Wright/Harris debate

Thanks to alert reader “ennui”, I’m able to post the video of yesterday’s debate between Robert Wright and Sam Harris at the Secular Humanism conference in L.A.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


  1. ennui
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I’m here to help, despite what Mooney might say.

  2. Pete Carlton
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    You know, this is the year 2010. We’ve discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets, sequenced the human genome, and put all the world’s information a few clicks away from everyone. Yet somehow the electronic amplification of sound to a room of people remains outside of our grasp.

    And, I would say to Robert Wright: instead of wondering why some people adopt the tolerant side of scripture and some adopt the intolerant (to put it mildly) side, why not join us in undermining the very idea of “scripture”? It’s a crappy idea – let’s get over it.

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      “You know, this is the year 2010. We’ve discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets, sequenced the human genome, and put all the world’s information a few clicks away from everyone.”

      This also would have made the perfect prelude for the absurdity of gratuitous accommodationism.

  3. Posted October 10, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Another thing about Wright, he said he was incredibly unhappy about not being the special little atheist darling in the room wherever he goes these days. The gnu atheists ruined it for him with their belligerence. That was telling. It was very similar to the the story of annoyance with gnu atheists that (sock artist) Tom Johnson told. I see it as classism on their parts. Atheism is fast becoming a comfortable identity for all kinds of people, not just elite males. (Our own mini Protestant Reformation?)

  4. Penman
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Speaking of “elite males,” I watched this debate and PZ’s panel, in their entireties, and I was gobsmacked by the overwhelming lack of females in the audience.

    I know this disproportion has been a serious topic here and elsewhere, but never has the problem been made so visually clear.

    This is a real problem.

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Saw that, too.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      It was not a problem at “The Rise of Atheism” 2010 Global conference in Melbourne, Oz.
      And the place was packed with young folk, as well!

  5. Penman
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Other observations, having watched PZ’s panel and this debate:

    1. In both cases moderation sucked. On PZ’s panel, the “moderator” clearly thought she was panelist. In this debate, the moderator was missing in action.

    2. Following on #1, we need the topic to be focused and we need to keep the panelists on it. Richard Carrier’s lament at the end was totally valid: This debate got waylaid by Islam, when most watching wanted to hear about the debate’s stated topic. Carrier’s comment showed just how little (if any) that was discussed.

    3. Now, seriously: What is the plan? What do we do next? I wish someone had asked Sam, What’s your plan? I totally agree that the truth is primary, but once we agree, what do we do?

    • cfmelick
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Is it possible that Wright has no clear plan of where we go from here, and waylaid the debate to provide cover for himself?

      • Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Speaking as a supporter of Harris’s position on most things, and also having been in the live audience, I think it was Harris, more than Wright, who waylaid the debate by regularly returning to Islam. While I do think Harris “won” the debate (whatever that’s worth), Wright seemed more prepared to address the topic of the session. Harris seemed (understandably) to be in book-tour mode, and was somewhat unfocused, ending up repeating lines we’ve heard many times.

  6. Eric MacDonald
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but I did come to the point where Robert Wright said that he thought of religion as a “neutral medium.” Now this has got to be the silliest thing that has been said in the debate about religion and atheism. I could quote Marhsall McLuhan here and remind him that the medium is the message, I suppose, but the fact is that religion is message more than medium. And as for religion being neutral: surely, it’s almost impossible to come up with a more oxymoronic way to describe it. After all, religion is, first and foremost, something that drives people’s lives. If you ask a theologian about the effect of liberal theology, the likelihood is that you will hear something to the effect that liberal theology has taken away the religious motor of religion, that is, the part of religion that grabs our attention and forces us, first of all to worship, and then, on the basis of this, to live powerfully with the sense of being informed by a power not our own. So speaking about religion as a neutral medium is about as far from the truth about religion as it is possible to get.

