Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality

03/02/2014

Further to my posts reviewing the debate on morality between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which I am grateful and flattered.

Having watched a few nooneleftalivekibo’s other videos, I recommend those that expose Craig’s misrepresentation and quote-mining of Stephen Law, Michael Ruse and Stephen Hawking.

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Against Theology

20/12/2013

This draft has been sitting in My Documents folder for quite a while.  Since I have recently been chided for my lack of serious “scholarship” (note the scare quotes) while debating on David Robertson’s blog on the question of whether Stalin was influenced by Darwin and evolution and my reply involved delving into this draft and copying any pasting the links and quotes, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to complete and publish the draft.

Some of most entertaining articles I have ever read have been those debunking theology.  There’s something so pompous and self-important about all theologians I have encountered.  When I first started reading the reactions to Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion, one of the more stinging comments was that he has not engaged in any serious Christian or Jewish theology.  No discussion of the finer details of the Trinity.  No dissection of the Transubstantiation.  As US evolutionary biologist, H Allen Orr, put it in his lengthy review:

[T]he result is that The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.  You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)…  Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.  Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science populariser.

Richard, what were you thinking committing such a gapping hole in your research?

Nevertheless, Dawkins has hit back at this criticism both before and after the publication of his book.   Dawkins’ response to Oxford University’s Christian theologian Alister McGrath’s criticisms that he has a poor grasp of theology in his 2004 book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning of Life:

Yes, I have, of course, met this point before.  It sounds superficially fair.  But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.  The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject.  It is empty.  Vacuous.  Devoid of coherence or content.  I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer.  How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist.  This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention.  And found it utterly wanting.

Spot on.  Ninety-nine percent of all theology simply assumes that God exists; the content of the Bible is literally or metaphorically “true” and proceeds from there.  For an atheist to start arguing against the Trinity and assert that God is not one in three, but one in five would be to accept God’s existence implicitly and therefore contradict their core position!  Learned theological treatises among Christian theologians (and those of any other religion for that matter) have no more scientific or intellectual content than the discussion of Norse-like gods between Conan and his companion, Subotai, in Conan The Barbarian at the beginning of this post.  The cue to Basil Poledouris’ (wonderful) score is even called “Theology”!

Science blogger Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to Orr’s review, “Orr On Dawkins”, elaborates further:

Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology?  Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced.  Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.

And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism.  Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position.  He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us.  A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.

At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism.  So what?  Dawkins’ book is primarily about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief.  The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.

The rest of this post will provide further resources and pithy sound bites giving this pseudo-intellectual non-subject that is needless contributing to the destruction of the rainforests and the worsening of climate change the respect it deserves.

Thomas Jefferson (quoted in The God Delusion [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, p. 55]):

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ:

Anyone with theologian blood in his veins will approach things with a warped and deceitful attitude.  This gives rise to a pathos that calls itself faith: turning a blind eye to yourself for once and for all, so you do not have to stomach the sight of incurable mendacity.  This universally faulty optic is made into a morality, a virtue, a holiness, seeing-wrong is given a good conscience, – other types of optic are not allowed to have value any more now that this one has been sanctified with names like “God”, “redemption”, and “eternity”.  I have unearthed the theologian instinct everywhere: it is the most widespread and genuinely subterranean form of deceit on earth.  Anything a theologian thinks is true must be false: this is practically a criterion of truth.

Sam Harris defines the God of the religious community at large:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Harris damns all theological discourse in Letter To A Christian Nation: A Challenge To Faith [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, pp. 65 – 66]:

Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo.  Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism.  Since the Middles Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever.  This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend an eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.  In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.”

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?  Just imagine what these deliberations must be like.  Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death?  How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?  When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

To finish with Sam Harris, here’s his summary of religious scientist Francis Collins’ true beliefs:

1.  Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2.  He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3.  Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4.  Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5.  In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Richard Dawkins, “Let’s Hope It’s A Lasting Vogue”:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now.  Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists?  Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.  But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened revelation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium.  Militant athorists are their own worst enemy.  Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past.  In any case, they are doomed to failure.  People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture.  What are you going to put in his place?

Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them.  I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

P Z Myer’s, “The Courtier’s Reply”:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship.  He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.  We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all.  He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D T Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed – how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry – but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.  His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes”, (Special Topic: The Bible):

We are all familiar with PZ Myers’ inspired “Courtier’s Reply” to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there’s another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value.  At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies.  We are just no longer prepared to read “Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means “God is love, God is good, God is moral.”

Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim “Ah yes, well, that’s not really what omnipotence means in this context.”  How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry?  And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness’ sake?

