Archive for the ‘judaism’ Category

Sam Harris: The Ultimate Elvis Presley Gambit

22/09/2013

My final post on Sam Harris’ finest moments before re-examining his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig is quite simply the best put-down I have ever heard in response to religious pseudo-mysticism about personal experience being an argument for God’s existence.  Harris debated Jewish apologist David Wolpe at the American Jewish University, Los Angeles on 6 November 2007 on the topic “Does God Exist?” which in reality turned into a discussion on whether religion was good for the World.

Partway through the debate, Wolpe, to atone for the rather awkward fact that he does not have any evidence for God’s existence, starts harping on about “deepities” such metaphysical reality and everyone having something more in them than they realise.  Harris delivers like Bertrand Russell doing stand-up:

People do this all the time.  You can broadcast this.  This is constrained by our common sense in every other domain of discourse.

Just take, for example, the people who think Elvis is still alive.  What’s wrong with this claim?  Why is this claim not vitiating our academic departments and corporations?

I’ll tell you why, and it’s very simple.  We have not passed laws against believing Elvis is still alive.  It’s just the problem that when anyone seriously represents his belief that Elvis is still alive in a conversation, on a first date, at a lecture, at a job interview, he immediately pays a price [Audience laughs].  He pays a price in ill-concealed laughter.  [Audience laughs louder].

That is a good thing.  Then he could rattle on about, “This is not a scientific claim.  This is a matter of faith.  You know, when I look at you.  I see you.  You might be Elvis.”  He could do this!  [Audience laughs uproariously]

Magic!

Full Debate Video

Full Debate Audio

AllSamHarrisContent: Video Edited to be Only Sam Harris Speaking

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

08/09/2013

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.

Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Not So Good

22/08/2013

HitchensIn a hommage to my atheist blogosphere opposite number, Lukeprog of the now-archived Common Sense Atheism, who compiled a review of all William Lane Craig’s debates, I publish here a similar collection of my thoughts of the debates of my intellectual hero, the late Christopher Hitchens: journalist, literary critic, author, scourge of the faithful and proud member of the Four Horseman with his international bestseller against the forces of theocratic fascism, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens did many debates and I have mainly included formal debates and panel discussions in front of an audience.  I have mentioned some of Hitch’s many TV and radio interviews and discussions, but only where there was a single topic on the agenda, as opposed to the zillions of time he appeared on C-SPAN and Bill Maher to discuss the general politics of the day.

I may have missed out on some; suggestions in the comments section, please!

Since there are 69 70 71 debates in total, I have divided the piece up into three separate posts as follows:

The Great;

The Good; and

The Not So Good (for the remainder of this post).

The Not So Good

Craig, “Does God Exist?”, Biola University, Los Angeles, 4 April 2009 (Video / MSP review / MSP review one year on in three parts).  This one hurt quite a lot.  While not the massacre that the first blog reports had us believe, Hitchens simply did not prepare to take on “professional debater” (© Richard Dawkins) Craig and wanted to debate whether religion was good for the world, as opposed to the actual topic under discussion.  Craig showboats in front of his home crowd and Hitch lets him get away with smugly asserting that his five “arguments” are irrefutable.

D’Souza Round I, “Is Christianity the Problem?”, King’s College, New York, 22 October 2007 (Video / Audio).  Hitch lands a few punches, but overall he was not on top form on the night.  D’Souza is loud, longwinded and gets the last word on many points through filibustering.  There is also plenty of disingenuous quote-mining of authorities and misrepresenting of Hitch’s arguments.

Hitchens/Jackson –v- Arkes/Markson, “The Death Penalty Debate”, National Review & The Nation Institute, 7 April 1997 (Video).  Hitchens shares a platform with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who he was later to throw in the same damning category as the “Reverends” Jerry Falwell, Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson as someone who can get away with offences to truth and morality by virtue of calling himself a man of faith.  Hitch speaks against the death penalty persuasively, however, he is up against two equally convincing opponents and the clash is best described as a draw.  The Q&A section descends into farce due to a strict moderator and hapless audience members straying off topic.  For Hitchens completists only.

Galloway, The Iraq War of 2003 was just and necessary”, Baruch College, New York, 14 September 2005 (Video).  I have consigned this one to the lowest category, not because Hitch loses the debate, but because it’s deeply unpleasant watching him share a platform with such an unsavoury, hard-left demagogue who openly supports brutal Islamist regimes.  Things get pretty personal and Galloway resorts to schoolyard name calling.  At least he gets his comeuppance from the NY crowd by suggesting that America brought the 9/11 attacks on themselves.  Sully your eyes and ears by watching it if you must.

Click below to see:

The Great

The Good

Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Good

22/08/2013

HitchensIn a hommage to my atheist blogosphere opposite number, Lukeprog of the now-archived Common Sense Atheism, who compiled a review of all William Lane Craig’s debates, I publish here a similar collection of my thoughts of the debates of my intellectual hero, the late Christopher Hitchens: journalist, literary critic, author, scourge of the faithful and proud member of the Four Horseman with his international bestseller against the forces of theocratic fascism, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens did many debates and I have mainly included formal debates and panel discussions in front of an audience.  I have mentioned some of Hitch’s many TV and radio interviews and discussions, but only where there was a single topic on the agenda, as opposed to the zillions of time he appeared on C-SPAN and Bill Maher to discuss the general politics of the day.

I may have missed out on some; suggestions in the comments section, please!

Since there are 69 70 71 debates in total, I have divided the piece up into three separate posts as follows:

The Great;

The Good (for the remainder of this post); and

The Not So Good.

The Good

Brummett, “Religion has been a positive force in culture”, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 4 June 2011 (Video).  In his last public debate prior to his untimely Earthly demise, Hitchens appears by video-link because he was too ill to travel to the venue.  This is a fairly civilised exchanged between two very clever men, but Hitch looks and sounds very unwell.  Nevertheless, this was as good a way to sign off as any; the live audience clearly thought so in their standing ovation at the end.

Blair, “The Munk Debate: Religion is a force for good in the world”, Toronto, Canada, 27 November 2010 (Video).  Hitch takes on the former UK prime minister and key instigator of the Iraq War on whether religion is a good thing.  Although the general verdict post-debate was that Hitchens won, all of his points were overly-familiar to regular viewers and he let Blair off lightly when he should have torn him in half.  A possible explanation was Hitch’s reverence for Blair’s stance on the Iraq War, but that’s hardly a good excuse now is it?

Haldane, “We Don’t Do God?”, Oxford University, 12 May 2010 (Video).  Haldane is an unusually intelligent opponent, who does not let Hitch make him look too silly, but he’s just not as interesting to listen to and his arguments are far too vague and “scholarly” to have much impact.

D’Souza Round III, “God On Trial”, Fixed Point Foundation, Powell Symphony Hall, St Louis, 10 September 2008 (Video).  A reasonably even-handed debate against Dinesh, but Hitch still wins because of superior eloquence and rhetoric.  I eventually found the video on YouTube while proofing this post, but Fixed Point Foundation jealously guard their product and will probably have it taken down sooner or later.  I originally downloaded the audio from Amazon fairly cheaply.  The DVD is available to buy from the Fixed Point Foundation shop.

