Beliefwatch: The Atheist

At lunch with Sam Harris, one is struck by how personable, how familiar he seems--a soft-spoken, thoughtful man with pleasant manners, a man who wrote two best-selling books while pursuing a degree in neuroscience. He is, in other words, an unlikely infidel.

But as infidels go, Harris is an astonishingly successful one. The son of a Jewish mother and a Quaker father, he has ?written one of two books currently on The New York Times best-seller list that debunk belief in God, any belief in God, as ir-rational at best and destructive to human society at worst. This week "Letter to a Christian Nation" sits at 6 on the hard-cover nonfiction list, up from 11 from last week; the other, Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion," is number 8, up from 12. In spite of his appearance, Harris is very angry, and "Letter" is a readable, exhortatory screed, a response to all the Scripture-quoting e-mail he received from Christians who read his first book. Religion, he writes in "Letter," is "obscene"--not just repellent, but "utterly repellent."

Has he ever converted a believer into an unbeliever? "I may have been a proximate cause," he says. "People really do move from being fundamentalists to atheists; I can attest to that because I get a lot of e-mails from them." One writer, he says, was a minister who lost his faith but continued to lead his church because he couldn't think of anything else to do.

Reading Harris is bracing, and, even for the most thought-ful believers, infuriating. Meeting him is easier, and he speaks almost lovingly of religion's cultural legacy. "I see noth-ing wrong with our churches and synagogues and religious music and festivals," he says later, by phone. "I love Christmas and stained glass." As a child, he declined to be bar mitzvahed, but he did not call himself an atheist until after the 2005 pub-lication of "The End of Faith," his first book. And Harris defies expectations when he says he doesn't know what happens after death. "On top of that, I don't think anyone else does, either. I think the people who are certain on both sides of that question are not entirely reasonable." Don't get too comfortable, though. His next work, he says, will be a "proper work of neuroscience," in which he debunks such unreasonable concepts as free will.

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