Due to exigent circumstances (i.e., sleep), I missed last night’s presentations and debate between Sam Harris and Robert Wright at the Secular Humanism conference. I’d be most grateful if readers could weigh in with their take. What were the main points? Did either or both do well?
Whazzup with the Harris/Wright debate?
October 10, 2010 • 4:50 am
27 thoughts on “Whazzup with the Harris/Wright debate?”
And is there a website I can go to and watch it, listen to it, or read a transcript?
Aratina Cage reports at PZ’s place that “Richard Carrier got Robert Wright to whine really hard at the end. Was kind of funny.”
Wright was claiming that confrontational atheism only convinced mild believers to stop believing and is therefore useless, since it converted people who were not the ones who are causing problems. Carrier polled the audience as to whom were once fundamentalist believers (several) and then asked how many came to their current lack of belief through exposure to a confrontational atheist, more than 50%. Carrier’s point, while not scientific, was that confrontational atheism does work.
I thought that it was a nice ending to the discussion.
And Carrier provided a nice ending to the Friday afternoon discussion, too. He has form here.
I appreciate what Richard was trying to do, but I always groan when these audience questions turn into impromptu, unscientific opinion polls. Especially since the speaker usually slants the question to get the response he wants, and will usually just ignore the results if he doesn’t like them. (Didn’t Phil Plait try this in his “Don’t Be a Dick” speech?)
Rob wanted to tame religion and Sam wanted to fight ignorance.
Rob claimed it was unhelpful to promote atheism in the context of de-converting fundamentalists, specifically martyr-ready Muslims, because no group responds well to existential threats. Attacks against the faith actually provide a rallying cry for religious demagogues.
Sam claimed that in the long run it is always good to speak the truth. He admitted that his antipathy to religion might not be best strategy for de-converting the hard core, but some ex-Christian-fundamentalist audience members disagreed and thanked Sam.
Rob claimed it would be easier to stop jihad by ending occupation of Muslim lands/killing Muslim civilians that drive recruitment and letting the religious leaders decry jihad.
Sam made the case that globalization is inevitably going to spread WMDs and undermine any totalitarian ideology, and even if Islam were made into a pluralistic religion, it would still have many harmful rules by necessity of its founding document.
Rob claimed that religion was more or less neutral, an outlet for other societal pressures, that Sam’s focus on religion misses the point, and it even plays into the hands of the neo-cons who want to keep invading the Middle East and escalating the problem.
This viewer thought the best strategy would probably be to combine both methods: speak truth to ignorance and stop bombing civilians/undermining secular nationalism for oil.
The Persian Gulf has real grievances against the West’s crusade for oil, and we have just as much duty to address those grievances as we do to lecture them about human rights and truth.
I’m for speaking out about the idiocy of Islam, but I am also for a strong carbon tax (Fee-and-Dividend is most effective, revenue neutral, and progressive), pulling out of the Near East, changing IMF/WB policy from the Washington Consensus, and rejecting veto powers in the U.N. to seriously tackle the American urge to colonize the world. That would take the wind out of even the most ardent extremist’s sails.
Of course, good luck with that in our current plutocracy.
Another discussion surely. And I must confess to not have followed it.
But I thought it was clear that the the figures shows that it doesn’t work? To the degree that those that have tried it show no difference in emissions.
D’oh! Now I seem to remember that was the carbon pay-and-exchange tickets, not a tax. Carry on as you were.
Miles, I concur; well said. This is getting OT, but there was a related discussion the other day on Dispatches that I think is a valuable read:
Both speakers, regardless of initial plans, focused almost entirely on the problem of “dealing with” Islamic fundamentalism. Familiar themes included economic and political disenfranchisement vs. the mechansims and fervency of belief.
Personally, I didn’t find the debate to be very useful or productive. Although there were a few moments, I’ve heard better arguments produced by both individuals in the past. Wright ran out of ideas and Sam appeared preoccupied.
The debate itself, as both participants admitted, got sidetracked into a talk about islam, the religion of peace. Wright was, for me, difficult to listen to (not only for what he had to say, but because of his personality). The Q&A was pretty good, the audience had several people I recognized. Dawkins, PZ, and Kurtz were in the front row. Questions were asked by Dawkins, Dowd, Stiefel, and Carrier…not your usual Q&A!
One lady told Wright that she was a believer who came to the dark side due to the works of The Four Horsemen, so this type of confrontational atheism worked for her. Wright dismissed her as not being one of the scary believers that we have to be concerned with. What he doesn’t seem to understand, is that if we convince these type of people, then the scary ones won’t have an enabling environment to work within.
I think Wright lost most of the audience when he accused the New Atheists of a right-wing agenda, and claimed that Harris had the same view of religion as Osama bin Laden. He lost me, anyway.
Wright was a terrible debater. He asked several times if his time had run out yet, basically asking for the mercy of sitting down and shutting up.
Harris was unprepared and distracted, and winging it on the power of his eloquence. There were a few moments when he clearly lost the track of his thoughts.
These events definitely need much more focused topics, or it ends up with a couple of people meandering past each other.
Indeed! At one point, Wright stated that Osama could use Sam’s writings as a recruitment tool for jihadists, because they are aligned with bin Laden’s views.
Welcome to the peanut gallery, btw.
Entirely agree. Interestingly, the topic of the Wright/Harris panel was: “Where Should Seculars Stand Today and Tomorrow on Questions of Religion and Belief?”