D’Souza Round V, “God Is Not Great”, Jones County Junior College, Mississippi, 20 April 2009 (Video).  D’Souza does reasonably well in this one, although his comments about Jupiter protecting the Earth from asteroid collisions as being evidence of a divine design show just how arse-about-face the Anthropic Principle is.

D’Souza Round VII, “Is Religion the Problem?”, University of Notre Dame, 7 April 2010 (Video).  This is a far more civilised and respectful encounter than the pair’s previous meetings.  If you agree with Hitch’s position, then I suppose the debate goes to him, but it’s a close call.  The debate is most noteworthy for D’Souza coming out in support of Intelligent Design.

Karabell/Kirsch, “Religion and Culture Panel”, The LA Times Festival of Books, 2007 (Video).  Highly entertaining panel discussion, memorable for Hitchens denouncing a “fascist crackpot” audience member.

Ritter, “Iraq War”, Tarrytown, New York, 20 December 2006 (Audio).  Ritter proves himself to be one of Hitchens’ most formidable opponents in the Iraq War debates.  He was intimately involved in the Gulf War and in the events leading up to the Iraq War and gives a very detailed account of the contradictions and hypocrisies of US policy toward Iraq.  Hitchens largely agrees, but draws a different conclusion.

Gomes/Kushner, “GOD”, The Connecticut Forum, 29 January 2009 (Video).  An unusually civilised discussion on matters of faith between a Christian Reverend and an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, with the exception of Hitch lambasting Kushner on the issue of “genital mutilation” of baby boys.

Danner, “How Should We Use Our Power?  Iraq and the War on Terror”, Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley, 28 January 2003 (Video).  Hitch puts his case very eloquently before the outbreak of the war.  There is some good back and forth between him and Danner, although the two men’s constant interruptions and talking over each other quickly annoys.

Arato, “Iraq War”, CalArts REDCAT, c. 2003/2004 (Video).  Hitch makes his case as persuasively as ever.  Unfortunately, the format is more like a TV panel Q & A, and his opponent is not terribly engaging, even though I agree with his point of view.

Grayling, “Among the Dead Cities”, Goethe Institute, Washington, 20 April 2006 (Video).  A very civilised and intelligent discussion of Grayling’s book examining the moral implications of wartime bombing of civilians, although Hitch gets rather irate at Grayling’s comparison of Hiroshima with the 9/11 attacks as the kind of sloppy moral-equivalence that the Left routinely trots out against the Iraq War.  I’ve read Grayling’s source-text and this debate is well worth viewing in conjunction with the book.  I can well-understand both men’s respective stances.

Fry/Bakewell, “The Blasphemy Debate”, Hay Festival, 28 May 2005 (Audio).  Not really a debate, because Fry and Hitch both sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to religion, but this is a really entertaining discussion on the victimless crime.

Tharoor/Bakewell, “Freedoms of speech”, Hay Festival, 27 May 2006 (Video / Audio).  A fascinating discussion on the special privileges afforded to religious views.  All very civilised and respectful and Hitch makes some great points.

D’Souza/Prager, “The Christian God, the Jewish God, or no God?”, 1 May 2008 (Video).  D’Souza scores a decent hit against Hitch in reply to his 98,000 Year Absentee God Gambit, but apart from that Hitch rules the roost and pwns Prager on “atheistic” Nazism and D’Souza on the historical Jesus.

Olasky, “On Religion and Politics”, The Future Forum, 14 May 2007 (Video).  Assured stuff from Hitch against the gentle Olasky who has done a lot of good things since finding God, but is no match for his more literate and informed opponent.

Hedges, “The is God…Great Debate”, King Middle School, Berkeley, CA, 24 May 2007 (Edited Audio / Video Clip I / Video Clip II / Review).  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.

Wilson, “Apologetics in Action: Aesthetics and the Existence of God – Atheism vs. Christianity”, Westminster Theological Seminary, 10 December 2008 (Video).  Good performance against the mild-mannered Christian pastor.  Although Hitch’s anecdote about the World Series is apparently wrong.

Turek Round II, “What Best Explains Reality: Theism or Atheism?”, The College Of New Jersey, 31 March 2009 (Video / Audio).  Frank actually does a lot better in his second meeting with Hitch, despite using the same appalling “arguments” and “jokes”.  Hitchens was not at his aggressive best, his arguments and sound bites are more than familiar by now and he lets Turek get away with a lot, including his recycled points that he pulverised him for in the first debate.  However, it’s entertaining enough for Hitchens fans.

Lennox Round I, “Europe should prefer the New Atheism”, Edinburgh International Festival, 9 August 2008 (Video).  Despite losing the audience vote at the end, this is a very entertaining debate with an excellent opening salvo from the Hitch.  So good in fact that Lennox concurs with all of what his opponent has just said, before rambling on about the love of JC.  The video occasionally makes it onto YouTube before the organisers, Fixed Point Foundation, demand it be taken down.

Wolpe Round III, “Religion, faith and God”, John Hancock Hall, Boston, MA, 23 March 2010 (Video).  More sterling work from Hitch in the face of an opponent who does not do especially well against him, but comes off less badly than most.

Hitchens/Harris/Dennett –v- D’Souza/Boteach/Taleb & Wright, La Ciudad de las Ideas, Mexico, November 2009 (Video).  A good tag-teaming with two of other Four Horsemen, Harris and Dennett who show D’Souza and Boteach a thing or two.  The format is rather slow and drawn out with the moderator translating for the Spanish-speaking crowd.

Craig/Wilson/Strobel/Denison, Christian Book Expo, Dallas, 21 March 2009 ( Video / Audio).  Hitchens dominates and makes the rest of the God Squad panel look silly, but Craig scores a knockout blow on Hitch in his mocking final remarks that would be a sign of things to come at their upcoming Biola debate (see The Not So Good).

Sharpton, “God Is Not Great”, New York Public Library, 7 May 2007 (Video).  Hitchens makes some good points and is gleefully rude to an audience member who asks a stupid question, but his opponent – “a man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you can shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name” – refuses to defend the personal, biblical God of classical Christianity and instead bangs on about a loose form of deism.  Hitch, quite understandably, looks baffled.

Richards, “Atheism versus Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design”, Stanford University, 27 January 2008 (Video).  Non-scientist Hitchens has a lot of fun with Discovery Institute stooge Richards (who looks like he’s just walked off the set of Happy Days) and makes him look rather silly.  Don’t expect the most intelligent discussion though.

D’Souza, “Is Socialism Obsolete?”, 1989 (Audio).  An early debate with arch-opponent D’Souza when Hitch was still very much a Marxist.  Being a Tory Boy myself, this is probably the most I have agreed with D’Souza on anything ever, but it is of historical interest to hear what was on Hitchens’ mind a few political ideologies ago.  Alas, the tape is incomplete.

Benjamin, “The Thrilla in Manhattanilla: The War in Iraq”, The Great Hall at Cooper Union, 9 February 2006 (Video).  Hitch makes his case as eloquently as ever in a rowdy debate with a tough opponent and even tougher audience members.  The moderator’s comment that this was “the most unproductive discussion” he has ever chaired says it all.

Landes, “Religion and Freedom of Speech”, Binghamton University, 28 April 2008 (Video).  An intelligent discussion with an intelligent opponent.  The two agree on a great deal, but there are some heated clashes.  Unfortunately, the video was taken on an audience member’s mobile phone or digital camera, so the sound and picture quality is poor.