As a result, you don’t need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them.  You are God, for God’s sake – you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent.  You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight.  A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live.  A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it – and here’s the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.

If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across.  In which case, it’s hard to see why “evidence” based on it should be taken very seriously.

To conclude with my own contribution to this issue;reviewing Peter S Williams’ reply to Dawkins & Co., A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

I could concede every single word of Alvin Plantinga and say that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so.  Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God!  That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon!

That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others.  I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them.  Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others?  Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.

Although the theologians are called to defend religion at the debater’s lectern, ironically, they are not the people with whom I have my main quarrel.  If the theologians ran religion, it would be a far more benign entity and one that perhaps I could live with happily.  It’s not so much belief in ancient myths and fairy tales that angers me; it is the severely negative consequences that these unfounded beliefs have on the world.

If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that.  If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.   What I do resent is the effects such unfounded beliefs have and their utter lack of negotiability.  If stopping the effects of religion means cutting it off at the roots and spoiling believers’ blissful ignorance and indulgence in ancient fairytales, then so be it.

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

That is all.

William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality

23/09/2013

William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

As part of my post discussing Sam Harris’ debate against William Lane Craig on whether the foundation of human morality was natural or supernatural, I discuss Craig’s presentation of Harris work alongside their true context in Harris’ books The End of Faith [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006], The Moral Landscape [London: Transworld Publishers, 2006] and Free Will [New York: Free Press, 2012], together with his articles “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape and The Moral Landscape Challenge” and give my verdict on how Craig sought to misrepresent Harris.

Craig’s opening statement:

[Harris] rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished …”

This quote appears on pp. 66 – 67 of my edition of The Moral Landscape and is in fact Harris citing psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002, p.273], who in turn is quoting Donald Symons.  The full quote continues:

…, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction.  But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, it suddenly becomes ‘culture,’ and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers,’ including feminists.

The passage appears in Chapter 2: “Moral Truth” in The Moral Landscape under a segment entitled “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance’”, which includes Harris’ transcript of his conversation with a female advisor on President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues who thought that it was better to “respect” a hypothetical ancient culture’s crackpot religious tradition of removing the eyeballs of every third child than to declare them morally wrong.

Craig’s quotation of this passage (notwithstanding that it was not even from Harris’ pen!) is misleading in that it gave the audience the impression that Harris simply advocates stern retribution to those who carry out female circumcision.  However, Harris’ argument runs much deeper than this as he is decrying the appalling moral relativism of secularists who are too afraid to criticise the practices of religious cultures in respect of actions that they would find morally repugnant were they carried out in isolation by individuals.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem?  The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms.  He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.  So, he says, “questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”  Why not?  Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures.  So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles!  So, Dr. Harris has quote-unquote “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms.  It’s nothing but wordplay.

If Harris actually uses the term “Value Problem” with the pages of The Moral Landscape, let alone explicitly redefining what we mean by “good”, then I must have missed it.  The term seems to have been something constructed by his critics.  However, in his article “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape published in January 2011, three months before his debate against Craig, Harris discusses the issue in detail; too much detail for me to include in this post in its entirety, but I present some relevant extracts.  Harris is responding to philosopher Russell Blackford’s review:

The Value Problem

My critics have been especially exercised over the subtitle of my book, “how science can determine human values.”  The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging.

(…)

[T]he same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole.  As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc.  One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science.  But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling. Scientists need not apologise for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific.  In my book, I argue that the value of well-being—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—is on the same footing.  There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.  To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”  Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense.  The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole—or reason generally.  Our “oughts” are built right into the foundations.  We need not apologise for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way.  It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them.

Harris clearly acknowledges that he is starting with a scientific and philosophical presupposition, but one that is both reasonable and applicable to other areas of science.  It certainly makes far more sense than the theist presupposition of goodness which is whatever God commands is automatically good.

It is also rank hypocrisy on Craig’s part to accuse Harris of tautology and wordplay since throughout the entire debate he offered no evidence whatsoever of the goodness of God’s character but simply engaged in Anselm-esque ontological word games that God’s character was the definition of goodness rather like the definition of a bachelor is that he is unmarried.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.  Dr Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom.  But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything! In the end, Dr Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in the endnotes of his volume.  Moral responsibility, he says, and I quote, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: I quote: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.  His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because on his worldview we have no control over what we do.