I do not think either speaker really touched on this. I don’t think this topic was overly broad, I just think it was discarded.
In effect, Wright’s opening should have been entitled: “Let me explain my issues with the New Atheists” Sam’s could have been entitled: “Let’s not pretend Islamic radicalism has nothing to do with the Koran”
By the way, I thought this problem was probably more acute on the panel you were on, mainly because it seemed like participants were discussing tactics but really on the same page about objectives. More on this see my comment on Ophelia’s blog: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/not-helping-what/
My personal opinion is that more hands on moderation would have helped greatly to keep things on topic and perhaps clarify points/questions etc. However this is a delicate art.
Wright’s argument was that backlash outweighs any widening of the public consciousness, and that socioeconomic forces matter more than religion. I disagree with the former and fail to see how the latter precludes any attack on religion even if it is true.
In short, I think Wright is just reluctant to pick a fight with religion and is reasoning backwards to justify his position.
As I just posted in the other thread, I didn’t mind Wright’s presentation too much, but this particular gimmick (“Sam, you sound a lot like Osama bin Laden”) was a cheap shot.
Something I would have asked Wright. He was constantly harping on his assertion that the New Atheism will not win converts from the ranks of hardened conservative religious fanatics.
1. Does the intransigence of zealots at all imply that atheists should not express their principles freely? If not, then isn’t this argument irrelevant?
2. If we’re going to get all pragmatic & utilitarian, then doesn’t he agree that neither will the kind of liberal, moderate Christianity espoused by the NCSE, nor the fuzzy creedless vague deference to a nonspecific faith promoted in his own book suffer from exactly the same lack of power to break down fundamentalism?
I didn’t feel like triggering another round of stammering discomfort & weaseling, though, so I kept my seat. It was late.
I feel like #1 was the whole point I think. I think that Wright, without wanting to say as much, was arguing that atheists should keep their principles behind closed doors and in scholarly pursuits.
The sad thing is that he’s not really wrong per se. When people complain about “tone” and “civility” and all that, surely they realize how deeply offensive the simple statement of “god probably does not exist” is to quite a few believers, right?
I think he gave up the ghost when he complained about the attempts at atheist/non-belief community building (the bus ads/billboards), as they really did offend quite a few religious folks, even though there’s absolutely nothing uncivil about them. At all. They’re entirely positive.
The real question, is can we move to a majority secular world without some really bad “growing pains”. And the answer to that is probably no. But we shouldn’t moderate ourselves because extremists might get a little more upset. And that’s where Wright is wrong. He thinks that if we STFU and let it happen on its own, then it’ll mitigate these pains. It won’t. They’ll still feel like their culture is under attack, blah blah blah.
Or in short, the problem is the content, not the tone. And we really can’t do anything about the content, at least nothing realistic. (We could all convert to their religion and that would solve a lot of the problems!)
1) Give in to fuzzy reasoning, poor science, and bad morality?
2) Which religion?
3) It’s hard to get a herd of cats to convert en masse.
So when do we convert? 21 Dec 2012?
If people kept their supernatural beliefs private, they would not have to worry about unbelievers offending them.
My solution is for all religions to be as private as they want the Scientologists to be. Why should I have to worry about walking on eggshells because of some belief someone has? When will believers be walking on eggshells so as not to bother the rationalists amongst them?
“I think he gave up the ghost when he complained about the attempts at atheist/non-belief community building (the bus ads/billboards), as they really did offend quite a few religious folks, even though there’s absolutely nothing uncivil about them. ”
Did he? My recollection is that Wright cited these as an example of New Atheist activity that he didn’t really have a problem with; he just doubted that it made much of a difference, because he dismisses anything that doesn’t result in the conversion of hardcore violent fundamentalists. Of course, as PZ points out, under that standard, Wright’s preferred approach doesn’t fare any better.
Next time I think you should just grit your teeth and put up with the new round of stammering and weaseling, and ask the damn question already.
The Wright/Harris session was a strange one. I thought R. Wright let that side down big time because he let his fear/contempt of “new” atheists affect his presentation. Chris Mooney does a much better job articulating the accommodationist side of things in my opinion.
In my opinion, a mistake Wright made last night was to admonish the “new” atheists for vocally criticizing religions but then say the crusades & inquisition happened when the Church was “going through a phase.” To me, this rambling seemed less like something a scholar or historian might say & more like a Church apologist.
Wright trampled over a lot of ground, but his main points seem to be: religions are not culpable, socio/economic/tribalistic factors produce things like suicide bombers & if you are an atheist don’t say anything to make a religious person mad.
Watching on the live stream, it was hysterical during the q&a when all the sudden Wrights demeanor changed (he looked really nervous to me) & he made a comment about how the next question was for him. The camera finally pulled back & the questioner was Richard Dawkins!
I agree this was a not a stellar performance from either debater. The main problem I think was that Wright simply does not have a lot to say about this topic. His critiques of New Atheism are nothing new (NA gets people’s backs up, it is uncivil, it won’t convert people). What surprised me most is that Wright didn’t pursue his argument that religion only becomes harmful in situations of zero sum conflict. Didn’t he just put out a book defending that thesis? You wouldn’t think so from this debate, where he seemed at a loss to fill 15 minutes. From this and online footage of Wright debating Dan Dennett, I get the sense that he’s somewhat of a dilettante.