Dembski, “Does a Good God Exist?”, Prestonwood Baptist Church Plano, Texas, November 2010 (Video).  A so-so exchange between Hitch in his last days and noted Intelligent Design proponent who gets off fairly lightly.

Rutten, “In Conversation”, Los Angeles Public Library, 4 June 2007 (Video).  A gentle discussion with a moderate Christian at the beginning of Hitch’s god Is Not Great book tour is memorable mainly for Hitch’s dismissal of a 9/11 “Troofer” during the audience Q&A without dignifying his question with a response as well as Rutten’s quoting Tertullian on the cannibalistic element of oral sex.

Boteach Round III, “Is There An Afterlife?”, Cooper Union, New York 16 September 2010 (Video).  Hitch and Boteach’s third head-to-head is a far more civilised (and quiet, by Boteach’s standards!) affair.  Hitch refuses to be drawn to faith despite his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer and makes some great, fresh points about the Catholics Church’s complicity with Fascism and Nazism as well as Ratzinger’s involvement in the Hitler Youth and German Army.

Roberts, “The Great God Debate”, Hugh Hewitt Show, 5 June 2007 (Audio / Transcript).  A decent radio exchange with Hitch on the phone and his Christian opponent in the studio with the Christian host.  Although neither side scores any significant hits, Hitch answers all of his opponents’ charges effectively and makes them audibly squirm in a couple of places.

Beinart/Packer, “Is Obama’s foreign policy working?”, Elebash Recital Hall, New York, 22 September 2010 (Video).  Less of a debate and more of a calm discussion between public commentators on a president who clearly does not want to be a “foreign policy president” and has been conducting America’s affairs overseas as inconspicuously as possible.

Doerr, Interfaithradio, July 2007 (Audio).  A civilised 30 minute radio discussion with another nonbeliever who prefers to describe himself as a “humanist” rather than an “atheist”.  Hitchens agrees with him on many points, but is less forgiving to religious moderates and de facto atheists who still go to church for the sake of keeping up appearances: Doerr sees them as a sympathetic ear to advance humanism; Hitch accuses them of taking their religion a la carte.

James/Crabb/Rees, “Programmatic specificity we can believe in”, Sydney Writer’s Festival, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, May 2010 (Video).  A good-natured and humorous panel discussion on the convoluting of language and spread of political correctness in public discourse.  As always, Hitch is by far the most eloquent and funny.

Amis, “No Laughing Matter: Saul Bellow as part of Jewish Book Week”, 25 February 2007 (Video / Audio).  Another appearance that is less of a debate and more of gentle discussion with a long-time friend.  Readers of Hitch’s memoir, Hitch-22, will recall that Hitchens has some rather dense, personal thoughts regarding his intellectual brother (and indeed lover!), Amis.  This is an interesting and thought provoking discussion on the topic of anti-Semitism and is best viewed in conjunction with Hitchens’ delivery of the 2010 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture on the same subject matter.

Berlinski, “Does atheism poison everything?”, Fixed Point Foundation, Sheraton Hotel, Birmingham, Alabama, 7 September 2010 (Video).  Post-cancer diagnosis, Hitchens debates New Atheism “flea” critic Berlinski, who Richard Dawkins had previously speculated could well fall into the “wicked” category (as opposed to the “ignorant”, “stupid” or “insane” tiers) in his rejection of evolution.  This is generally a civilised exchange but in keeping with all of Berlinski’s other media appearances that I have seen, he comes across as a very slippery and evasive character and Hitch hauls him up on it, particularly during the Q & A as to whether he would prefer an Islamic Europe or a secular one.  As per Dawkins’ assessment, Berlinski’s support of religious ideas and rejection of secular science, despite being a non-believer himself, seem less to be genuinely held and more to advance a contrary position for its own sake.

Donohue,The hostility of the American cultural elite to religion in general, and Catholicism in particular”, Union League Club, New York, 23 March 2000 (Video).  Hitch takes on the conservative-reactionary (hard-right nut-job) head of the Catholic League, who fights as dirtily as he speaks loudly.  Hitch uses all his eloquence of tongue and incisiveness of fact to come off reasonably well, but this encounter was almost as dirty his clash with Galloway (see The Not So Good).

Parenti, “Iraq and the future of US foreign policy”, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 18 April 2005 (Video).  Hitchens argues his case far more eloquently and passionately than political scientist Parenti, who makes some good points, but is mainly rambling and incoherent.  Hitch refutes all of his canards with ease.

Taunton, “God or No God?”, Billings, Montana, 19 October 2010 (Video).  Having moderated so many of his debates with others, the head of the (aptly-named) Christian thank-tank goes head-to-head with a post-cancer diagnosis Hitchens.  Taunton does not come off too badly, but that’s not to say that he comes off well either.  Cancer may have been destroying Hitch’s body, but it clearly could not break down his mind, which is as sharp as ever.

Wright, “Foreign Policy & Religion”, 9 December 2009 (Video).  A Skype debate between Hitch and fellow-atheist-but-believer-in-belief Wright following their meeting at La Ciudad de las Ideas a month earlier.  Hitch makes his case on an interventionist US foreign policy and the Iraq War as forcefully as ever and answers all of Wright’s canards on matters of faith.  Wright comes off reasonably well in the first hour on politics, but allows Hitch to get the better of him in the second hour on religion, as evidenced by the ever-increasing volume and speed in his voice.

Peter Hitchens Round I, “Let’s Abolish Britain”, Conway Hall, London, 14 April 1999 (Edited Video).  The Brothers Hitchens debate Peter’s book, The Abolition of Britain, in a far more even-handed encounter than their clash on religion and foreign policy nearly a decade later (see The Great).  Both men make good points; however, this is a rather too intellectual discussion with the speakers failing to attack the issues of the day, such as Blairism, Europe and the Single Currency, although moderator John Humphries’ opening remarks are a hoot.  HEALTH WARNING: The video inexplicably fast-forwards c. the 48 minute mark in the middle of Peter’s rebuttal to Christopher’s for what must be at least 20 minutes of real time.  Strange and wholly unnecessary.

Morris/Armstrong/Kutler/Rubin, “Was Henry Kissinger a war criminal?”, National Press Club, Washington DC, 22 February 2001 (Video).  Hitchens leads a Press Club discussion with a former government aide and two law professors following the publication of his two articles in Harper’s magazine indicting the former US Secretary of State and one of the most famous diplomats in history for murder, kidnapping, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The debate is well worth seeing in conjunction with the aforementioned articles as well as Hitchens’ subsequent book-length polemic and film documentary.  While Hitchens is predictably damning in his assessment of Kissinger, the other panellists persuasively argue that Kissinger was no “lone wolf”, but acted openly and with the assistance of numerous government aides, not to mention President Nixon, in his the execution of his Realpolitik and aversion of the Cold War turning hot.

Ali, “US Imperialism or A Just Response To Terror?”, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 17 April 2002 (Audio).  With the rubble of the Twin Towers barely cleared away, Hitchens goes head-to-head with a former comrade on the Left who published a book blaming America for visiting the attacks on itself.  I would like to have placed this one in the top category alongside the all time greats as Hitchens’ opening speech is a rip-snorting broadside against the hypocrisy and double-standards that was soon to lead to his departure from Liberalism in favour of Neo-Conservatism.  But alas, he doesn’t use his time for a rebuttal and the audio cuts out before the first audience question is answered.

