Sam Harris Takes Lead in Debate With Andrew Sullivan

I gave the lead to Andrew Sullivan in the early stages of his debate with Sam Harris, but Harris has successfully overcome Sullivan’s arguments and is taking a clear lead. While I remain somewhat sympathetic to Sullivan’s arguments in favor of moderate believers, I am reminded of what was said about the Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Mostly harmless.” While I give some credence to Sullivan’s arguments that those who keep religion out of politics are substantially different from the fundamentalists who do not believe in separation of church and state, Harris’s points that moderate religious beliefs do act to enable the more extreme (but more consistent) fundamentalist beliefs.

Harris’s argument was initially weakened by the appearance that he was dismissing all religious moderates, but he has clarified his position. He responds to Sullivan saying, “Contrary to your allegation, I do not “disdain” religious moderates. I do, however, disdain bad ideas and bad arguments–which, I’m afraid, you have begun to manufacture in earnest. I’d like to point out that you have not rebutted any of the substantial challenges I made in my last post.” He repeats this general argument in later writing, “You have also made the false charge that I think religious people are “fools” or “idiots.” Needless to say, I do not think Blaise Pascal was an idiot (nor do I think you are, for that matter). But I do consider certain ideas idiotic, and idiotic ideas can occasionally be found rattling around the brains of extraordinarily intelligent people.”

Harris makes several other points in his last post, including refuting Sullivan’s fundamental arguments claiming his religion provides a true answer about the Creator of the universe:

Needless to say, your attempt to pull theism up by its bootstraps (“since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator”) could be used to justify almost any metaphysical assertion. “The Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe” is also “definitionally” the Creator of the universe; this doesn’t mean that he exists, or that the universe had a Creator at all. Many other chains of pious reasoning could be cashed-out in the same way: “Satan is the Tempter; I find that I am tempted on a hourly basis to eat ice cream and have sex with my neighbor’s wife; ergo, Satan exists.” Or what if I suggested that what we know about the brain renders the idea of a human soul rather implausible, and one your brethren countered: “The immortal soul governs all the activity in a person’s brain; I have no fear about what neuroscience will tell me about the brain, because the soul is definitionally the brain’s operator.” Would this strike you as an argument for the existence of souls? Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, just as there are gaps in our understanding of the cosmos into which the faithful eagerly insert God, but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit. You can insert almost anything “definitionally” into those gaps. The Muslims have inserted Allah, and the Qur’an is His perfect word. The Hindus have inserted Gods of every color and flavor. Why don’t these efforts persuade you?

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