Friday, April 8, 2011

Harris kicked his butt!

Sam HarrisThat may be the quote of the night, but I’ll get to that at the end.

I went to see Sam Harris debate William Lane Craig at Notre Dame this evening. (Heretofore known as SH and WLC.) I cannot begin to describe just how good this was, but I will try. I took many notes (along with a couple of crummy pictures on the sly...I wasn’t supposed to take any, but being the heathen that I am, I did...and I liked it!), and I think the easiest way to write this up will be to just transcribe my notes with a little “neatening up” and commentary for clarity. The premise of the debate was whether or not religion and/or God is required for morality, i.e., can someone be moral without being religious? Harris maintains that that is most certainly possible; Craig says no. It naturally ended up as a debate of whether or not there is a supreme being who shaped our world and expects our worship; if we do not accept those terms, we will burn in hell. So here are my notes, and I’ll try to make some sense out of them. I can already see that there are some things I wrote down that I’m thinking “What was that about?” St. Anselm? What? Ha!

Heard behind me before the debate started: “I believe in a higher power...but I’m not Catholic.”

WLC looks smug. Harris opens his Mac.

WLC goes first, has 20 minutes to speak:
  • Quotes SH from The Moral Landscape, but leaves out crucial points of his hypothesis, especially regarding genital mutilation of females. In some cultures, this is considered a “moral” reality, based on religious beliefs. As moral beings, how can anyone condone this? Craig doesn’t seem to grasp what Harris was saying about that.
  • States that by nature, God is loving and kind
  • Says that Judeo-Christian beliefs are to love your God, love your neighbor
  • Compares humans to rats or insects
  • Says “Nature is morally neutral”
  • I want to barf (This was my thought, not a statement from him)
  • Compares humans to bees, corn, and bacteria
  • “If there is not a God, what foundation remains for objective moral duty?”
  • Incest - without religion there is nothing to stop it (I might have laughed out loud at this point)
  • States that Harris says there is no free will (since when did Harris say that?), so no one is morally responsible
  • Says that Harris says right and wrong don’t exist

Sam Harris gets 20 minutes:
  • He is surprisingly soft-spoken
  • Quotes his book concerning burqas; considered moral in that society, but highly restrictive of the rights of women in ours.
  • Where do our notions of right and wrong come from? Evolution and then cultural mores.
  • Avoid the worst possible misery for everyone; that is what drives our morality and guides us to making things better for others.
  • Talks at length about the Taliban; a highly religious society that dictates morality, but one that we find repugnant. They feel that throwing acid in the faces of young girls who dare to go to school is perfectly acceptable, and their literacy rate for women is something like 12%.
  • Generally seems to be a little more humorous, in a low-key way
  • Speaks of the value of evidence and logic, whether looking for reasons behind morality or for a belief in a god

WLC rebuttal:
  • God is essentially compassionate
  • Moral values are grounded ontologically in God
  • Speaks of the non-moral uses of “good,” using ridiculous, semantic arguments--bullshit
  • Atheism cannot explain moral values because atheists can’t see any reason to act morally; they have no moral lawgiver.
  • My head is exploding! (My thought, not his.)

SH rebuttal:
  • Any god is either impotent or evil
  • If you’re praying to the wrong god, you’re evidence to support this. Made a comparison to Lord of the Rings. I snorted, and the crowd laughed (at his remark, not at my snort, although those in my immediate proximity might have been laughing at me).
  • The Bible supports slavery
  • God is psychotic--totally detached from the well-being of humanity
  • References transubstantiation by saying that it’s like praying over pancakes to turn into Elvis. I snorted again.
  • “I hate to break it to you here at Notre Dame, but Christianity is a religion of sacrifice.”

WLC rebuttal:
  • Responding to Harris’s remarks concerning an impotent or evil god, a psychotic god, Bible supporting slavery: “The less moral framework is ATHEISM!” There was laughter among the audience.
  • If God does not exist, we have no foundation for morality
  • Evil proves that God exists (I think I need to explore that premise further in another entry)
  • The Taliban has got the wrong god

SH rebuttal:
  • Every branch of science relies on core values
  • Certain facts are objective
  • “We have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Brilliant!
  • We can have a conversation that is from the first century, with the Old Testament. Or from the seventh century, with the Koran. Or we can have a discussion in the 21st century.

WLC closing statements: God is the paradigm of good blah blah blah

SH closing statements:
  • Everything that WLC has said about Christianity could also be said about Islam
  • The scriptures were written by men who had no concept of our worldview, or of what we have learned since they were alive.

