Thursday, June 21, 2007

Calm and Cool Sam Harris

I love hearing Sam Harris debate. He's always very calm, slowly advancing on his opponents like the Terminator to surgically eviscerate them in a nice and friendly way. He never gets angry, unlike that Jesus chap who cursed a fig tree.

There is a great debate with Sam Harris available now at Truthdig. Although the moderator clearly takes the side of Sam's foe, Chris Hedges, in my entirely biased opinion I think Sam consistently beat Chris throughout the debate, while Chris went barking up trees Sam never climbed. Here's the text from one of my favorite bits, Sam's closing statement:

It seems to me we could have been having this conversation 500 years ago. Life was difficult 500 years ago, there was a lot of despair, crops failed, and disease spread, people suffered just instantaneous and catastrophic changes in their fortune. And the cause of all this was well understood 500 years ago. It was witchcraft. And happily the church had produced some very energetic men who had the gumption to deal with this problem. So every year, some hundreds and sometimes thousands of women were burned alive for casting spells on their neighbors.

Now imagine what it would be like to be among the five or ten percent of people at most, who recognized that the very belief in magic, the very belief in witchcraft, the very belief in good witches or bad witches was a malignant fantasy. The white witches who were helping people with medicinal herbs and practicing midwifery, they were on no firmer ground than the black witches who were casting the evil eye. The whole belief system was at fault. Imagine the kind of criticism you are going to get: "No no, your problem is just with fundamentalist witchcraft. The reality is that witchcraft is far more nuanced than that. There's no conflict between science and witchcraft. Science deals with physical law and physical causality, but witchcraft deals with potent spells and the internal connections between things."

This idea that somehow we shouldn't call into question these patently bad ideas for fear of offending people, for fear of glossing over their despair, for fear of not criticising other problems in the world. I would never argue that religion is the only problem in the world, or the only source of human conflict, but it is a source, and we are mightily attached to it, emotionally attached to it. And we are loath to criticize it even when it is declaring its ugliest intentions and its ugliest certainties. The problem with the Bible is however you pick and choose, whether you're a literalist or a selective literalist, the problem is there is just a mountain of divisive nonsense in there. And that's where people get ideas about homosexuality being an abomination, and why our country in the 21st century debates gay marriage as though it were the great moral issue of our time. This is coming from religion. And it seems to me that
it's time we had an honest conversation about it.

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