    Indeed, when you watch and listen to Robert Wright you get a sense of what he might mean, because he is himself so lack lustre, so lacking in passion, so listless, almost vacant, sometimes, expressionless. He is, as it were, a neutral medium! But this is not religion, and is not what has made religion such a driving force throughout history.

    • Penman
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I’d never seen Wright before, but I was surprised at how his demeanor and persona exuded passive exasperation. I mean, why bother to show up if you really would rather be elsewhere?

      But I also can’t let Sam Harris off the hook here either. He seemed quite preoccupied and, for him, unfocused.

      Combine this with the lack of moderation, and the whole enterprise (except for Richard Carrier at the end) lacked luster.

    • karmakin
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      The argument that both sides kept on coming back to is basically Wright is saying that religion doesn’t really mean anything and Harris is saying that yes, it does.

      Personally I think the effects of the actual religion itself are overblown. I think people say they believe in it a lot more than they actually do. However, there’s another side of it. People ACT like they believe in said religion, because it’s culturally seen in a positive light to be doing so.

      In my opinion, for example the Christian focus on abortion and homosexuality are because they are “easy” (as in little self-sacrifice..well at least on the first one) ways to publicly prove devotion.

      The long-term secular moral goal, in my mind, is to actually create a world where religion is actually neutral, and people are judged not by their theistic beliefs but by their actions.

    • articulett
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      How can people be “neutral” about something that they believe their ETERNITY depends upon?

    • Chris Slaby
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Just got to the “neutral medium” point. Wow. I can’t believe he really said that.

  7. Observer
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Last night I was having dinner with a friend who I have known for years as a nominal Catholic. We got to a discussion of religion and he said, to my surprise, “You know, I used to think there must be some kind of God, but I didn’t know what it was. But now when I hear people talk about God, I just think, ‘where’s your proof.'”

    New Atheists created the environment where he was comfortable enough to say this aloud. Robert Wright and others like him have done nothing, absolutely *nothing* to help.

    I’m confident that there are millions of people like him. Simply by asserting that all the theological babble in the world is meaninless without some repeatable method for evaluating evidence, New Atheists will be called strident. But this simple message resonates.

    We are told all the time that we aren’t aware of the sophisticated theology. I think, in principle, we should be aware of all the current arguments for religion. However, accomodationists would have us treat this theology as if it were worthy of rebuttal. In so doing, they are ceding our home-field advantage, which is the position that, absent an empirical method for determining the truth of religious claims, those claims are meaningless. They may have ‘value’ for people in the same sense that any sort of mythology can have value for a people, but they are not, therefore, true.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:27 am | Permalink

      “…we should be aware of all the current arguments for religion.”

      Here they are (the full list):
      1) It helps a tiny elite retain a parasitic life-style.
      2) There is no two.

  8. Chris Slaby
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Favorite moment so far. Around an hour and 17 minutes into, Harris is talking about some of the negative things that Wright and other Gnu critics have thrown our way, and he mentions Money and accommodationism and the possibility for science and faith to not conflict. And then you get this moment of agreement:

    Sam Harris: Francis Collins is an existence proof of the fact that there is no conflict between religion and science.
    Robert Wright: I’ve certainly never said that. I think he’s completely confused.

  9. Zuropa
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I wish Wright would have followed up on the odd connection between New Atheism and neo-conservativism.

    It is perplexing how any thinking person–much less someone as brilliant as Hitchens–could have bought the Bush/Iraq/WMD retardedness. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the deplorable American Enterprise Institute. And so forth. It’s hard for me to reconcile a rationalist worldview with ideas I consider to be batshit crazy. The AEI: global warming deniers, FFS!

    Regarding Dawkins’ website, Wright appears to be talking about this:


    That links to the America Thinker. Just look at the site. It’s all nutty right-wingisms. It misrepresents the video in question.

  10. Screechy Monkey
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I just had low expectations, but I thought it turned out fine.

