Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sam Harris v. Dennis Prager

Here is a great internet moment. Sam Harris debates Dennis Prager on the basic question- Is it rational to believe in god? Prager is forced to write and voice his views, two things he is very well-known for doing well. However, in this forum (e-mail debate) he isn't simply writing an essay that allows no response. And, unlike the radio show, he can't fade out to a commerical break or talk over the person he disagrees with.

The result: I've never "seen" Prager so upset and frustrated. That's what happens when someone shows how stupid your views are. You be the judge.


I have agreed with some of Prager's points in other fora, so I thought I'd try hard to read this objectively. I found Harris to come across as razor-sharp and reasonable- easily a cut above Prager's intelligence, which lost its patina of respectability without the aforementioned crutches that he and the other radio flacks enjoy so much.

In my view, Harris had the command of the facts and the arguments. Prager was obtuse at times and cagey and immature at other times. He was off his game and very nervous to have to put it all in black and white. He tried to run to the refuge of Francis Collins, a brilliant christian geneticist who happens to be a christian. But Collins' faith had little to do with scientific inquiry, as Harris is quick to point out in a scathing manner that nearly made me cringe with embarassment for Prager and Collins both.

There were two misteps that Harris made, which is certainly forgiveable, given the veritable field day he had with Prager. However, as something of a debater myself, I can't help but be frustrated that the following two points weren't forthcoming:

1. How does Prager justify not becoming christian in the face of the superior intellect Collins' "realization" of the truth of christianity? Prager is fond of touting "judeo-christian" values, as the servant Jew of his christian owners at Salem Communications, a nutty christian radio conglomerate. Well, let's see- Christianity is Judeo-christian, but Judaism is only Jewish. Better to be christian and have the best of both worlds, eh, Denny?

2. On the topic of how the world would fall apart without belief in God, I am reminded of the common argument that atheists did terrible things, such as Stalin and Hitler. However, virtually all of the Nazis who killed and tortured and horded all the innocents in WWII most likely considered themselves christian! Same for the Russians who slaughtered 20million of thier fellow russians under Stalin.

Hat-tip: CarbonShidduch

6 Comments:

Blogger Carbon Shidduchim said...

BTA,

No sense bringing up Hitler as an example of X/T-anity. he was as much into Norse mythology and paganism [as any player of Castle Wolfenstein can tell you]. Marx was the progenitor of communism which begat Lenin and Stalin. I don't think Marx, Pol Pot and Mao could be considered faithful servants of JC either, so the balance of 20th century genocide was presided over by non-practicing secularists, with at least a strong athiest-bent.

Regarding Christianity vs. Judaism, ironically, I will say that they [Christians] have a much stronger tradition of encouraging scientific discourse, at least since Galileo. Various Popes from Pious to Paul have endorsed the major scientific breakthroughs from evolution to the Big Bang - arguably the two thorniest issues for dogmatic followers of Orthodox Judaism.

Catholicism, at least, is the only religious organization to fund an astronomical observatory (http://clavius.as.arizona.edu/vo/R1024/VATT.html) as well as numerous conferences on evolution and science. Can you imagine the Agudath Israel Observatory?!

In fact, the 'father of the Big Bang' and the 'father of genetics' were both a Catholic priests: George Lemaitre and Gregor Mendel. We often hear, via email, about the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobelists, but none in the physical sciences are observant. I guess we also find out in the same emails that luminaries like Geraldo Rivera and Scarlett Johansenn are Jewish too...

We [Jews] owe a lot to the non-Jews. We recon our calendar thanks to the goyim. We only "know" it's the year 5767 thanks to the work of the Romans around the birth of JC which was only reconciled by Hillel II 400 years after JC's birth. Hmmm...that's *exactly* the time when Christianity was legalized by Constantine. Coincidence?!?!

It seems that Christianity is less obsessed with literalist dogma than OJ. So maybe, ironically modelling OJ on Christianity, at least as far as harmonizing religion and science, would be a step in the direction.

-Carbon Shidduchim

12/05/2006 10:17 PM  
Blogger BTA said...

"No sense bringing up Hitler as an example of X/T-anity."

I didn't. My statement was trying to show that even if Hitler or Stalin were themselves atheist, the majority of their stormtroopers were christian. It's never been established that WWII-era germans or russians had any greater representation of atheists than at any other time.

