This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges

Debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges - Comments

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 1 by Cook@Tahiti

This will be fun.

Sam Harris uses a good phrase here - "This mass grave [of deities] called mythology".

That should get some mileage.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 11:13:00 UTC | #47476

konquererz's Avatar Comment 2 by konquererz

I actually didn't think Hedges did that bad of a job. He did a fabulously job of putting torture into perspective, and in that point, I really agree with him and not Sam Harris. But Harris as usual put the plain painful truth of it out there. Religion is only as dangerous as its most dangerous link, fundamentalism. Good debate, worth taking the time to watch.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 12:33:00 UTC | #47495

BrettS's Avatar Comment 3 by BrettS

Wow, this was tough for me to watch. Much of the debate had Sam vs. Hedges and the moderator (I'm assuming he was a moderator?) ;)

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 13:18:00 UTC | #47508

Diplo's Avatar Comment 4 by Diplo

A good debate, though in truth it was less about religion and more about politics. Hedges completely avoided defending the core concepts of religion because he implicitly acknowledges that it is irrational. He seems to be one of those Christians who doesn't believe in anything apart from a wishy-washy version of God who is "love" (and how can you argue against that redefinition of God?).

There was absolutely nothing he could say to counter Harris's devastating opening volley and so he opted for changing the subject. His main tactic was to work on Harris's Achilles heal, which was his glib defence of torture in 'The End Of Faith' (which in reality is a few badly thought through pages of an otherwise great book). Hedges then adopted the standard Western leftist approach to all the failing of the Middle East - that is, it's nothing to do with Islam and is all our fault. This seems to be a common failing of liberal Christian intellectuals - because their faith is so wish-washy and metaphorical they don't seem to be able to understand that other people are actually totally sincere in their beliefs and take what is written in ancient texts deadly seriously. The example of the Danish cartoon controversy was a good point in hand.

The fact is Hedges did nothing to address Harris's main criticisms of religion and instead made rather mawkish appeals to the audiences' obvious liberal-left leanings by appealing to their political emotions. He may be right about torture but he totally failed to make any case for the veracity or usefulness of religion, whilst studiously ignoring the damage it is undeniably causing in the Middle East (and the wider world)

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 13:24:00 UTC | #47510

Munger's Avatar Comment 5 by Munger

Another frustrating debate where the so-called "moderator" can't just sit back and shut up. Harris did an excellent job, especially considering that it was two against one. And one of those two was supposed to represent a neutral party.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 13:39:00 UTC | #47512

tieInterceptor's Avatar Comment 6 by tieInterceptor

Amazing debate, I found myself clapping for Harris at the end.

I really admire Harris ability to convey complicated ideas with crystal clarity and with the most easy to understand examples,

His final explanation of how he feels like being 500 years ago in medieval witch-hunt times with a an insight to all the folly that no one else sees, or dares to admit seeing, is really powerful.

he also made me laugh with the cracker eating behaviour 'joke',
it really illustrated so well the pains and lengths that some religious people will go trying to justify suicide bombers as 'really' non-faith based attacks, even if the bombers themselves cry "god is great" before blowing themselves up.

excellent, even thought he seemed to be in the minority due to lack of public support, he clearly surfaced as the most intelligent and reasonable person in the table to me.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 14:42:00 UTC | #47521

etny's Avatar Comment 7 by etny

Endless debates.
Because faith is... faith-based (vs. objective evidence-based), and that the key axiom of faith is thatÂ… if you lose (or even challenge) your faith, you lose the most precious thing in the world, a believer will defend his faith at all cost, without any regard for the validity of the opposing party's most challenging "reasoned" arguments.
Consequently, there can be no fruitful dialogue between faith and reason. Nothing new, I'm afraid.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 15:03:00 UTC | #47525

carnitine's Avatar Comment 8 by carnitine

Harris does a bang up job here, but I'm extremely disappointed with Hedges. Most of his time in spent attacking positions which Harris has never taken, or working to obscure, and thereby immunize, his own positions from attack.

Hedges does make a few points and does a decent job of exposing some of Harris' biases, but not better than other people have before him.