    I think the focus on Islam, while perhaps not what people had in mind, was useful. I really did not want to see another debate with vague statements about how unspecified “rude” remarks are “not helping.” At least focusing on specific claims made by Sam Harris about one particular religion’s role in a particular problem (jihad/terrorism) allowed for a little more substance.

    Wright’s basic theme that there are things you should refrain from saying not because they’re not true, but because they’re not helpful, is fine as far as it goes. (And not for nothing, but isn’t it nice to have an accomodationist pretty much admit that yes, he wishes we would shut up?) But I think that those who want others to shut up — even in the voluntary, not legally compelled sense — bear a heavy burden of showing that the speech will really be so harmful, and I don’t think Wright came anywhere near close enough.

    Wright’s attitude towards Muslims comes across as a weird combination of cowardly and patronizing (don’t antagonize them, they’ll just attack us again, because they don’t have our education and living standards!)

    But I think he did a good job of presenting his side and allowing for a real discussion.

    Harris was a little disappointing; he seemed to rely a lot on glib remarks about how we don’t worry about Quaker terrorists, etc. Onhce or twice I noticed him waiting for applause or laughter that he seemed surprised not to get.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:32 am | Permalink

      Harris is egregiously wrong with that glib remark:
      The Vietnamese were, and some still are, certainly worried & haunted, by the Quaker terrorist: Richard Nixon.

  11. Chris Slaby
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    This was perhaps not the most interesting or productive debate, but I think Richard Carrier had the most accurate point, that indeed Wright seems to agree with Sam Harris on just about every case of deconversion except maybe the radical Islamic suicide bomber. Wright basically conceded this and thus lost any real support for the idea that confrontation is not productive.

    Wright also didn’t really deal with the issue of tone versus content. At one point he sort of made the point that you’re not likely to convince a believer by walking up to them and telling them that God does not exist and/or it is stupid for them to think that God exists. So here is point is that we shouldn’t be mean or rude. However, that doesn’t tackle our real issue, which is critical thinking. Most of us would agree that it’s not primarily about making people feel bad, it’s not about intentionally offending people (even though we’re not scared to do that), it’s about challenging people to think for themselves. So it’s not that we walk up to people and say “hey you, do you believe in God? Well if you do, you’re stupid.” No, we write and we talk and first question is “how do you know? How do you know that your religious/supernatural beliefs are true?” However aggressive we are, we are primarily motivated by a lust for reason. I imagine Wright would have had no good arguments against this, had the conversation gone in this direction.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      “Lust for reason”
      I like it.
      May I steal it, please?

  12. Dave
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Haha, Sam Harris has a drunk groupie in the audience.

  13. Peter Beattie
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Only in to Wright’s introductory remarks, but Jesus F. Christ is he a terrible speaker or what? No idea what he was rambling on towards, and if he used less than a hundred umms and uhs, I’ll eat my hat.

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      They both seem pretty bad here (I’ve watched bits rather than the whole thing, so far) – bored, sullen, whiny. It was just a dud, really.

      They should have invited me!

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      True, Sam seems a bit off as well. But he’s still mostly coherent and makes some valid points. Although, and maybe this is a more productive thing to focus on, he kind of failed to pick up the ball that Wright dropped in his court about Gnu Atheists making the life of Kansas teachers more difficult.

      And I suppose this would have been pretty easy and straightforward to deal with:

      1. Explicit atheism in a classroom is nothing any of even the Gnu-est Atheists have ever called for.

      2. Surely, a curricular item cannot be judged by its potential jeopardizing of certain beliefs. If it does, then that’s for the believer to deal with. If evolution makes your religion seem completely false, then that’s just tough.

      3. Just as surely, simply seeing that something makes your job harder doesn’t mean that it is wrong to do or think or say. Quite on the contrary, any consistency in ethics (the study of the right thing to do) usually leads to you having to put in more effort. Why would we expect that to be different in a classroom?