Click below to see:

The Great

The Not So Good

Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Great

22/08/2013

HitchensIn a hommage to my atheist blogosphere opposite number, Lukeprog of the now-archived Common Sense Atheism, who compiled a review of all William Lane Craig’s debates, I publish here a similar collection of my thoughts of the debates of my intellectual hero, the late Christopher Hitchens: journalist, literary critic, author, scourge of the faithful and proud member of the Four Horseman with his international bestseller against the forces of theocratic fascism, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens did many debates and I have mainly included formal debates and panel discussions in front of an audience.  I have mentioned some of Hitch’s many TV and radio interviews and discussions, but only where there was a single topic on the agenda, as opposed to the zillions of time he appeared on C-SPAN and Bill Maher to discuss the general politics of the day.

I may have missed out on some; suggestions in the comments section, please!

Since there are 69 70 71 debates in total, I have divided the piece up into three separate posts as follows:

The Great (for the remainder of this post);

The Good; and

The Not So Good.

The Great

Dawkins/Dennett/Harris/Hitchens, “The Four Horsemen”, 30 September 2007 (Video).  A superb discussion with the three other Horsemen about religious faith in the aftermath of their recent God-bashing books.  I will say no more: sit back and enjoy.

Hitchens/Dawkins/Grayling –v- Spivey/Neuberger/Scruton, “We would all be better off without religion”, Intelligence Squared, Methodist Central Hall, London, 27 March 2007 (Video).  Hitch teams up with fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling who wipe the floor with three half-hearted apologists, whose main arguments in support of religion is that is has produced a lot of nice art and “you’ll never get rid of it”.  His opening speech slamming “the parties of God” is a classic Hitchens moment.

Hitchens/Fry –v- Widdecombe/Onaiyekan, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the World”, Intelligence Squared, London, 19 October 2009 (Video / MSP review).  Yours truly was there on the night and it was a pleasure to see Hitch stick a red hot poker up the Holy See’s backside.  Hitch’s teammate Stephen Fry was a true revelation.  Catholic defenders Ann Widdecombe and the barely comprehensible Archbishop John Onaiyekan were lambs to the slaughter.

“Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate”, Hart House, University of Toronto, 15 November 2006 (Video / MSP transcript of Hitchens’ speech).  Hitchens debates students from the University (and is given twice as much time at the lectern!) and gives an absolutely barnstorming 20 minutes and 52 seconds in which the Hitch blows hate speech and Holocaust denial laws as well as “the Religion of Peace” to smithereens with his wonderful Richard Burton-esque delivery.

Hitchens/Gourevitch/Wilkinson –v- Khan/Cesarani/Matsuda, “Freedom of expression must include the license to offend”, Intelligence Squared US, 16 October 2006 (Video / IQ2 page includes MP3 audio).  Hitch makes many points that will be familiar to fans of his speech at Hart House, Toronto (see above) but this is still a terrific clash with a pack of wet-lettuce liberals who are afraid of angering the Islamists and the best way of dealing them is to be nice to them.  Hitch is also blessed with two equally literate, persuasive and witty debating partners.  Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson’s opening salvo is a hoot, while fellow-journalist Philip Gourevitch turns the opposition’s arguments on them with much aplomb.

Hitchens/Aaronovitch –v- Hart/Jenkins, “A pre-emptive foreign policy is a recipe for disaster”, Intelligence Squared, London, 13 September 2004 (Video).  Another convincing case made for the Iraq War as Hitchens and his partner swing the audience vote from pre-debate against the motion to post-debate for the motion.  Aaronovitch makes for a formidable debating partner who holds his own rather than just being a handy side-kick; the example in his opening statement of how people in the second tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 responded to the impending crisis is astonishing.

D’Souza Round II, “War and Geo-Politics:  Is Religion the Problem or the Solution?”, Freedom Fest, Las Vegas, 11 July 2008 (Video).  I don’t care how the audience voted at the end; Hitch had his revenge following his disappointing showing against D’Souza at King’s College the previous year (see “The Not So Good”), and frankly made him look a total fool.

D’Souza Round III, “What’s So Great About God: Atheism Versus Religion”, University of Colorado, Boulder, 26 January 2009 (Video). Another convincing performance against D’Souza memorable for Hitch’s exposition of a trashy early 20th century novel called When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne about the chaos that ensues in the Western world when people think that the body of Christ has been discovered.

D’Souza Round VI, “Is There A God?  The Great Debate”, University of Central Florida, 17 September 2009 (Video).  Hitchens uses the evasive D’Souza as little more than a human punch bag in this one; I’m surprised Dinesh keeps coming back for more.

McGrath, “Religion: Poison or Cure in the Modern World?”, Georgetown University, 11 October 2007  (Video / Audio).  After McGrath published a disgraceful ad hominem attack against the New Atheism in general and Richard Dawkins in particular with The Dawkins Delusion?, Hitchens ripped the lily-livered, “sophisticated” theologian limb from limb.

Jackson, “How Religion Poisons Everything”, Emory University, 16 May 2007 (Video).  This is really good-natured debate with some excellent exchanges between Hitch and Jackson, not to mention plenty of banter about the finer details of American whiskey!

Turek Round I, “Does God Exist?”, Virginia Commonwealth University, 9 September 2008 (Video / Audio).  After trying to blag his way through the opening speech with his fast-talking, loud-mouth New Jersey accent, Turek quickly has the wind knocked out of him with a few well placed punches from Hitch who could not have made him look more of a fool if he’d dressed him up in Edward Woodward’s costume from The Wicker Man.  Watch out for Hitch’s take on purpose in life without God during the Q&A (!).

Lennox Round II, “Is God Great?”, Fixed Point Foundation, Samford University, Birmingham Alabama, 3 March 2009 (Video).  Lennox was drafted in at a moment’s notice after D’Souza had to travel home to India to see his sick mother.  Hitch mops up after losing the audience vote at his first encounter with Lennox in Edinburgh the previous year (see The Good).

Peter Hitchens Round II, Faith, Politics & War”, Fountain Street Church, Hauenstein Center, Center for Inquiry, 3 April 2008 (Video).  Big Hitchens well and truly pulverises his conservative, reactionary, bible-bashing baby brother with superior arguments and rhetoric on the Iraq War and religion.  I don’t even support the Iraq War and I thought that Christopher presented the better case.  Peter whines on about civilian causalities, why we’re not trying to overthrow the Chinese regime and “the good old days” when children said their prayers before bedtime and opened doors for strangers.  Sad.

Wolpe Round I, “Is Religion Good for the World?”, Temple Emanu-El, New York, November 2008 (Video).  Wolpe doesn’t come off too badly, but Hitch is barnstorming and makes his Jewish opponent squirm at the ethical implications of “genital mutilation” of small boys.

Wolpe Round II, “Why Does God Matter?”, The College at Brockport, 2 December 2009 (Video).  Another great showing against the ever-resilient Wolpe.  Watch out for Hitchens’ treatment (annihilation) of Wolpe’s assertion that the public give priests a disproportionately hard time as soon when they put a foot out of line in comparison with other professionals.