Question and Answer time:
  • Someone asks Harris if some religion could be true? Would he accept any religion as true? Harris says that in about five minutes, we could make a new religion. Let’s just cut out Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and at least half of the ten commandments. (The crowd laughs.)
  • Someone asks about WLC’s previous remarks concerning light vs. dark (it was along the lines of O’Reilly talking about the tide goes in, the tide goes can’t explain that), and how older societies turned to a magical explanation for the phenomenon. She stated that this is now explained by science. WLC goes into a long response about ontology vs epistemology. The questioner says, “Can I clarify? Why is God an explanation for morality?” (Laughter and mild cheers from the audience.) More stuff from Craig about ontology vs epistemology.
  • The existence of God doesn’t really add to the concept of love. (I don’t recall the question there, but that was a statement from Harris.)
  • A questioner asks about miracle stories, and how that can be explained. Harris says, “It would be trivially easy for God to convince me of his existence.” (Laughter from the audience.)
  • A questioner asks about homosexual vs heterosexual love, says that the former was shown to him last Harris struggles not to laugh, WLC berates the questioner for not being serious. In all fairness to WLC, although it was amusing, it was a troll question.
  • Harris says that people are means, not ends...our happiness is dependent upon that of others. Unless we’re psychotic, we genuinely want to see others happy, and do what we can (while taking into account our own well-being) to achieve that.
  • Harris says that this is the only encompasses the most happy and the most miserable. Most of us want to help others rather than harm them.
  • Harris mentions WLC’s “divine command theory.” God instructed Abraham to kill his son, and Abraham was going to do it. Harris’s point was that such blind obedience is not conducive to morality, and is no different than the Taliban ordering its religious adherents to throw acid in the faces of young girls who dare to go to school.
  • Harris maintains that there is no consensus within Christianity; various denominations believe various things, and have differing dogma. Christian dogma is dependent not upon morality but upon whatever the hierarchy decides will be the dogma.
  • WLC ends with the statement that there are no morals in atheism.

IMG_2334Whew! Man, that was a wild ride. I know that I’m biased, but I thought that Harris came across as rational and logical, humorous and earnest. He seemed much more relaxed and low-key; although I know he wasn’t speaking off-the-cuff, he seemed much more at ease and comfortable with his opinions and statements. Craig seemed stiff and uncomfortable, very rehearsed and stilted. I sensed that the crowd responded to Harris’s comments better than Craig’s; Harris’s comparison of the Taliban and Christianity seemed to resonate. Not that they are the same, but in one sense, they are: the absolute certainty that anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do will surely burn in hell. I felt like his examples of Taliban justice in the name of their religion got through to people; he questioned how certain any religion can be of their absolute righteousness. He implored people to think about what he said.

Here is what was really remarkable to me. This lecture took place at Notre Dame, that bastion of Catholic universities. (Although with President Obama speaking at their 2009 commencement, they seem to have lost a bit of their holy cred.) The questioners, who all seemed to be Notre Dame students, asked some great questions (except for the guy talking about last night’s homersextical experience) and were not giving Craig a pass. I honestly think that the students, at least, were much more in line with Harris’s thinking than Craig’s. They were definitely questioning, in every way, and I applaud both the university for hosting this debate, and the students for using their critical thinking and asking some really amazing questions. It was truly a fantastic debate, in a setting where you wouldn’t expect to see such a thing!

IMG_2335As for the title of this entry...on the way out, I overheard a young man (all decked out in a suit and tie) say to his friend, “Harris kicked his butt!” I was still on cloud nine feeling the same thing, so I said, “Excuse me...did I just hear you say that Harris kicked his butt?” He said, “Yeah!” I shook his hand, and he added, “I’m a good Christian, though!” He said something like “I don’t agree with either of them!” I have to chuckle about that. Was he telling me, or was he trying to convince himself? At least for that young man, Sam Harris succeeded in getting him to think past the indoctrination, and maybe start doing some critical thinking. If a self-proclaimed “good Christian” thought that Harris kicked butt, then I think that Harris pretty much kicked butt.

William Lane Craig? You got pwned. At the University of Notre Dame. Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Excellent! I wondered what all the hub bub was. Fascinating account, Beth!

  2. Great account Beth. But, one of the problems with the feeling of being correct or 'on the right side', is the crap smugness that proving what you believe or say is right or at least more right than the other.

    Christianity, for all its faults, has handled the indoctrination of its followers with the same kind of aplomb as can be seen in the current battle for the soul of the country. Like the rich (and lets quit calling the Repugs a 'party'... as a party they are the extension of the will of those who seek and hold power). They induce a form of hypnosis where people will no longer act of their own accord and instead align themselves with the image provided them and identify with it no matter how much it contrast with their actual belief or best interest.