This is the section I believe you were referring to, which should hopefully be clarified now:

"However, virtually all of the Nazis who killed and tortured and horded all the innocents in WWII most likely considered themselves christian! Same for the Russians who slaughtered 20million of thier fellow russians under Stalin."

In other words, don't talk about Hilter and Stalin in a vacuum, since they relied on the evil acts of their hitmen.

My point wasn't christianity vs. judaism, you have to read the interview section where Prager talks up Collins. My point was that, while Prager's deferring to Collins as the ultimate arbiter of the "evidence" for God, why not defer to him in christianity as well?

12/06/2006 1:23 AM  
Blogger Carbon Shidduchim said...

"In other words, don't talk about Hilter and Stalin in a vacuum, since they relied on the evil acts of their hitmen."

there's little evidence that Hitler's, and especially Stalin's, henchmen were *practicing* christians either. the Church was/is all but banned in most communist countries, even til today - China is the perfect example.

Also, what about the genocide of Pol Pot, Mao, etc? There's little semblence of christianity there. what matters was/is the leadership...which in most communist countries is athiest, with the exception of western hemisphere countries like Cuba which -are- christian and also largely free from genocide.

at any rate, you don't need to look to modern, christian examples of genocide perpetrated by the pious...just read the torah.

it's clear that the majority of murderers/violent criminals in america are 'christian', but by default since the vast majority of the population considers themselves to be 'christian'. the same way nazi germans considered themselves to be 'christian'. but there's a distinction between this level of 'observance' of the population and collins. this is why i brought up the example of jewish nobelists. you wouldn't consider the majority to be religious practitioners, even at the level of a Collins.

prager doesn't use collins to prove god ['arbiter of the evidence...'], nor does -collins- seem to try to prove god, only explicate his reasons for believing in the "trinity". it's pretty clear he admits it's faith not proof. FYI: Prager claims Dawkins refused to come on his show, likely b/c Dawkins refuses to debate and therefore lend credibility to creationists as a policy.

also my point, above, is that by not focusing on the old testament dogma christians are free from defending against attacks from science. all they need to fend off are attacks on their own plot-lines! OJ shields itself from such topics by considering Genesis from a literal, and thus sacrosanct, standpoint not permissible to discuss.

-Carbon Shidduchim

12/06/2006 3:46 AM  
Blogger BTA said...

CS- you're missing the point. Believers are fond of pointing out that mass murdering politicians were atheist, and often cite Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. I suppose they are trying to say that without belief in the ultimate authority of a god, you are free to do any kind of cruel, amoral thing you wish.

My point about their henchmen being believers totally undercuts that silly argument. It's that simple.

You and I could agree that it's irrelevant, because that's how I feel. However, my argument is the perfect counterargument, and there are several others: 1) Popes have either decreed mass murder or looked the other way 2) religious muslims like Hussein, the hezbolites, bin laden, do plenty of mass murder while believing in god.


"Prager claims Dawkins refused to come on his show, likely b/c Dawkins refuses to debate and therefore lend credibility to creationists as a policy. "

Thas can't be true, since Dawkins debated Collins as the cover story on Time magazine. To imply that Dawkins is shying away from Prager is simply absurd. Prager tried the same line with Harris (saying he'd be afraid to debate Collins) and was destroyed by Harris.

"OJ shields itself from such topics by considering Genesis from a literal, and thus sacrosanct, standpoint not permissible to discuss."

Christian fundamentalists number in the 10s of millions in the US alone. They are quite literalist, especially when it comes to homosexuality and stickng the 10 commandments in every courthouse possible.

12/06/2006 12:51 PM  
Blogger DK said...

BTA,

I would argue that the Communist and Nazi architects, though not the soldiers, were fundamentalists, just secular fundamentlists, not religious fundamentalist.

Fundamentalism of any kind is dangerous. It is doubt that encourages better behavior.

12/07/2006 3:24 PM  
Blogger Pinky said...

I am on this site for the first time, but if you want real, studied philosophical and theological (scientific) debate, you have to look into Rabbi J. Emmanuel Shochet, not Dennis Prager.

12/15/2006 12:53 AM  

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