Boteach Round I, “God and Religion in the New Century: Divine Treasure or Poisonous Belief?”, Makor, New York City, 27 September 2004 (Video).  Hitch gives excellent opening and rebuttal speeches with all his wit and panache and swiftly wins over the audience.  “America’s Rabbi” Boteach shouts and screams about lack of transitional fossils, favourable genetic mutations, the Anthropic Principle and the Holocaust.  Hitchens rips him in half.

Boteach Round II, “Debate on God”, 92nd Street Y, New York, 30 January 2008 (Video).  Hitchens is on top form for their pair’s second outing as he brushes aside more asinine ravings from Shmuley, who this time claims that the late, great Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould “did not really believe in evolution” (!?).  An utter embarrassment for religious people everywhere.

Ramadan, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”, 92nd Street Y, New York,  5 October 2010 (Video).  Hitchens, in his first adversarial debate since being diagnosed with cancer, goes to town on the religion that is anything but one of peace and shows the fake-moderate Ramadan as the pseudo-intellectual, mouth-piece for jihad that he is.

Hitchens/Harris –v- Wolpe/Artson, “Is there an afterlife?” American Jewish University, Los Angeles, 15 February 2011 (Video).  With Hitchens less than a year from death, this is a memorable performance from a man who refuses to give in and accept the false promises that religious faith offers him as he leaves this Earthly life.  Harris also makes some excellent points, particularly with his graphic illustration in his opening statement at how the concept of an afterlife provides some comfort to certain people that once they have experienced a natural World suffused with suffering, they will be let in on the punch line when the die.

Click below to see:

The Good

The Not So Good

My favourite articles from The Onion

14/08/2013

OnionLogoCommunity Leaders Outraged Over Porn Video

PLEASANT, NC—Outraged community members are mounting an aggressive public protest campaign this week in response to an X-rated videotape available at Pleasant’s Video Villa video store, claiming that the tape does not contain the “Spectacular All-Anal Action” promised on its cover.

“Are we as citizens expected to just sit back and allow this sort of garbage to go on?” said Pleasant school board president Edwin Thistlewaite, during a protest this morning at City Hall.  “I paid to see chicks getting fucked in the ass, and that’s what I want.  I think I speak for all decent Americans in saying so.”

(…)

Pleasant resident Charlotte Kendall voiced her concerns at a town meeting held Monday night in the basement of Holy Christ Almighty Lutheran Church.  “If we can’t trust the manufacturers of hardcore pornography to tell us truthfully what kind of explicit sex we can honestly expect to see, then who can we trust?” Kendall said.

Amen.

Ironic Porn Purchase Leads To Unironic Ejaculation

WINNETKA, IL—A local man’s ironic purchase of a humorously titled hardcore-porn video Saturday led to a sincere, earnest ejaculation devoid of any irony whatsoever.

According to reports, Josh Farmer, 27, accompanied by friends Brad Werner and Mike Tedesco, entered the Pine Street Adult Bookstore at approximately 3 p.m. to purchase an inflatable-woman doll as a light-hearted gift for friend Marshall Bloch, whose 23rd birthday party was to be celebrated later that evening at Farmer’s house.  While at the store, Farmer also purchased Terrors From The Clit, which he would later use as ejaculatory fodder in a wholly unironic session of vigorous masturbation.

I forwarded this to the groom at a wedding who said he was considering putting a Peter Andre track on the playlist “ironically”…

Haven’t We All Done Steroids In A Way? By Lance Armstrong

There are many people who have tried to judge my actions, to label me as disgraceful or unethical.  Time and again, I’ve had to endure the harassment of the media and the average sports fan, who act as though I’ve done something so outside the bounds of human decency as to defy logic or explanation.  Yet I think, if we are all honest we each other, we could agree this is far from the case. For, really, haven’t we all, each and every one of us, ritually abused steroids, in a sense?

I ask again: Is there a single person among us who has not, in one way or another, become obscenely rich and successful through the repeated use of performance-enhancing drugs?

I have read some heartfelt apologies in my time, but this…

Dry Humping An Adequate Sex Alternative For Teens, Says Weird, Unsolicited Report From Department Of Interior

WASHINGTON—According to Beltway sources, confused White House staffers arrived at their desks Wednesday to find a meticulously researched, entirely unrequested report from the Interior Department assessing dry humping as a suitable sex alternative for teenagers.

The uncomfortably in-depth 900-page document, which outlines the benefits of clothed genital stimulation versus fully penetrative sex, reportedly baffled administration officials, who confirmed they generally associate the department with its role in managing natural resources and administering programs for Native Americans.

Something tells me that the staff at the Department of Interior need to put away the Kleenex and go out into the Big Wide World before they go blind.

Trojan Introduces ‘No One’s Pleasure’ Condoms For Bitter, Resentful Couples

PRINCETON, NJ—Contraceptive manufacturer Trojan unveiled its new line of “No One’s Pleasure” condoms Wednesday, the first prophylactic specifically designed to intensify sexual dissatisfaction among bitter and resentful couples.

“We’ve always offered consumers a choice when it comes to protection, and we wanted to give emotionally distant partners an option that suits their lack of intimacy,” said Jim Daniels, vice president of marketing at Trojan. “That’s why we’ve developed the only condoms clinically proven to exploit performance anxiety, heighten discomfort levels, and prolong the petty arguments that allow couples to bicker needlessly all night long.”

No further comment required from me.

‘Romney Murdered JonBenét Ramsey,’ New Obama Campaign Ad Alleges

CHICAGO—With campaign rhetoric becoming increasingly heated and both presidential nominees releasing more attack ads, a new 30-second spot from the Obama campaign this week accuses his opponent Mitt Romney of committing the 1996 murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey.

Titled “He Did It,” the advertisement asks if anyone can truly remember where Romney was the night of the child’s murder, and whether the U.S. populace wants a president capable of strangling a little girl and dumping her body in her parents’ basement.

President Obama appears at the end of the advertisement to approve the message.

“I think this is a fair ad, and I think Mitt Romney owes an explanation to the American people as to why he murdered JonBenét Ramsey,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who called the commercial’s black-and-white reenactment of Mitt Romney carrying a kicking and screaming child to her death “accurate.”  “Ultimately, voters need to know who they’re getting with Mitt Romney: a job- and child-killing businessman who is so deceitful he won’t release his tax returns or admit to a senseless murder that shook the nation to its core.”

It can’t be too long before political campaigns stoop to this level.

Gay Teen Worried He Might Be A Christian

LOUISVILLE, KY—At first glance, high school senior Lucas Faber, 18, seems like any ordinary gay teen.  He’s a member of his school’s swing choir, enjoys shopping at the mall, and has sex with other males his age.  But lately, a growing worry has begun to plague this young gay man.  A gnawing feeling that, deep down, he may be a fundamentalist, right-wing Christian.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Faber admitted to reporters Monday. “It’s like I get these weird urges sometimes, and suddenly I’m tempted to go behind my friends’ backs and attend a megachurch service, or censor books in the school library in some way.  Even just the thought of organizing a CD-burning turns me on.”

Added Faber, “I feel so confused.”

(…)

Faber’s father… [commented].