    This ideal has glommed onto their supposed beliefs and ideals by convincing their followers that 1) Magical Thinking is real and parentheses 'we' are of the same belief. 2) select and appropriate key elements of their opponents platform, much like the Saints and holy days are steeped in other faiths and belief systems, and get everyone to think that 'we have always revered this and it was always ours', despite the evidence to the contrary. 3) the lack of or abscence of effort in the enlightened to actually do something. I was reading somewhere about how the first 2 years of Dubya's presidency was marked by an intense effort at carrying through a plan and how the Dem's turn has resulted in a stereotypical Democratic cluster, with Pres. Obama pushing across bits and pieces of his campaign promises and the good will and majority had in the house squandered. 4) Magical thinking exists because the will to actually get in and do what needs to be done to convince people that this is what is right, despite the untruths and make believe that is being said. After all, how else can you convince someone to cut the nose off their own face without their help in the matter?

    You are a smart girl. When I was in school, at all levels, there were people who WANTED to be smart so bad, that even when they came up with the wrong answer or conclusion, they believed that they were 'right' in spite of all evidence to the contrary. This is partially responsible for the breakdowns that lead the unqualified to believe that they are capable, because they remain unconvinced that they did something wrong and the methodology they used was not in any error whatsoever. Those who are enlightend seek not to force the lesser lights, because logic would indicate that a person realizes their error.

    Sounds good in theory but NOT in practice. And this is where the enlightend loses so much ground on the neanderthal... we leave them to their own devices, devices which were already proven to be inadquate to the task, from which arises a belief that they can identify with or be corrupted and induced to attach themselves to it.

    The tiny brained my have tiny brains... but they act upon their impulses... it is as though the enlightend expect osmosis to carry the word when humanity doesn't work that way... you have to reach someone where they attach actions with their passion and motivate them to act on their belief... all the debates you want. Globally, there is more than enough ignorance to combat reason and critical thinking...

  3. Thanks for the write-up. I still intend to watch the video later, but I appreciate the effort. I wish I could have been there myself.

  4. "States that Harris says there is no free will (since when did Harris say that?), so no one is morally responsible"
    I returned The Moral Landscape to the library, but I seem to recall Sam Harris does not believe in contra-causal free will. (See the section titled "The Illusion of Free Will", starting on page 102.) In fact he argues that the illusion of free will, especially when seen as the source for moral responsibility, provokes immoral behavior; on pg 110 he writes: "It seems to me that few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems.". This comes after an extended argument that "Judgments of responsibility, therefor, depend upon the overall complexion of one's mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect." (from pg 107).

    Harris' discussion of the topic is well worth reading, but I recommend the Reasonable Doubts approach starting with episode 29 and continuing in episodes 30 and 34.

  5. Thanks for that. Why do you alternate between WLC and DLC as an acronym?

    If I were arguing with Craig, I'd hammer him the entire debate with Euthyrphro's Dilemma. I know he's got answers for that, but I'd keep on that. Why assume that introducing a God into the equation makes any difference to what is and what is not moral? If something is objectively moral, then by definition you make it dependent on the existence of a God.

  6. I'm so freakin' jealous! I loved Harris's Letter To A Christian Nation and End of Faith. I've podcasted his talks, devoured his articles, and cheered! The Moral Landscape, however, was unreadable, taken straight through. It took me a while to figure out it was his dissertation, not a book he penned with an eye for you and me. And I'd wanted so much to hear his arguments, too, but I couldn't plow straight through it. I had to skip around for the nuggets and that's not a typical Sam Harris presentation.

    This is the answer to that dilemma. Now, to find a podcast for that debate. Thank you so much for being our reporter on the scene!

    My favorite, and still the crowning answer to just about every question about a god: "“It would be trivially easy for God to convince me of his existence.”

    Runner-Up: “We have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.”

    Whooping with delight over this post, Beth!

  7. Andrew, thanks for pointing that out. I wish I had a snappy comeback about some nickname I had for him, but it's just that it was late and I guess I'd had one too many Blue Moons at dinner! I'll fix it.

  8. No worries Beth, I messed up on my own post.
    I should have said:
    "If something is objectively moral, then by definition you CAN'T make it dependent on the existence of a God."

  9. Welcome to the world of Spycam activities. Once you start, there's no going back ...!

  10. It was amazing, so glad you got the tickets.

  11. Llewelly, thank you for your comment, and a couple of days after the debate, I read that part in The Moral Landscape! He does indeed seem to feel that free will is overrated, if not nonexistent, if I'm understanding him correctly. I'm not sure I agree with that, but I do see where he's coming from. That's something I think I need to ponder a little more.

  12. Beth, I'm with Nance, I'm a little jealous that you were there. Thank you for taking the time to post your notes. They were priceless!


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?