mind is when the bridge is crossed.

Perhaps we can make this a little more personal. I don’t like Trump or Pelosi, but I am not prepared to compromise the integrity of the legal system, the FBI, the election process, corporate funding of the political process, US citizenship or free speech. I don’t see them as sufficient a threat to risk the integrity of these fundamental principles. The collateral damage outweighs their threat. Even if this means I have to tolerate someone in power who thinks a man is a woman. Now if it were Stalin or Rocket Man, perhaps?

You hate Trump, how far are you prepared to compromise the integrity of the process to ensure that he does not get elected in 2024?

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My interpretation of Sam Harris’s atheism is that, you don’t need religion to define morality. You don’t need a book to tell you don’t kill, or love thy neighbor. We all have an intuition to those things. It is in everyone’s best interest to cooperate. I am happy that we live in a world where I can walk out onto the street without fearing of getting stabbed (mostly). He often talks about human flourishing and suffering. I do not agree that the end justifies the means, that is where Sam has lost me, however I do pause. It is not obvious. I think we do not have the capacity to make such calculations. It is more of a thought experiment. If you were to inflict suffering on 1 million people, so that the next 10 generations, perhaps billions would live a better life, would you? If it could be answered with 100% certainty, would it change your mind? The problem is how do you decide? Who decides? More often than not the conclusion is wrong, so probably better not to go there, rather deal with the slow process of improvement.

My observation is that a lot of US election is based on voting against, rather than voting for. People vote for Democrats so that the Republicans don’t win, or vice versa. In my opinion this is wrong. One should vote for a candidate they agree with, even if that person is an independent who has 0 chance of winning. Perhaps my attitude is wrong, this is how Hitler types get elected. Should one know and be able to recognize in advance if a Hitler type is running and vote against?, or should you still allow one to be elected if the majority votes for him/her?


That most certainly would not include me then. As I’ve said, I might well have voted for him in '16 if I was a Yank. I support many of his policies. Trump isn’t the only narcissist asshole in the political world either, it’s just that he’s a moron and an ignoramus too, and thus grotesquely unsuited to be POTUS. Did you see that interview Weiss had with Bill Barr? I concede that Trump does get enough people foaming at the mouth that one might say that TDS is a thing, rather like Hitler Derangement Syndrome or Stalin Derangement Syndrome … get my point?

But as you say – and as Saad convinces me – Harris saying that the time for working within the system is over and that any measure might be used to get rid of Trump is … unbalanced. IMHO the essential thing is to preserve the system. Trump should be indicted, tried and jailed for attempting to subvert and election – in a calm, judicial way.

Not compromise it in the tiniest way. On the contrary, the forces of sanity and democracy must be on their very best behavior – i’s dotted and t’s crossed. The time to break the rules to save them – and these things do happen – will be when he declares martial law or declares himself president for life or some other such crime. Think ‘Caine Mutiny’ with Trump as the captain.

I think you have it exactly backwards, it is strategic voting that put both Hitler and Trump in office – as you say, folks were voting ‘against’ the communists when they voted for Hitler and they were voting against Hillary when they voted for Trump. In both cases, had people voted for what they really wanted, neither asshole would have been elected.

Nice summary of ‘ends justify the means’ tho. In theory, if one could get the math just right, and one was sure that one had minimized suffering, the doctrine is tempting. But things have a way of going wrong, and the evil that one does lives after one, the good one intended often does not materialize. Every true conservative should understand that it is the Constitution that must survive.


That’s my interpretation too. Jordan Peterson claims you need the book of years of distilled wisdom as a guide, Sam says your gut is all that is needed. I too have been grappling with this interesting perspective on the origin of morality. To build on your view of intuition, I offer the fact that we know we have narcissist and psychopaths in our community. These folks don’t have this moral intuition that you refer to, which suggest that the majority of us do.

Sam lost it with Trump, and unfortunately dealt a blow for the athiest intuitive argument in the way he has behaved, suggesting that he needs the presence of rules, otherwise he would justify anything - perhaps he is in fact a psychopath / narcissist?

That’s an easy one, we do. We fight wars and defend our young. I recall an interesting experiment conducted some time ago, where they tested the concept of what if you were to die, and everyone around you did too. People were highly distressed, even though they would be dead and would not be able to care anyway. They then posed the question, what if the event did not kill anyone, but sterilized all humans, so that the species would terminate, but all your friends would live a full life. They were equally distressed.