Harris' opening statement is pure gold.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 15:04:00 UTC | #47526

LeeLeeOne's Avatar Comment 9 by LeeLeeOne

My impressions to the first 2 video portions of the debate:

Mr. Harris opened, without a doubt, with clarity and rationality for part 1 of this debate. Mr. Hedges portion, part 2, also is (quite surprisingly) extremely good.

However, with Mr. Hedges, if this is what truly any of our modern day religions actually practiced, I have no doubt that the anger and discourse between anti-theists and fundamentalists would dissolve into nothing more than an educated discussion. (What Mr. Hedges wishes for in his monotheistic ideals is not what is reality in our current situation.)

However, with this said, religion prescribes doctrines, dogmas, that are basically interpretations of an ancient idea, which are for the most part, irrelevant to our current, modern day society. As these dogmas are not evolutionary, (the further society progresses) from ancient civilizations, the less useful they become (and with much relief I might add, most of these dogmas are anti-humanistic, blech!).

Perhaps if religion simply threw away the bible, the quaran, the tablets, etc., never referring to them as justification, they could instead focus on more of their supernatural deity that is humanistic.

Ahhhh, an almost perfect marriage theism/atheism.... (pop goes the delusion!)

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 15:55:00 UTC | #47527

Atticus_of_Amber's Avatar Comment 10 by Atticus_of_Amber

Just watching Sam's intro. Wow! Is he on form!

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 15:59:00 UTC | #47528

TheHardProblem's Avatar Comment 11 by TheHardProblem

I just had to write this down:

Sam Harris (about the dismissal of religious belief influencing human behaviour):
"This kind of analysis is like seeing people lined up to receive the eucharists and asking them why they're doing this. And they tell you about the transsubstantiation and their love for jesus. To discount all of that, that we cant trust what they're saying, actually, 'this is just cracker eating behaviour', and 'it is witnessed by the fact (audience laughing) that it happens in other contexts'. I mean 'people eat crackers in other contexts', and 'there's a general love of crackers'. You can't say that people aren't motivated by their religion. (sheer interrupts)"


Sam Harris (after chris hedges' strawman attacks and 'expert' opinion on the measure of he muslim world):
"Happily we do not asses public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the muslim world and make friends and get a vibe."

For me, Sam has yet again taken the number 1 spot in public debates, closely followed by Hitchens.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 16:08:00 UTC | #47530

jamesstephenbrown's Avatar Comment 12 by jamesstephenbrown

Chris Hedges seems to have taken the approach, regarding this debate, that if he bombards Sam with so many flawed arguments Sam will not know what to address first.

I'm glad Sam pulled Chris up on the fact that one man's personal testimony is statistically irrelevant. It was however frustrating Chris' complete misunderstanding of Sam's cherry picking comment in defense of secular morality - replying with something to the effect that we are not all literalists, which is what Sam was saying - that we don't need to be literalists infact we don't need to be adherents at all to have morality.

I was happy though that Chris was consistent in logically implying that Nazi Germany was not inherently a flawed system, it was simply bad because it was instigated during a depression. In essence, Nazism might be a worthwhile system to try out on our more affluent societies... Who's first? Any takers?

I was also happy to hear Chris point out that the less educated, and scientifically minded a society the more tribal it will be. Which logically implies that religion, a system opposed to the scientific method, is a force that increases tribalism by stifling the education of the society in question.

I really think people in support of religion who are only in support of social ritual, humble appreciation greater than oneself and consolation, who believe that the bible is allegorical and that miracles are not possible and that the beginnings of the universe are simply mysterious, should start to be honest with themselves and admit that they are therefore not religious! At least not of the religion that Sam Harris persecutes. They are defending a "religion" that is not under attack

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 16:13:00 UTC | #47532

mjwemdee's Avatar Comment 13 by mjwemdee

I really got annoyed by the way Hedges seemed to expect extra brownie points by constantly saying 'I was there on the streets of the Middle East' 'I was there in Egypt/Cairo/Tunisia/Beirut' etc ad nauseam. This does not guarantee any intellectual superiority.

