Sam Harris debates Chris Hedges on ‘Religion and Politics: The End of the World?’

Full Debate MP3 Audio

I am currently researching a pair of epic posts on Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig at The University of Notre Dame in April 2011, together with the latter’s misrepresentation of former’s written work.  This has lead me to re-read all of Harris’ books and re-watch many of his lectures and debates.

Harris encountered American journalist Chris Hedges, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists: The Christian Right And The War On America at a debate hosted by Truthdig that was held at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on 22 May 2007.  The debate was moderated by veteran (i.e. old as Methuselah!) journalist Robert Scheer, who swiftly became a de facto second opponent for Harris.

Since the debate was held, Truthdig have released edited video footage; the above video is the most complete version of the debate I have yet found.  However, I would strongly recommend you to download the MP3 audio and listen to the full debate.

Analysis

As I previously posted, I believe that Harris let off Reza Aslan rather lightly in their debate on the same topic a few months earlier.  However, I well and truly hand the Hedges (and Scheer!) debate to Harris.  He has never been one to tear his opponents verbally in half (Hedges was to suffer that fate at the hands of Christopher Hitchens two days later at Berkeley), but he skilfully refutes all his opponents’ charges with his cool, methodically delivery and satirical wit.

The deciding moments come towards the end of the debate around the 87 minute on the tape after Hedges has gone on a diatribe about his personal experiences in the Arab World in the aftermath of 9/11 when he pleads with Harris that the majority of Muslims are not jihad-sympathisers and honour killings “really aren’t all that common”.  Harris’ riposte is unplayable:

Happily, we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim World, and make friends and get a vibe.

[Audience applause]

A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East…

Scheer immediately interrupts Harris in disbelief preventing him from questioning Hedges further saying, “Wrong, wrong, wrong!  You can’t possibly think that way about polls…  The man’s lived there for 15 years fergodsake!”  An audience member quite rightly shouts out to Scheer, “You’re supposed to be the moderator!”

Harris finally asks Hedges how many people he asked whether they supported suicide bombing while he was living in the Middle East.  He then cites the 2002 Pew polls he examines in The End of Faith that asked 38,000 people in nine Muslim countries whether they supported suicide bombing [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, pp. 124 – 126].  Hedges does not reply.

Scheer then misrepresents the question that Pew asked by stating that it was conditional on there being a foreign army in occupation that was causing harm to the country with no other weapons available, is suicide bombing a legitimate means of waging war.  Harris immediately corrects him: the question was explicitly religious in its formulation and was “Do you think that suicide bombing of civilian non-combatants in defence of Islam is justified?”

Scheer does not reply further but then tries to change the subject and engages in the kind of moral equivalence for which Harris lambasts leftist commentators such as Noam Chomsky in The End of Faith by asking whether there is a “fundamental moral difference” between 9/11 and the Vietnam War, the area bombing of Germany and the dropping of the A-Bombs on Japan by the Allies in World War II.

Harris replies by stating that he will not speak for a moment in defence of Vietnam or even the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “which could be given a plausible rationale for self-preservation”, that it is unlikely we could fight war like we did in World War II since we have learned from its horrors and this has prevented us from going casually onto the battlefield.

But yes, suicide bombing is morally worse as it should be impossible as it is the least rational thing and is made all the more appalling by the celebration of it by the family and neighbours of the perpetrators.  Furthermore, it occurs in conflicts that have nothing to do with America: in the Iran-Iraq War children were goaded out by their mothers to clear minefields.

You can tell a great deal about someone’s position by asking what would change their mind.  I wonder what would convince Hedges and Scheer that terrorists were motivated by their religion since they both bend over backwards to blame anything but religion.  As Harris pointed out earlier in the debate, he is simply taking these people at their word and they are telling us why they are carrying out these acts ad nauseum.  Suicide bombing is no more a secular activity than prayer or taking communion.

Aftermath

Since his encounter with Harris and destruction at the hands of Hitchens, Hedges went on a mission to discredit the New Atheists with his 2008 “flea” tract, I Don’t Believe In Atheists.  Following Hedges’ opening speech, Harris states that Hedges has misrepresented his views on torture, consciousness and spirituality.  After the debate, Hedges seems to have “made a career” out of misrepresenting Harris’ written work.

Hedges has accused Harris of supporting the torture of terrorist suspects and advocating a nuclear first strike against the Muslim World.  The most recent attack that Hedges made on Harris came in the form of an essay for Truthdig in 2011 where he accuses “secular fundamentalists” like Harris and Hitchens for the then-recent atrocities carried out in Norway by the deranged psychopath, Anders Brevik.

Harris responded with an essay tellingly entitled “Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges”, which linked to an updated version of a section on his website called “Response To Controversy” where he addresses the major criticisms of his work, including his true stance on the ethics of torture and “collateral damage” and his discussion (as opposed to outright promotion) of a nuclear first strike against the Muslim World.

I have discovered all too often in my discussions with the faithful over the years that they clearly do not read their atheist opponents properly or at all, but simply skim their work and take random passages from their true context to support their preconceived notions.   While perhaps they are not guilty of outright lying, their opinions are certainly disingenuous.  As Harris states during the Q&A during in this lecture on free will, one of the reasons why he publishes short books is because many criticisms result from people not reading past the first 100 pages of his longer books and therefore not reading his opinions on the topics for which they criticise him!

I submit that Hedges’ behaviour after his debates with Harris and Hitchens bear all the hallmarks of a dog who knows he has been whipped and he is man who is unworthy of further refutation.

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11 Responses to “Sam Harris debates Chris Hedges on ‘Religion and Politics: The End of the World?’”