      • Chris Slaby
        Posted October 10, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

        Well, this goes to the whole teaching that the earth is 4.5 billion years old means that it is not 6,000 years old thing. Not explicitly teaching atheism, but being clear about reality, which is what teachers should indeed be doing. But as has been noted here before, clearly stating that the earth is not 6,000 years old certainly ruffles some feathers.

  14. Peter Beattie
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    And right at the end, in response to Richard Carrier, what an incredibly weak thing for Wright to say that ‘fundamentalist’ is kind of a fuzzy term and the former fundamentalist believers in the audience simply weren’t the ones he had been thinking of. What a low way for a philosopher to weasel out of an entirely fair and directly apropos point.

  15. Kyle
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I think Harris slugged for the first half and didn’t address Wright’s points/arguments very well. I found him extremely unconvincing. I don’t think it was until the open conversation that he started to make some valid points. While on the whole I do not agree with most of Wright’s arguments, such as his accommodationism, I do think he makes some valid points about the nature of religious violence and its social/political aspects which can so easily be swept under the rug of religion without any real analysis or understanding of their cause and nature.

  16. Clive
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    To me to some extent it’s a dialogue of the deaf, as they say: I find myself in agreement with both and neither.

    But on balance in general, I think Wright has the best of it. Harris, for me, has a completely ahistorical understanding of, in this case, mainly, Islam: he confuses Islam’s doctrinal claims with historically and socially defined political movements in the modern world.

    It is, for instance, irrelevant to a consideration of whether or not politics, economics, etc, explain modern Islamism to look at the personal circumstances of the 9/11 bombers. For sure some people (on the left, I guess) make out that Islamic political movements consist only of the impoverished anti-imperialist masses, and that’s absurd. But Wright is making a more limited claim: that the actions of modern Islamists are the product of specific historical circumstances, not just ‘Islam’ in the abstract.

    Harris is right that the specific forms of ideology matter (eg, there aren’t Palestinian Christian suicide bombers); but that there are Palestinian suicide bombers is surely, obviously, because of the situation the Palestinians are in than just because of ‘Islam’.

  17. larry cavey
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Wow! What a waste of money to bring those two characters in to speak. I have heard better debates on the playgrounds and in pool halls throughout America. Look, much of the Christian Bible is a coded book NOT to be understood my intellectuals or common clergy until the latter days. If I had been exposed to only the catholic protestant, or Judaism versions of God, I too would be an atheist. Man has invented all religions except one. Your quest should be to discover the true one by using your brains and ears.

    • Humxm
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Hmmm…. there’s only one, eh? I use my brain and ears, and I always come up with zero. Can you at least give me a hint?

    • Rick T
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I thought Dana was the comedian in your family. Turns out you’re funnier.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        And there I was thinking that he was a relative of a small furry rodent.

  18. Andy
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Both Sam and Wright were off-topic right from the get go (insofar as the bulk of what they spoke about had little to do with the advertised focus of the debate, and insofar as their “rebuttals” didn’t actually attend to what the other person had said).

    Robert Wright has said previously, and said in this debate in so many words, that he thinks the positive effects of religion throughout history and the negative effects are about 50/50. This, along with the religion as a “neutral medium” thing, is just frickin’ nutty. It’s also bending over backward to give religion the benefit of the doubt. And as we gnu atheists like to ask, Why do that?

    • Andy
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      And of course, Sam did well late in the debate to point out that Wright’s most annoying tendency is to basically deny that religion is ever “really operative” as a causal force for bad. If you listen to Wright carefully, and read his work carefully, you’ll see that his position is very clear (even though he refuses to say it outright): Religion never is truly at at fault for the bad stuff that flows from it. There are just too many other factors, and it’s just too complicated, says Wright, to say that religion ever causes anything bad. What hooey! Glad to see that both Sam and Dawkins called him on this nonsense.

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