“No son of mine is going to try to get intelligent design into school textbooks,” Geoffrey Faber said. “And I absolutely refuse to pay his tuition if he decides to go to one of those colleges like Oral Roberts University where they’re just going to fill his head with a lot of crazy conservative ideas.”

He added, “I just want my normal gay son back.”

Poor child!  I hope he gets in touch with the Gay Ex-Christian Movement.

Gay Kid Excited To Be Made Fun Of For Second Thing

SUGAR LAND, TX—Shortly after reports surfaced today that the Boy Scouts of America had voted to lift its ban on gay youths, local homosexual child Max Lovell, 14, told reporters that he was looking forward to joining the organization and finally being ridiculed for another thing.

My emphasis.

Existentialist Firefighter Delays 3 Deaths

SCHAUMBURG, IL—In an ultimately futile act some have described as courageous and others have called a mere postponing of the inevitable, existentialist firefighter James Farber delayed three deaths Monday.

“I’m no hero,” Farber said after rescuing the family from a house fire on the 2500 block of West Thacker Street, and prolonging for the time being their slow march toward oblivion.  “Like any other man, I am thrown into this world, alone and terrified, to play a meaningless role in an empty life.  In my case, that role happens to involve charging through towering blazes to pull helpless individuals from a sea of flames before they suffocate or are burnt alive.”

Added Farber, “That hardly makes me a paragon of virtue.”

(…)

“The family has thanked me repeatedly, especially for saving the life of their only child, but their gratitude ignores the full, crushing weight of reality,” said Farber, his brow furrowed.  “The world may have all kinds of torture in store for that kid, misery that could have been avoided if not for me.”

Beat that for despair, Franz Kafka.

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World

Members of the earth’s earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

(…)

According to the cuneiform tablets, Sumerians found God’s most puzzling act to be the creation from dust of the first two human beings.

“These two people made in his image do not know how to communicate, lack skills in both mathematics and farming, and have the intellectual capacity of an infant,” one Sumerian philosopher wrote. “They must be the creation of a complete idiot.”

And finally…

War-Torn Middle East Seeks Solace In Religion

Palestinian Omar Abdel-Malik, a resident of the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis, credits his Islamic beliefs for preserving his sanity.

“The Israelis have fired missile upon missile on my neighborhood, but it has only made my trust in Allah that much stronger,” Abdel-Malik said. “I cringe to think where the people of the Middle East would be right now if it weren’t for our steadfast belief in one true, merciful, and loving Supreme Being.”

Palestinian widow and mother of three Dareen Idriss agreed, citing the healing power of prayer as a way to cope with the relentless slaughter she and her family witness every day.

“When the children cannot stop crying because of the bombs, we all gather our families in the rubble of the mosque to pray for justice,” Idriss said. “During this calm meditation, we also pray for the annihilation of the Hebrew race.”

Update to Hitchens on Free Speech

03/08/2013

I have today added the following text to my post of Hitchens’ speech to the University of Toronto in 2006 proposing the motion “freedom of speech includes the freedom to hate”.

UPDATE: 03/08/2013

I am currently drafting an epic post reviewing all of Hitchens’ public debates available to see/hear on the Internet and have finally come across the full version of this debate.

It looks as though Hitch was debating students from the University of Toronto (as opposed to other prominent writers and public commentators) and was given twice as much speaking time as his opponents (!).

Enjoy.

Richard Dawkins on David Berlinski

09/04/2010

DawkinsBerlinski

manicstreetpreacher presents the damning verdict on a pseudo-intellectual by a genuine one.

Further to my recent series of posts on the Intelligent Design creationist propaganda piece Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Mike Godfrey over at God3’s Blog quotes one of the film’s participants, David Berlinski.  In his response to the New Atheism, The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski, a supposedly secular Jew, writes on the crimes of so-called atheist totalitarianisms in the 20th century:

Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance.  Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it.  They might well have been Christian Scientists.

In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep into villages, and after forcing the villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns.  On one such occasion somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.

Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner.  “God is watching what you are doing,” he said.

And then he was shot dead.

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

I can only assume that Berlinski had forgotten about the events of September 11, 2001 when he was writing this passage.  This was an outrage carried out by people who were thinking only too much of what heaven would think of them.  Hopefully, the more recent events on the Moscow tube will jog his memory.

Appealing to authority and credential inflation are common tactics of creationists and Intelligent Design proponents.  Expelled’s host, Ben Stein, went to great lengths to hold out Berlinski as an example of a smart guy who believed in Intelligent Design in order to give it some credibility.  However, all Berlinski succeeded in doing was to be a particularly obnoxious and unlikeable character, saying that Richard Dawkins is “a crummy philosopher” and “a little bit of a reptile”.

In an article reminiscing on an infamous book review for The New York Times in 1989 where he wrote, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that),” Dawkins had this to say about Berlinski:

Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category?  I once shared a platform with someone called David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.  He denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments).  Together with the great John Maynard Smith and others, he and I were guest speakers at a debate organized by a prominent Oxford rabbi.  Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski and, not surprisingly, he soon had the audience roaring with laughter as he lampooned Berlinski’s bad arguments.  But what amused me was Berlinski’s tactic for dealing with this mocking laughter.  He sprang to his feet, held up a reproachful open palm towards the audience, and said (approximately of course, I can’t remember the exact words): “No no!  Don’t laugh.  Let Maynard Smith have his say!  It’s only fair!”  Happily, the Oxford audience saw through this tactic of pretending to think the audience were laughing at Maynard Smith rather than with him.  And the rabbi, himself a devout creationist, afterwards told me he had been shocked at Berlinski’s duplicity.  By itself, this is too trivial an example to deserve the name wicked.  But it did make me wonder about Berlinski’s motives.  As I said, he is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.

After witnessing his performance in Expelled, Dawkins’ assessment of Berlinski is borne out all too well.

Circumcision or Genital Mutilation?

08/04/2010

manicstreetpreacher uncrosses his legs and presents some excellent commentary against a barbaric piece of theocratic lunacy.

I’ve always had a problem with circumcision, even before I ordained myself as a New Atheist.  There just seemed to be something very wrong with snipping off an intimate part of a child’s anatomy when they were but a few days old because some millennia-old Holy Book says that this will please an invisible sky father who cannot be bothered revealing himself to humanity at large.

Apologists of the practice often claim that circumcision helps with hygiene and can reduce the chances of contracting AIDS.  That could well be true, but why not let the child decide what methods of contraception and cleanliness they use when they are old enough to make the decision for themselves?

That’s just male circumcision.  I found out about the real horror of female genital cutting after I became a New Atheist.

I strongly recommend this excellent piece on US sceptic Ophelia Benson’s superb blog, Butterflies and Wheels by Iranian-born German writer of several languages Jahanshah Rashidian that well and truly grabs the issue by the balls:

Circumcision, in its different forms, is practised in a big part of the world.  The Jews were the first to adapt it as a sign of religiosity; it is mentioned in the Old Testament as a religious ritual and preserved its practice into our times.  Circumcision was banned by the ancient Romans and Greeks considering it as an act of barbarity.  Also the early Christians took a strong stand against it.