Harris discusses his views on “free will” on pp. 135 – 147 of The Moral Landscape under the sections entitled “The Illusion of Free Will” and “Moral Responsibility” as well as in his short book Free Will.  It is clear to me that just because Harris believes that human thoughts and actions are governed by prior causes over which we have no control (“determinism”), this does not negate the existence of human choice and moral responsibility.  On p. 143 of The Moral Landscape under the section “Moral Responsibility”, Harris writes:

Of course, we hold one another accountable for more than those actions than we consciously plan, because most voluntary behaviour comes about without explicit planning.  But why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy?  Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us.  What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to fully reflect the global properties of our minds – our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.  If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king – well, killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are.  Consequently it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you.

The endnote in The Moral Landscape to which Craig refers is endnote 109 on p. 279 of my edition which itself refers to a passage in the main text on pp. 143 – 144 under the section “Moral Responsibility” and again is Harris quoting another author; this time the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga from his paper “Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong”, Nat Rev Neurosci, Volume 6, Number 8, 653 – 659.  The full passage from Gazzinga, with the parts that Craig quoted in bold, is as follows:

Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains.  It is a moral value we demand of our fellow, rule-following human beings.  Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus, so psychiatrists and brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone’s mental state or brain state is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible.  The issue of responsibility (like the issue of who can drive school buses) is a social choice.  In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.  We are all part of a deterministic system that someday, in theory, we will completely understand.  Yet the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.

The endnote continues in Harris’ own words with the extracts that Craig quoted in bold:

While it is true that responsibility is a social construct attributed to people and not to brains, it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given certain facts about a person’s brain.  I think we can easily imagine discoveries in neuroscience, as well as brain imagining technology, that would allow us to attribute responsibility to persons in a far more precise way than we do at present.  A ‘Twinkie defence’ would be entirely uncontroversial if we learned that there was something at the creamy centre of every Twinkie that obliterated the front lobe’s inhibitory control over the limbic system.

But perhaps ‘responsibility’ is simply the wrong construct: for Gazzaniga is surely correct to say that in ‘neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.’  Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious.  Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.

The relevant paragraph on pp. 143 – 144 of the main text to which the endnote refers reads as follows:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.  Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others.  But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

Accordingly, it is clear to me that Harris’ views on “free will” are far more complex and layered that Craig let on in the debate.  It is equally clear that Craig has simply skimmed through Harris’ book, noted that Harris does not agree with the theist concept of “free will” and hastily concluded that Harris thinks there can be no moral responsibility on a deterministic view of “free will” without actually reading the remainder of Harris’ views, or at least reading them properly.

See also my recent post setting out Harris’ views on “free will” which links to a number of relevant web articles and lectures he has given on the topic.

Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that.  He claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing.  And he’s not offered any defence of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knock-down argument against it.  Now bear with me here; this is a little technical.  On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape.  Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.

Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic.  That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others.  They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape.  The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people.  But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either.  For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A.  So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr Harris has asserted in his book.

Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position.  But I think we’ve got one here.  By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

For once, Craig has actually quoted Harris’ own words (although notice the rather ominous and accusatory description that they appear “on the next to last page of his book”).  The full passage is at pp. 241 – 242 of The Moral Landscape in Chapter 5 “The Future of Happiness” under the section “On Being Right or Wrong”:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses.  Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good – and, therefore, no connection between moral behaviour (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being.  In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.  This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true while seeming quite far-fetched.  Neuroimagining work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human co-operation is rewarding.  However, if evil turned out to be as reliable path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it.  It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.

Worries of this kind seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefore, far more similar than we are different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world (as anyone who has ever stubbed his toe can attest).  No one, to my knowledge, believes that there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns seem plausible.

Like all good scientists, Harris has actually armed his opponents with the tools that they need to disprove his thesis.  Yet, contra-Craig, he has only admitted that in one possible World his thesis would require amendment, but would not be completely invalid.  However, Harris spends all of Chapter 2 “Good and Evil” arguing that love, compassion and well-being can be understood as good for us at the level of the brain and that psychopaths do not in fact occupy the same peaks of happiness and well-being as those who exude love and compassion toward their fellow creatures.

Just because it is possible to imagine a scenario where Harris’ thesis does not apply does not invalidate is applicability in The Real World.  Yet again, Craig takes Harris’ words out of their true context, cobbles together a possible World where they do not makes sense and declares Harris’ thesis null and void on that basis.

Conclusion

As I stated in my main post discussing the outcome of the debate, at the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

Sam Harris beats William Lane Craig in their debate on morality

23/09/2013

William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

Although I watched this debate when it was first posted online over two and a half years ago and intended to do a full write up of it then, I was still on an extended blogging sabbatical and had not read Sam Harris’ book on morality and ethics, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  Now that the dust of their clash has settled, I have read Harris’ book more than once and offered my own thoughts on the burden of proof in showing that the source of human morals is divine, and Harris has issued The Moral Landscape Challenge”, I now feel that I can dissect this encounter properly.