Par contre, Sam was a joy to listen to.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 16:19:00 UTC | #47533

krogercomplete's Avatar Comment 14 by krogercomplete

I wanted to stand up and cheer when Sam bitch slapped Hedges about not using NY Times correspondents to gauge public opinion in the middle east by moving in and "getting a vibe."

Also, Hedges' accusation that Sam was racist because he wrote about Muslim mothers celebrating suicide bombers was totally uncalled for.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 16:53:00 UTC | #47538

Atticus_of_Amber's Avatar Comment 15 by Atticus_of_Amber

The one challenge that I think Harris did not deal with clearly (though the proper response was implicit in a lot of what he said) was why has religious violence arisen now, in place of deprivation and injustice, rather than other times and in less benighted places.

One response, which Sam made well, was that it's not just arising in benighted places - the 19 hijackers from the Arab upper middle class with MAs and PhDs living in Europe and America, etc.

But the deeper point is to admit that yes, deprivation does have something to do with it - but that how people *respond* to deprivation is determined by what they believe. Harris has said this before - it's a lot harder to motivate a Tibettan Buddhist to suicidal religious violence against their Chinese oppressors than it is to motivate Muslim Palestinians to suicide bombings against *their* oppressors. That's the only point I think he needed to make more clearly in this debate.

But given he was being tag teamed by the most biased "moderator" I've ever seen means that it's hardly a major criticism to say that Harris was a little unclear on one of his many points while taking fire from two directions.

Where I think I might disagree with Harris is that I do see the alleviation of poverty and economic development as part of the solution.

Facts persuade. One of the most effective arguments for secular liberal democracy and against theocracy (or fascism or communism) is the experience of seeing it work as a way of supporting people's survival and happiness.

I think the best thing that ever happened to the Islamic fundamentalists (who prior to the 1950s were marginalised in middle eastern politics) was the failure of secular Arab politics - just as the best thing that ever happened for Nazism was the failure of the Weimar republic. When Weimar failed, and the German people were desperate, they listened to appeals to the darkest of their pre-existing beliefs - anti-Semitism, Teutonic superiority, anti-Slav racism, authoritarianism, etc (much of it coming from Christianity, as Christopher Hitchens points out). Similarly, when Arab secularism failed, the Arabs turned to the darkest of their pre-existing beliefs.

I think this is what Hitchens means when he says that religion is the bacillus, the rats in the sewers, always waiting to rise up and infect when the resistance of the population's intellectual immune system is weak.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 17:14:00 UTC | #47543

Sancus's Avatar Comment 16 by Sancus

Hedges opens with the claim that Christianity was responsible for the rise of individualism in the West and giving us our concept of self. This claim is so outrageous that I find it weird and disturbing people don't automatically reject it. Then, I suppose it is somewhat fortunate the Enlightenment was so effective that people cannot imagine how different things were before it.

I wonder if Hedges ever considered that the rise of individualism might be tied to the rise of literacy rates. Perhaps, when people learn how to read and write, they don't have to rely on community leaders for all their information? Maybe!

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 17:15:00 UTC | #47545

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 17 by Cook@Tahiti

16. Comment #50555 by Sancus

>Hedges opens with the claim that Christianity was responsible for the rise of individualism in the West and giving us our concept of self.

I scoffed at this too - it was the exact opposite. When Christianity was at its strongest, about 1,000 years ago, Europe was in its most regressive primitive state, and only when the power of the Christian Church started to fragment and wane, and with the onset of the Renaissance and the Enlightment, that's when individualism and other progressive ideas began to take hold. The church resisted these for hundreds of years. Enlightenment ideas arose IN SPITE of Christianity, not because of it.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 17:20:00 UTC | #47546

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 18 by Cook@Tahiti

>15. Comment #50553 by Atticus_of_Amber

Some good points. That western inventions in the MIddle East have undermined secular forces and bolstered religious forces is a hot topic charged with controversy.

