Harris debates Prager

There is an eight-part email debate (here or here) between Sam Harris and Dennis Prager (h/t: Shirley Setterbo at Atheist Exposed). The standard “angry atheists” snipe (here and here) is taken up by Harris in his opening salvo:

As an atheist, I am angry that we live in a society in which the plain truth cannot be spoken without offending 90% of the population. The plain truth is this: There is no good reason to believe in a personal God; there is no good reason to believe that the Bible, the Koran, or any other book was dictated by an omniscient being; we do not, in any important sense, get our morality from religion; the Bible and the Koran are not, even remotely, the best sources of guidance we have for living in the 21st century; and the belief in God and in the divine provenance of scripture is getting a lot of people killed unnecessarily.

Against these plain truths religious people have erected a grotesque edifice of myths, obfuscations, half-truths, and wishful thinking.

Prager opines that “we believers look at the evidence and believe that there is a God. In that sense, the atheist has considerably less intellectual honesty than the sophisticated believer. The atheist says he knows, despite the fact that what he ‘knows’ is unprovable. The believer believes because he knows that what he believes is ultimately unprovable.” He then slams Harris for “ignorance of intellectually sophisticated God-belief,” as if positing an unprovable deity to compensate for every lack of knowledge is somehow an intellectually sophisticated position. Harris parries this attack thusly:

Atheism does not assert that “it is all made by chance.” No one knows why the universe came into being. Most scientists readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not. One of the extraordinary ironies of religious discourse can be seen in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other nonbelievers for their intellectual arrogance.

He later asks Prager to explain “why it is more reasonable to believe in Yahweh than in Zeus:”

Your job is to either produce a rational argument for the unique legitimacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition (one that reveals why one billion Hindus are utterly in error about the nature of the cosmos), or to admit that you cannot do this. I am willing to bet the farm that you cannot.

After praising the “courage among the religious,” Prager admits that “Nothing can prove God’s existence.” His next assertion is a non sequitur: “If society cannot survive without x, there is a good chance x exists.” He is implying that his Judeo-Christian deity is x, but his argument is reducible via Occam’s Razor to belief in a deity being x. Harris responds:

…please keep your x’s straight. If humanity can’t survive without a belief in God, this would only mean that a belief in God exists. It wouldn’t, even remotely, suggest that God exists.

Prager asks in response, “Can you name one thing that does not exist but is essential to human survival?” Since Prager had the last word, Harris did not have the opportunity to point out that this question completely sidesteps the point Harris made regarding Prager’s unwarranted conclusion.

It’s nice to see the two of them discuss issues in greater depth than in the only previous debate I’d seen, from Prager’s radio show in August 2004. I would like to see them on a stage together sometime, because the immediacy of the exchange could be quite intriguing.


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