Debate overview

As with most religious debates, opinion on the blogosphere is divided with as many handing the debate to Harris as to Craig.  Luke Muehlhauser at the now-archived Common Sense Atheism (who I repeated described as the web’s most fawning Craigophile atheist, both on my blog and his!) declared Craig the winner on rhetorical grounds (which I believe he consistently overvalued in any event), yet conversely considered the debate a victory for the New Atheists as it gave the wider the public the hear their arguments for secular morality

It is abundantly clear – even more than is usually the case with Craig’s atheist opponents – that Harris has a different speaking and debating style.  The format for this debate with 20 minute opening statements and then rebuttals for each side of 12, 8 and 5 minutes, was much more structured than any other debate I have seen Harris participate.  At most, Harris and his opponents have been given a few minutes to state their case before the debate turns to a back-and-forth discussion between the two participants and the moderator.  In many of Harris’ debates, he has been faced with a very biased moderator who has turned out to be an additional opponent to him!

Harris received much criticism for supposedly straying off-topic in his rebuttals by discussing the problem of evil, Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, the plurality and diversity of the World’s religions, and the contradictions of Christian theology regarding the supposed existence of a good God and hell.  However, from the opening sentence of his first rebuttal – “Well, that was all very… interesting…” – it was clear to me that he was not going to conform to Craig’s rules of debating and let him railroad the discussion in an argument of semantics, syntax and philosophical “logic”.

Just because Craig does not want to debate certain issues such as the problem of the “unevangelised” and his own repugnant “divine command theory” in justification of Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, does mean that they are irrelevant to the topic under discussion.  In his second rebuttal, Craig makes the extraordinary (and presumably unintentional) concession:

[Harris] then responds, “But there’s no good reason to believe that such a being exists.  Look at the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized.”  Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism.  It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties.  So these are red herrings.  [My emphasis]

This would be like Craig arguing, “It’s irrelevant as to whether or not unicorns do in fact exist; I’m arguing that the foundation for human morals are unicorn tears.”  Craig offered no evidence to show that God’s character was good other than Anselm-esque word games such as (in his final statement):

Dr Harris [argued]… against this position is to say that you’re merely defining God as good, which is the same fallacy I accused him of committing.  I don’t think this is the case at all.  God is a being worthy of worship.  Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God.  And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good.  More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is the very paradigm of goodness itself.  He is the greatest good.  So once you understand the concept of God, you can see that asking, “Well, why is God good?” is sort of like asking, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?”  It’s the very concept of the greatest conceivable being, of being worthy of worship that entails the essential goodness of God.

Similar to atheist objections to the ontological argument for God’s existence, this is still nothing more than mere sophistry.  Word games will not suffice, Dr Craig; we demand evidence in support of your arguments.

As Harris posted shortly after the debate:

While I believe I answered (or pre-empted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands.  You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.)  Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing.  He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set.  If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5.  It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarises what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic.  The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly.  Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth.  Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God.  This was, after all, the argument that the organisers at Notre Dame had invited me to make.

While fellow-atheist blogger Chris Hallquist initially sided with Craig that Harris had strayed off the topic of the debate, he subsequently conceded:

In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included.  I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic.  This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.”  Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.

But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic.  They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question.  Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.

I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were.  Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realise I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.

I maintain that Victor Stenger and Bart Ehrman retain their joint-crown of Atheist Opponent Who Has Made Craig Look Like A Complete Fool At The Lectern, however, Harris in his own quiet and subtle way utterly destroyed Craig and everything for which he stands.  Craig simply defined God as good and argued from inside the “theological bubble” (aka “CraigWorld”) whereas Harris argued from the Real World and discussed scientific examples of human behaviour about which religion as little, if anything, useful to say.

Harris also demonstrated with reference to the World’s appalling suffering and the Bible (which after all Craig maintains is the inerrant word of the creator of the Universe) that if some kind of supernatural being is at the heart of the Universe, he must be cruel, capricious and unworthy of worship.  Craig dismissed these arguments as “red herrings” and “village atheist objections”, but ultimately Harris won the evidential case as to God’s true character.

It was also a stark contrast in presentation styles.  Harris in his plain black suit and open-necked blue shirt was calm, collected and considered.  If anyone needs some lessons in public speaking before taking the podium, they could do no better than to watch a few Sam Harris lectures.  Craig on the other hand, in his gold-buttoned navy blazer, starched white shirt and neck-crunching tie, looked and sounded harried as the debate progressed as evidenced by the increased volume of his smug, nasally voice at the beginning of his second rebuttal when he became severely irate at Harris’ description of certain Christian beliefs as psychotic.  His Gish Gallop was turned all the way up to eleven, particularly in the rebuttals, and stood ill at ease with Harris’ slow and methodical delivery that was filled with pauses at key moments.