Hitchens rightly rails against the "Parties of God", but seems to ignore any context- as if it all happened in a vacuum. That's not to say it's ENTIRELY one side's fault. Too often, these political debates become polarised into either/or camps. There are genuine grievances, compounded by Abrahamic factions, and apportioning blame to all parties and disentangling legitimate from illegitimate, proportionate from disproportionate, resistance from terrorism, economics from politics from nationalism from religion, is fraught with difficulty.

But yes, you reinforce a good point - religion is always there in the background and will resurface if economic, social or political upheaval occurs. Even in the secular countries of Scandinavia - if they had some environmental catastrophe or economic meltdown, religion would gain traction again.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 17:32:00 UTC | #47548

NormanDoering's Avatar Comment 19 by NormanDoering

If anyone is interested:

The debate over here, between Hedges and Harris fans, is a bit more heated and aside from me, who isn't giving it much time and I'm feeling overwhelmed, the atheist representation is minor and poor -- some kid who just insults and doesn't read other's posts:

And I've got a blog post here:

"...with enemies like Chris Hedges you don't need friends."

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 19:01:00 UTC | #47560

greg_m's Avatar Comment 20 by greg_m

Hedges poetic definiton of religion is best (and rather crudely) refuted by Jack Nicholson's character Melvin in the film As Good as it Gets:

"People who talk in metaphors should shampoo my crotch."

Hedges completely personal and metaphoric definiton ("Sam gets it wrong; religion really is...") is irrelevant to the debate about genuine truth-claims made by religions.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 19:28:00 UTC | #47563

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 21 by Enlightenme..

Another a-humanist throws up a courtier's reply then takes out a bunch of strawmen - sheesh.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 20:35:00 UTC | #47567

82abhilash's Avatar Comment 22 by 82abhilash

Moderators like Robert Scheer, fan the flames of irrationality that trap and choke the greatest rationalists of our time. May his actions be remembered by history as shameful along with that of Chris Hedges - who proved to me that you can use intelligent words and still be a moron. Two men sat in front of hundreds of people and justified a grotesque act of terrorism, without fear of reprisal, the Americans cannot be more tolerant if they tried!!

Reminds me of some lines from 'If' by Rudyard Kipling 'If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools'.


Mon, 18 Jun 2007 22:20:00 UTC | #47570

jackdavis's Avatar Comment 23 by jackdavis

Hedges and his ilk really scare me. To believe, contra the evidence, that poverty is the cause of Muslim terrorism, is to put one's head in the sand. We cannot confront Islamic terrorism if we cannot identify his root cause- religious irrationality. Sam did a great job, considering how biased the "moderator" was. It seemed like a two-on-one debate. I suggest everyone read Sam's article "Head in the Sand Liberals," available at his website.

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 22:50:00 UTC | #47574

roach's Avatar Comment 24 by roach

Sam's the man. He is so calm under pressure and I've seen a number of debates (like this one) turn essentially into 2-on-1. His composure under such unfair circumstances is truly impressive. He probably is the most calm and collected public intellectual I have ever witnessed.

I was pretty disappointed with Hedges. He kept talking about politics and social concerns as if people's religious beliefs have little or no effect on their political/social lives. I was also irritated with his "I lived in Cairo, etc" argument. So what? So you lived in the Middle East and found it to be a pleasurable experience. This is kinda like me moving to the drug and crime infested slums of DC and concluding that "the US is a hotbed for criminals and drug pushers". Why am I not surprised that an affluent (compared to the bulk of the middle east population) and well regarded journalist/writer was able to find and live in peaceful areas in the region?

Something that I really liked out of Sam this time was his humor. He always slips in a couple funny lines but this time he kinda let himself get carried away. Some people may find this to be a weakness and maybe it is. But I don't care. I found myself laughing often.

"This is just cracker eating behavior. And we know this because crackers are eaten in other contexts...there's a general love for crackers" hahahahah

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 23:11:00 UTC | #47577

Broshiesq's Avatar Comment 25 by Broshiesq

Of course Sam is much more thoughtful and reasoned but he was way too polite. I wanted to reach through my monitor and throttle Scheer, though, totally unprofessional and rude. I was picturing Hitchens sitting there instead of Harris, as Scheer "moderates" :

"Excuse me, Sir, are you asking me or telling me?" In his perfectly condescending tone, of course.