The conclusion is that we all know we are going to die, but feel that we have made some useful contribution while on earth in some kind of legacy left within the survival of the species. Without that the concept of it all ultimately being worthless really distresses us. Again something built into our gut?

Preserve the rules is more important to me than who the players are. If Trump breaks them then use the rules to punish him. Don’t bend the rules for a brief moment in time to get him, and expect you can put the Genie back in the bottle afterwards …

Just to clarify, Trump declares himself and ultimate leader and makes a whole lot of rules, I don’t recognize those rules, so yes I would not respect them but would respect the ones prior to his action.


Both men are pulling on the same end of the rope tho. Whether or not it is evolved instinct or divine law that originates morality, the morality is there, and Peterson simply says that codifying and sanctifying morality helps. It does help, doesn’t it? We write our laws down in books do we not? Moral laws ditto. We wouldn’t want a cop to be able to stop us and say: “I think you were driving too fast, here’s a ticket.” He must rather say: “The speed limit here is, 80 clicks, you were driving 95, here’s a ticket.”


I think that is where Sam loses it. You don’t get consistency if you survey everyone’s gut feel on everything. We also have narcisist and psychopaths that have no other guide than rules and punishment.

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I agree. Written moral laws are a good thing even if there are occasional exceptions. Gut feelings can’t rule a society. OTOH, as you point out, laws are far from enough – the psychopath lacks the moral instinct that the rest of us have, which is proof that both are needed. We should be good for the sake of being good, but also have the ‘anchor’ of knowing that our goodness has been codified in something like the Ten Commandments. It is insufficient that I hate Trump, it is required that I be able to prove he has broken some written law, not some vague ‘gut feeling’ I have that he’s a jerk.


So here is a crazy thought. What if in our past, we thought it unthinkable the folks would act in a way that would harm the tribe. That they discovered that every now and then a member of the tribe would appear to have absolutely no conscience and would act in their own destructive self interest. They learnt that you had to incapacitate these people, cut off the offending appendage, or remove their eyes, ears or tongue. Perhaps this was merely to incapacitate, rather than as a deterrent to others?
Those with a conscience in a small community would not commit the offense anyway, and those without one, would not be deterred by seeing what happens to others.

Perhaps over time we lost the plot, and now use these actions to coerce compliance and control. Hence Sam’s repulsion of religion as a form of control.

OH, and the final corruption of the process is you use the system for coercion, and then you put the narcissist and psychopaths in control.

We need to get back to incapacitating the folks without a conscience.


Or both. No need to worry about which effect is the stronger, both are effective at the same time.

In the best of all possible worlds we’d all act morally all the time and wouldn’t need law. Christianity is an effort in this direction, the idea was that the tight legalism of Judaism was doing more harm than good. Yet the rotten truth is that people still need written laws. But we can have both at the same time – laws and working conscience.

I disagree with Sam here: there are numerous psychological disorders that exhibit outwardly self-centred behaviour, both springing from nature and nurture, and then you have nurtured self-centred expression from early age coddling. I like to use an observation from everyday life to illustrate what people choose to do when there is no jeopardy: the shopping trolley hypothesis (it’s made up by me with an n=1, but it’s a common observation):

1, There are those that pack the car and return the shopping trolley to the recovery area;
2. There are those that pack the car and leave the trolley where it is: and
3. There are those that pack the car and leave the trolley in parking space (if there is such a thing as
hell, I do hope there’s a special place for these folks there).

I agree that there is a fracturing of religion and morality/values/virtues etc. as society grows more secular, but religion tied to morality etc. is not the only way people in the past organised their society’s moral/ethical framework. For example, the Greeks had virtue ethics, quite apart from their worship of their Gods. Sparta had their Great Rhetra, once again, not connected with religion. I believe it is coming to a point where religion once again, will not be the source of our moral/ethical/virtue norms; I don’t know what entity will be the new source, possibly philosophy will become more visible as a means of projecting these norms.

Atheism and science do not, in their present forms, provide the moral/ethical/virtue norms that modern religion has promoted, so they’re not a one-for-one replacement.