As fatuous as some of these comments may appear, there is always an element of “beauty parade” in all public appearances.  Harris was JFK.  Craig was Nixon.

Craig’s quote-mining of The Moral Landscape

In the middle of Harris’ opening statement he warned the audience not to trust Craig’s reading of his work and that half of the quotes Craig gives in his opening statement are not from Harris himself, but are in fact Harris quoting other authors and “often to different effect”.

I have been through Harris’ book and Craig’s remarks in the debate with a fine tooth comb and on another post I discuss Craig’s presentation of The Moral Landscape together with their true presentation by Harris.

Psychogate

During Craig’s second rebuttal, he upped the Southern nasally drawl aplenty when he accused Harris of accusing all Christians of being psychopaths.  When Harris next took the lectern he invited the audience to “sort it out on YouTube”.  I have taken up Harris on his invitation and now present the full transcript of the subject under disagreement.

Harris’ first rebuttal

We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. It so easily rationalises the slaughter of children.  OK, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will.  There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God.  If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on “divine command theory”.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr Craig or all religious people are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own [my emphasis].

Craig’s second rebuttal:

[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things.  Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting.  It is absurd to think that Peter Van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic.  This is simply below the belt.

Harris’ second rebuttal:

Well, perhaps you’ve noticed Dr Craig has a charming habit of summarising his opponent’s points in a way in which they were not actually given, so I will leave it to you to sort it out on Youtube.  Needless to say, I didn’t call those esteemed colleagues of his psychopaths, as I made clear.

Right here, Craig well and truly lets his mask slip.  He gives up the pretence of honest debate and intellectual discourse for the sake of scoring a cheap and dishonest point against his opponent.  In his post-debate podcast Craig stands by the accusation saying that Harris has argued in his written work that religious belief is a form of insanity.  However, this is another misrepresentation of Harris’ work; he makes clear in The End of Faith:

Clearly, there is sanity in numbers.  And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.  And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.  [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, p. 72]

This incident, together with my comments in respect of Craig quote-mining Harris’ book is the strongest evidence yet that Craig has no interest in advancing science and human knowledge, but simply to reinforce his own dogmatically held religious convictions.

At the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

The clinching moment?

I fully accept that one of the other “Four Horsemen”, Christopher Hitchens, lost his debate against Craig on the existence of God at Biola University in April 2009.  Hitchens conceded the debate at Craig’s final rebuttal before the audience Q & A: he smiled and chuckled to himself when Craig invited him to become a Christian, he raised his arms and applauded when Craig walked past him on his way back to his seat and he leaned forward to the moderator, Hugh Hewitt, to give up his five minute rebuttal so there could be more time for questions from the audience.

There was no such gesture from Harris throughout his debate with Craig, but possibly a glimmer of concession from Craig towards Harris.   During the audience Q & A period (c. 1 hour 23 minutes on the tape) the two men locked horns on the question of Craig’s “divine command theory”.  Harris states that if God issued such a command to exterminate an entire race of people he would be evil.  Craig retorts that Harris has no basis for making such objective moral judgements.  Harris replies, “I’ve tried to give you a basis… sorry.”  The audience laughs and applauds.  Craig glances towards the moderator, raises an eyebrow and then suppresses a frown with a goofy smile that betrays his frustration and confusion.

Craig lost the argument that day, and he lost badly.  Not even his attempt to re-write the debate in his two-part post-debate podcast that runs to nearly an hour and features extra encouragement by the fawning Kevin Harris – who clearly gets his money by turning up to kiss CraigButt – can repair the damage.

The Moral Landscape Challenge

Harris has recently issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: readers can win $20,000 if they can disprove his central thesis in an essay of 1,000 or less and Harris will recant his thesis.  Even if none of the essays can make Harris recant his thesis, the best essay will still win $2,000.

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and non-readers alike.  Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge.  Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.  (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)  The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000.  If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

(…)

Here [is my central thesis]: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.  Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end).  Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice).  Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

You might want to read what I’ve already written in response to a few critics.  (A version of that article became the Afterword to the paperback edition of The Moral Landscape.)  I also recommend that you watch the talk I linked to above.

This is either an admiral display of honest inquiry from a brilliant scientist who wants his views to be criticised in order to facilitate self-improvement or a display of unbridled arrogance, depending on your point of view.

Whichever is true of Harris’ motives, suffice it say, a certain Dr William Lane Craig is already out of pocket.

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

Sam Harris: Free Will

10/09/2013

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

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