Benefits of circumcision are believed to maintain genital organs in hygienic conditions for males whereas it is practised to reduce the sexual appetite for females. Removal of a functional, sensitive, healthy, and normal foreskin or clitoris with many nerve fibres, nerve endings, strictly speaking is a genital mutilation.  Medically speaking, it has no relevant healthy benefits that can objectively be used to justify its practice. And as such, this heritage of passed rituals violates the principles of modern morality and the very principles of sciences. [My emphasis]

Our universal law respects parents’ “ownership rights” over their children to protect them, to the extent that their decisions are in the child’s benefits. A child’s right to maintain the integrity of her/his healthy body should not be violated by any religion.

Some businesslike or religious doctors, as modern circumcisers, cut off a functional healthy and normal part of human body, a business or religious treatment which is in contradiction to their professional morality. This is akin to removing an eyelid which protects the eye or to cut off a finger of a child as a pseudo-healthy treatment.

(…)

No medical evidence about the effectiveness of this wounding in reducing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or penile cancer or genital diseases has been shown. Only speculations, mostly loaded with religiosity, justify this practice.

No health organisation in the world currently accepts circumcision as a preventive procedure or advocates its practice for both sexes; even if female circumcision is in some areas absent, it is immorally perverse to excuse one cruelty by invoking a worse one. The genitals of both sexes, as the products of evolution, should be left intact.

Since 1996 female circumcision has been considered violence against women in the US and thus has become illegal, but the “civilised world” ignores the practice of it in many circumcising cultures. In Egypt, a US ally, more than 90% of women are victims of female circumcision.

Rashidian concludes his article:

Circumcision, an old practice, has no clear references concerning its history, motive and origin.

Circumcision is a ritual practice of primitive cultures and can be rooted in the factors of sexual punishment, ritual sacrifice and self-injury.

Circumcision has no preventive or medical benefits.

Circumcision, as an act of genital mutilation for both sexes, cannot morally be permitted.

Penn & Teller think that circumcision is BULLSHIT!  (And that’s all the confirmation I need.)

I’d recommend watching Penn & Teller’s excellent debunking of circumcision.  (I first saw the show a couple of years ago on YouTube.  This one is hosted by Yahoo! Video.  There were plenty of other sites hosting the video, so a Google search should turn up something if my URL has been removed.)

Hitchens Watch

Journalist and polemical author Christopher Hitchens has plenty to say against circumcision and lambasts it within the pages of God Is Not Great:

Hitchens comments on circumcision during his May 2007 debate against Christian apologist Timothy Jackson at Emory University:

Hitchens grills Rabbi David Wolpe on circumcision during their November 2008 debate at the Temple Emanu-El, New York:

And finally, Hitchens schools conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner during their discussion at The Connecticut Forum, February 2009:

I think that’s enough food for thought.  I would just like to conclude by saying that if a modern political party decided that their members had to show their commitment by removing parts of their own body, such an edict would not be tolerated in Western society and that party would most likely be banned.

So why do we allow such an appalling practice to continue when it is wrapped in the cloak of religious faith?

Of Moderates

10/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher lets you in on what really makes his blood boil.

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason

A lovers’ tiff

I read this post a few days ago on Edmund Standing’s blog (also cross-posted on Harry’s Place) regarding Norwegian “liberal” Muslims who have come out in support of Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists who caricatured the prophet Muhammad and provoked the fury of Islamists on an international scale in 2006:

A liberal Norwegian Muslim organisation named LIM (Equality, Integration, Diversity) is standing up for free speech and against Islamism.  Shakil Rehman of LIM has spoken in defence of republishing the notorious Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen…  Now LIM have challenged the Islamic Council of Norway (IRN) to organise a demonstration in defence of free speech, not that they think this is likely to happen…  Rehman is unimpressed with arguments about it being ‘offensive’ to depict Muhammad…  Muhammad is not God, says Rehman, and he is not above criticism…

Before I go any further, I must make clear that Standing is a personal friend of mine and we see eye-to-eye on a great number of issues.  In fact, he has been an important source of advice and support and without his example I would not have done as much as I have in the one year I have being writing this blog.  Standing has written some truly excellent pieces on the Old Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, the “value” of theology, the Qur’an, the far left’s abuse of the language of racial prejudice and Rage Against the Machine’s UK Christmas Number 1.

Standing has a gift for trawling the darkest reaches of the Internet in his spare time when the rest of us find it depressing enough to read the BBC News homepage.  The result has been a devastating report for The Centre for Social Cohesion which cuts through the British National Party’s attempts to clean up their politics and exposes them for the racist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi scum that they are (download PDF).  Even before we began corresponding, I kept some of his articles in a hard-copy folder alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and (he’s not going to thank me for this next one!) Johann Hari.

However, the concluding paragraph of Standing’s post really made me see red:

Islam, as Rehman shows, can be ‘liberalised’ and can co-exist peacefully with liberal European culture.  Just as Jews no longer stone disobedient children, and Christians no longer burn ‘heretics’ at the stake, so a future is possible in which Muslims in Europe are as ‘European’ as anyone else.

I get it.  So, Muslims are capable of common sense and rationality as much as anyone else and are well able to cherry pick their appalling holy book to exorcise the nasty bits that do not sit well with 21st century Western secular society, right?  Let’s not forget that this is coming from someone who has written of the Qur’an:

I am at a complete loss as to understand how anyone can hold such a high opinion of a book which, it turns out, is so crude, so blatantly a product of a specific time and place, and so filled with childish threats and superstition.  Reading the Qur’an is an arduous task, for in translation at least it is not a book whose literary style naturally commands admiration in the reader; in fact it is an exceedingly tedious book, made up of a collection of disjointed and often self-contradictory texts, filled with tiresome repetition of certain key phrases and themes, and brimming over with threats of torture and torment for those who will not accept its authority…  I hope to demonstrate… quite what a divisive, primitive, and insulting book it actually is…

While Jews may no longer think it acceptable to stone their children to death for drunken insolence, many of them still think it is perfectly kosher to slice off the foreskin of their days-old infant boys in a procedure done without the use of anaesthetic which would otherwise require the subject’s expressed or implied consent in law.  This is clearly one piece of Bronze Age parenting that has survived the Enlightenment.  Similarly, most Christians do not torture or burn heretics at the stake, although they would look rather blushed if you told them that Augustine and Aquinas – still two of the leading lights in theological seminaries the world over – endorsed such practices in their writings.

Islam: the fringe is the centre

Last year I read my copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran in full and it was an appalling experience.  I started to write my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.  On page after page the reader is informed that God will administer a painful chastisement in Hell, Fire or Gehenna to non-believers.  It’s not like we have a choice in the matter either.  The Koran oozes with a particular sinister brand of predestination that would make John Calvin raise an eyebrow: God has blinded and deceived those whom he chooses into disbelief and there is no way that they can save themselves.

In 2007, two years after a well-to-do group of young British Muslims blew themselves up on London transport and took many innocent people with them in the process; Ed Husain published The Islamist, an autobiographical account of how he was transformed from his parents’ moderate Muslim upbringing to become an extremist bent on the Islamisation of the world as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  As is so often the case, it was only the love of a good woman that brought Husain back from the edge.

I have great praise for Husain’s book.  It is a touching story about how an otherwise sane and rational individual had his mind poisoned by religious dogma.  However, I do have one caveat.  Husain fails to address the intrinsic violence and tribalism in the Koran and the Hadith.  He cherry-picks passages that portray his prophet in a favourable light, while ignoring those that show he was in fact a medieval butcher.  Someone who has not read the Koran for themselves would come away thinking that Hussein’s descent into fundamentalism was a perversion of “true Islam” and that he simply “fell in with the wrong crowd”.  My own experience of the central text shows that exactly the opposite is true.