  1. lotharson Says:

    The greatest moral and intellectual problem is their inability or refusal to recognize there are many different religions and religious movements out there, even within Islam.

    A true scientist won’t be satisfied by just learning that the majority of Muslims have dangerous beliefs, she will also make comparisons between the diverse Islamic movements and draws her own conclusions concerning their relative dangerousness and harmfulness.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Lothars Sohn.

      Harris does recognise the differences between and within religions, as per his comments that we will never face a threat from rampaging Jains.

      Who exactly are the “more peaceful” Muslim sects? The Sunni and the Shia would be – and indeed are – at each other’s throats regardless of US intervention.

      It’s like arguing that Protestants are “more peaceful” than Catholics: look what they did to each other in the Northern Ireland conflict.

      MSP

  2. lotharson Says:

    Yep, but surely you know that the reality is much more complex than Catholics or Protestants, don’t you?

    You should objectively compare all the groups within Catholicism and Protestantism, and the even the subgroups within the groups.

    And there are a certain number of religious movements which promote peace, love and actively combat fundamentalism.
    As a progressive Christian, this is what I do, and I’m hardly alone, many other liberal and progressive Christians keep exposing the mistakes of fundamentalism.

    Why OUGHT our faith to be wiped out?

    Lovely greetings from France and Germany.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      I agree that the Catholics and the Protestants were not fighting over the doctrine of the Trinity, but their religious identities became the easiest way of delineating them on sectarian lines, of Us -v- Them.

      How else could we see grown adults out in force protesting and throwing stones at school children as they made their way to schools selected on the basis of their parents’ religion?

      I’m not advocating the destruction of religion. You’re free to believe what you want. All I ask if that you keep your unfounded beliefs out of the public square and not demand that the rest of us “respect” your views.

      It’s all very advocating a “progressive and tolerant” form of religion, but not attacking “fundamentalists” within your own ranks.

      When the former Bishop of Carlisle, the Right Reverend Graham Dow said that the floods in Northern Yorkshire in July 2007 were divine judgement for homosexual marriage, the “sophisticated scholars” who had been criticising the New Atheists for only attacking the worst of religion published not a word of condemnation against the Bishop for his disgraceful lack of nuance.

      As I asked the Christian side of the panel at IQ2’s debate on atheist fundamentalism in 2009, it’s all very well promoting a gentle form of religious faith, but it’s not much good when you’re in the silent minority.

      Scroll down for the relevant section of the video in my afterthought post. I’m the baldy head toff in the cream shirt.

      MSP

  3. lotharson Says:

    Hello manic preacher 🙂

    I agree it is a shame that religious liberals with a post-modern mentality do nothing against religious extremism.

    But people such as myself and Randal Rauser criticize both religious and atheistic extremism.

    If you looked at one of our two blogs, you would probably notice that.

    Lovely greetings from France and Germany.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      I have read some of Randal Rauser’s blog and was quietly impressed at the way he argued against William Lane Craig’s overly literalist take on the Bible, particularly in relation to Craig’s justification of the Old Testament genocides.

      Feel free to link to any blog posts by him and you arguing against extremism that might interest me here.

      I’m just with Harris when he says that the dangers of religious fundamentalism are not going to be solved by wet-lettuce liberals like Hedges and Scheer who will do everything to avoid blaming religion for its role in global violence.

      MSP

  4. lotharson Says:

    Thanks MSP. On my own blog you can see that I argue theologically for the respect of committed homosexual relationships, against genocides and against Biblical inerrancy and its scary consequences.

    Oftentimes, conservative Christian and Muslims end up uttering very blasphemous statements because they teach that God is far pettier, far more immoral than the worse human criminal can be.

    I hope you agree that, unlike the post-modern liberals Hedges and Scheer, Randal and I are clearly recognizing that many problems are due to religious beliefs.

    Yet we don’t blame Religion with a capital R because the gruesome acts were caused by specific beliefs of specific religions and not JUST by devotion to something supernatural.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  5. Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’ | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] Harris himself said in his 2007 debate against left-leaning journalist, commentator and author, Chris Hedges, when pressed by moderator […]

  6. JohnnyPostLately Says:

    I just watched it. Both are great debaters. Hedges has the more difficult task, defending god and spirituality. Some of his remarks though were inspiring and life affirming but not the best fodder for a debate like this. Harris was logical and precise as usual. Regarding chirs HITCHENS (rip) I couldn’t find his Hedges debate, but found this summary with quotes. Based on the link, no way did Hitchens win. Never a fan of Hitchens, I admit, but snark and personal attack and loads of wit and personality seemed to carry Hitchens, like it always did. Here’s but one quote “Seeking to understand the motivations of suicide bombers represents ‘a new fashion among the half-baked,’ he said.” Sorry but that’s not a sophisticated response, unless one believes the response to extremism is the f-18 and nothing else, this won’t get us very far. If we want to come out the other end of this we’d BETTER figure out the psychology of jihadis. http://www.contracostatimes.com/oaklandberkeley/ci_5995253

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Johnny.

      Have you seen my anthology of Hitchens’ debates? I commented on his debate against Hedges in “The Good” section (as opposed to “The Great” and “The Not So Good”, although in retrospect, I should have reserved a section called “The Ugly” for the exclusive residence of the Hedges debate) and commented on their encounter thus:

      Unfortunately, only snippets of this are available online, but from what is on offer, Hitchens chopped the moderate, liberal, jihadist-sympathising Hedges into tiny bits. What I have seen, heard and read is not pretty.

      This clip is what I mean by not pretty…

      MSP

      • JohnnyPostLately Says:

        Hitchens was always engaging and dominant in these settings. He’s clearly in his element. I don’t agree with much he says, one thing for sure though, the world is a more boring place without him.

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