Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren
Newsweek hosted a debate between Sam Harris and Rick Warren, mediated by Jon Meacham. The introduction led me to hope for the best, but the debate itself was a disappointment. Its topic, “Is god real,” was answered by Harris and dodged by Warren; the discussion went downhill from that point.
Warren pressed the overused angry/dogmatic/arrogant atheist slur into service, but it fails just as it always has. He complained that “a lot of atheists hide behind rationalism,” but it’s more accurate to say that Warren and other theists hide behind an impermeable-to-reason faith.
When Warren (inevitably) brought up Mao and Stalin, Harris responded this way:
This really is one of the great canards of religious discourse, the idea that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were perpetrated because of atheism. The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism. There's nationalism, there's tribalism, there's racism, there's chauvinism. And there's religion. Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith. […] The killing fields and the gulag were not the product of people being too reluctant to believe things on insufficient evidence. They were not the product of people requiring too much evidence and too much argument in favor of their beliefs.
That isn’t “hiding behind” rationality, it’s relying on it. What would Warren offer in its place other than more dogma?
Later, Warren stated that “In 1974, I spent the better part of a year living in Japan, and I studied all the world religions.” This would sufficient, I suppose, if one wanted merely to establish that all religions make truth claims. If one desires to privilege one religious claim above all others—and above all knowledge created since the texts were written, translated, and compiled—then Warren should hit the books again.
This exchange was quite telling:
WARREN: Why isn't atheism more appealing if it's supposedly the most intellectually honest?
HARRIS: Frankly, it has a terrible PR campaign.
WARREN: [Laughs] It's not a matter of PR.
HARRIS: It is right next to child molester as something you don't want to be. But that is a product, I would argue, of what religious people tell one another about atheism.
The misrepresentation of atheists by theists is one factor, as are people’s unwillingness to be outsiders and their general reluctance to think. Rather than follow up on this line of debate, though, Meacham chose to change topics. Pity.
I wondered briefly if perhaps Warren and Harris should have a blogalogue along the lines of the Harris/Sullivan one, but Warren’s unsuitability to the task was made clear by his reliance on Pascal’s long-defunct Wager. If its weaknesses had not been repeatedly demonstrated over the past 350 years, Warren might have had a point. As it was, he was still foundering after being bested numerous times by Harris.