Now, whenever I see “moderate” Muslims on Newsnight calling for their ilk to come out against extremism and saying that Islam does not mandate such things, I know they being disingenuous.  The actions of the 9/11 hijackers may not be typical of all Muslims, but they were a perfectly rational interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith.  The recent case of Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged as the Christmas Day Detroit underpants bomber, who was a former head of University College London’s Islamic Society and lived in a £4 million house while studying, is further proof, if any were needed, that Islamism is not a movement where the poorest of the poor have risen up against the ills of the Israeli government and US foreign policy.

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.  Lo!  Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

– Koran 9: 5

There’s no such thing as “moderation” in religion

I also find Standing’s closing paragraph to be unintentionally patronising to Muslims by applauding them for their liberal approach.  It is like praising a Roman Catholic for admitting that he does not really believe that the Pope is infallible, which shows Standing’s position to be intellectually untenable.

Those passages about insolent children and homosexuals being stoned to death are as canonical as love thy neighbour as thyself.  Religious moderates simply apply their humanistic morality to ignore those unsavoury passages on the grounds of the “context” in which they were written.  However, they do not have the courage to admit to it.  And Christians, please don’t tell me that Jesus rescinds the barbarism of the Old Testament, because he doesn’t.  If anything, the New Testament ramifies much of the Old Testament with Jesus beginning the Sermon on the Mount that he has “not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but fulfil” and “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5: 17 – 18).

I have to concede that religious moderates are far better than religious extremists.  They are not blowing themselves up in marketplaces or flying planes into buildings.  However, one of the most startling ideas to have come from the New Atheists is that religious moderates are actually fuelling fundamentalism by creating a taboo of criticising religious faith as much as social and political ideas.  The Christian dogma that Jesus will return to Earth trailing clouds of glory and judge humanity for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion may be a ridiculous belief to a non-believer (and certainly a promise that is long overdue!) but it would not on its face appear to be a mandate for extremism.  Until you realise that there are fundamentalist Christians hard at work in the Middle East attempting to incite Armageddon among the warring factions to bring about the return of their Messiah.

In a recent Intelligence Squared debate I attended featuring Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling, theist panellists Charles Moore and Richard Harries denounced “mad creationists” in response to a question I asked.  Fair enough, but are their beliefs regarding the resurrection and the Second Coming any more rational?  Surely these involve scientific claims regarding the decomposition of corpses and human flight without the aid of technology.  Why shouldn’t we laugh at them when they espouse these beliefs?  If Harries was so offended by Dawkins’ comparing the likelihood of the existence of the God of Abraham with leprechauns, he should have spent the rest of the evening defending the claim that Almighty Zeus sent his only begotten son Perseus to Earth via a virgin birth to rid humanity of Medusa and the Kraken, and then he would have realised how much we – believers and atheists alike – really respect religious claims.

I know that Lord Harries is not a creationist.  Indeed, he has supported Richard Dawkins in the fight against creationism entering school science classes.  I am sure he doesn’t take stories such as Noah’s Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah literally and thinks that there is a link between metrological and seismic phenomena and human morality.  Doubtless he disagreed strongly with his colleague in the Church of England, the then Bishop of Carlisle, who’s verdict on the July 2007 floods in Northern Yorkshire was that they were divine retribution were punishment for homosexual marriage.  But if Harries ever said or wrote in public condemnation of the Right Reverend Graham Dow’s decidedly Old Testament take on the bad weather, I have yet to discover it.

If the moderates do not police their religions, then the atheists will be forced to.

Accordingly, I am not prepared to say that a world inhabited only by religious moderates would be a much better place.  That can only be possible in a world with no religious believers at all, moderate or extremist.  Whereas many Roman Catholics may feel uncomfortable with the thought that their Church is lying to people in AIDS ravaged countries in Africa, where around 3 million people a year die of the disease, by preaching the sinfulness and ineffectiveness of condoms, they are inadvertently contributing to the problem by creating a climate in our public discourse that makes it impossible for the Vatican to receive the same level of condemnation that a US president would receive for getting a blow job in the Oval Office.

Moderate atheists and agnostics: more annoying than believers!

I’m an atheist butters like the philosopher Michael Ruse infuriate me more than liberal theologians like Alister McGrath.  Ruse accuses Dawkins of being a poor philosopher and not taking the arguments for God existence seriously enough, but ultimately he agrees with his position on the existence of God.  This is rather like someone in the 1930s saying that while they disagree with Nazism and do not accept the claims of Mein Kampf, they nonetheless respect National Socialism, appreciate its nuances and feel that only a proper and sincere engagement with Nazi philosophy could overthrow Hitler’s regime.

In contrast to Standing’s tolerant approach, my hand-to-throat response was demonstrated by my reaction to a recent edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Christian apologist to Muslims, Jay Smith, debated Muslim moderate, Muhammad Al-Hussaini, on the Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain (download PDF), in particular point 6: the requirement not to ridicule or demean other faiths.  I am not the biggest fan of Jay Smith (!), however, the attempts by Al-Hussaini to portray the Koran as a moderate text made me even angrier; especially his quoting of “Let there be no compulsion in religion” at Sura 2 of the Koran.   With my blood still very much up, I fired off a bile-laden email to the presenter and the participants:

[T]he verse constantly quoted from Sura 2 of the Koran by apologists eager to claim that Islam is a tolerant and pluralistic religion, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, is followed a few verses later with the promise that all unbelievers will dwell forever in the Fire in the next life.  There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about that preachment…

Although I am unimpressed by the gross hypocrisy and double-standards that Jay Smith employs when promoting his own religion over Islam, I agree that the Koran should be “ridiculed and demeaned” at every opportunity, because frankly I am insulted and offended every time someone tries to tell me that it is a miracle of literature that could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity.

As it happens, Al-Hussaini sent me a very civil and respectful response and probably didn’t deserve the full-on MSP treatment that he received.  But the idea that Christians should respect a religion that ineptly plagiarises their own holy book was akin to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reaction to the Rushdie affair:

I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude.  Not too comfortably I hope…  I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.  If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.

As Ibn Warraq rightly pointed out in Why I Am Not A Muslim:

Will that “closest hooligan” Trevor-Roper wake up from his complacent slumbers, when those “poor hurt Muslims” begin demanding the withdrawal of those classic Western literature and intellectual history that offend their Islamic sensibilities but must be dear to Professor Trevor-Roper’s heart?

In conclusion – a pragmatic means but far from an end

While Standing may well agree with much of what I have written in principle, he knows that religious faith is not going to be eradicated within our lifetimes and is prepared to play real-politick and endorse religious moderates even if it means making an ideological trade-off.  I certainly see the practical sense in this, but for once I am thinking with my gut and am not yet prepared to compromise my philosophy.  This is one example where integrity is everything for me.  Standing’s approach’s is scarily reminiscent to the “you’ll never get rid of it” line taken by many of the Four Horseman’s atheistic opponents such as Ruse.

And of course if you start thinking like that, you never will get rid of religious faith.  Ever.