After listening, early on, to Hedges say this: "The question is not whether god exists. The question is whether we concern ourselves with, or are utterly indifferent to, the sanctity and ultimate transcendence of human existence." I was wondering why Harris was wasting his time with this guy.

Some other good lines from Hedges (and my response):

CH: I think god is better understood as a verb, rather than a noun.
Me: God off?

CH: God is inescapable. It is the life force that sustains, transforms and defines all existence.
Me: Ben? Ben Kenobi?

Tue, 19 Jun 2007 00:46:00 UTC | #47579

ImagineAZ's Avatar Comment 26 by ImagineAZ

I'm a bit surprised that some of you were impressed by Hedges at all. I've only heard his opening so far, but he seems like he's defending religion and attacking religion at the same time.

He totally contradicts his previous argument in order to present his current argument. He claims that Christianity isn't violent, because Stalin was violent. (Of course, Stalin merely usurped the role of God; he became the intolerant god himself.) Then he defends Islam by saying that much of the violence blamed on Muslims was actually perpetrated by Christians and Catholic priests. (Sorry, I didn't take notes, so I'm just going off hazy memory.)

I was really listening, and I never heard any coherent actual defense of religion or of faith.

Tue, 19 Jun 2007 01:00:00 UTC | #47580

Atticus_of_Amber's Avatar Comment 27 by Atticus_of_Amber

Another quick thought. More a vicarious l'esprit d'escallier really.

When Sam called Hedges on his personal knowledge of the Middle East vs what scientific polling showed, Schere broke in with something like "the guy's lived there for fifteen years!".

A cute response from Sam might have been: "I've lived in the US for thrity-[x] years and I never would have dreamed a majority of Americans would vote for George W Bush." Gioven the liberal nature of the audience, it would have both gotten a great laugh and made the point that Hedges's middle eastern friends will be as a biased sample of the Middle East as Sam Harris' quasi-Buddhist or atheist and/or scientist or philosopher friends are likely to be of the USA.

Tue, 19 Jun 2007 01:15:00 UTC | #47582

ImagineAZ's Avatar Comment 28 by ImagineAZ

After hearing more than half of the whole thing now, I'm wishing Sam would say the obvious: "Suicide bombers and inquisitors are people following the doctrines of their holy books. The books instruct us to torture and kill. I'm not claiming that 100% of religious people will kill for their god, but the ones who believe in their god and DON'T kill are the ones who are NOT following the doctrines. In other words, religion gets better as people believe it and follow it less. And this tendency will carry through all the way to the end of religion."

Tue, 19 Jun 2007 01:27:00 UTC | #47583

Atticus_of_Amber's Avatar Comment 29 by Atticus_of_Amber

Just watched it again and I have to say how much I continue to be impressed with Sam Harris. Indeed, I'm actually much more impressed with him as a speaker and debater than I am impressed with him as a writer.

His calm, Zen-like, dare I say Mr-Spock-like manner is a model of rationality. For example, when called a racist the most annoyed he gets is to say a little emphatically "I really have to deal with this charge or racism."

As so many people have said, his response to being ganged up upon by Hedges and the so-called moderator was to just calmly lay out his view, point out where he had been misrepresented and deal with the points that did attack what he had actually said. In the end, to my (admittedly biased) mind, he came off looking so much better than the increasingly deranged sounding hedges and (especially) the moderator.

You know what I want to see? An Australian-style three-speakers-a-side debate between Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens on one side and three theists on the other. Dawkins can do "religion is highly unlikely to be true", Harris can do "by making it ok to believe things without good evidence or good reasons, religion is dangerous to global civilization", and Hitchens can pour shit on, ahem, I mean rebut the other side in typical swashbuckling form.

Tue, 19 Jun 2007 03:09:00 UTC | #47590

howtoplayalone's Avatar Comment 30 by howtoplayalone

"Mr-Spock-like manner"

Ha. That's a keeper.

Tue, 19 Jun 2007 04:42:00 UTC | #47611