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← Debate between Sam Harris and Reza Aslan

Debate between Sam Harris and Reza Aslan - Comments

IQHQ's Avatar Comment 1 by IQHQ

This is an EXCELLENT debate. Please, I implore everyone reading this to watch the above video in its entirety.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 09:04:00 UTC | #19886

bitbutter's Avatar Comment 2 by bitbutter

Again harris' is accused of overlooking the 'Shimmering ocean of nuance' and complexity of religion. The format of the debate was quite skewed against his favour, tag teamed! I was impressed by his cool headedness.

The 'Religions' being discussed by the speakers are (at least) two very different things. My conception of religion is the one harris is talking to. Simply put, institutionalised supernatural thinking. Reza seems to talking about Religion more as a living language or cultural record. But he never 'put his hand on the table' in a satisfactory way so its hard to tell.

On the one hand Reza says that people who believe in the literal truth of holy texts should rightly be ridiculed. But if we read holy texts as mere metaphors then they offer us no reason to 'believe' or be religious. On the other hand he seems to want to preserve respect for religious thinking. As i understand it it's not possible to be a (for example) Christian without believing at least some of the wild truth claims made in the bible, that Jesus is the son of god, for instance. Does Reza think this a claim that isn't deserving of ridicule?

I'm left puzzled by what his stance is. The conception of religion he seems to put forward reminds me of the "flabbily elastic definition" that Dawkins identifies. A nice safe position to take. You can't nail down jelly.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 09:42:00 UTC | #19892

MouthAlmighty's Avatar Comment 3 by MouthAlmighty

Great discussion: grown-up and sober - a refreshing change from the juvenile effluent from McGrath.

I thought Aslan gave a good account of himself, such that I think his book is worth a read. However, I was quite astonished by his final contribution in which he took a complete nose-dive and managed to totally misread Harris, Dawkins and the majority of modern science all in the same breath.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 11:29:00 UTC | #19904

RickM's Avatar Comment 4 by RickM

Indeed the discussion was "skewed" right from the very opening quotation from Aslan.

Aslan's commentary, to me, is nothing more than a bunch of distorted ramblings. As with most of these debates, the theist skirts the issues with so much language.

If he is going to convince anyone to view religion with his so called "sophisticated" perspective; good luck.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 12:31:00 UTC | #19910

evolver23's Avatar Comment 5 by evolver23

I agree with the above reviews.

Sam makes claims about the nature of reality that are testable and actually MEAN something concrete. Reza, however, is reminiscent of my treadmill. He endlessly rambles, expending far too much energy for the short (in my opinion infinitesimally short) distance travelled. After deriding fundamentalists and literalists for actually BELIEVING in their religious texts, he left me wondering what grounds remained for respecting religious beliefs at all. Much of what he said seemed nothing more than political and sociological sophistry. I've yet to understand why religion is repeatedly ignored by such thinkers. Is it becoming academically chic to deny the grossly obvious variable of religion -- and, more basically, belief -- when discussing motivations of behavior?

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 19:56:00 UTC | #19928

thompjs's Avatar Comment 6 by thompjs

I thought Reza had some decent commentary on the fact that he may know a bit more about Islamic countries. I would like to see Sam give more
background on his statements regarding Islam.

RickM and evolver23, you comments regarding his
views on religion are spot on. On the other hand,
countries like Iran and Iraq surely have other
influences than religion. Even though Islam
must have a powerful influence.

Money and Power are motivators just like religion.

Religion and/or its lingo are often used to
support other motives.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 20:12:00 UTC | #19929

Riley's Avatar Comment 7 by Riley

It's a very nice debate.

The problem with Reza Aslan's arguments I think are two-fold.

1) He is suggesting that the problem of religious fundementalism can (only) be solved by redefining 'religion' in such a way that 'truths' are personal 'truths' and personal interpretations of the accounts of another person's 'truth' (and who could argue with that? I like yellow; that's the truth)'. The majority of disagreements Reza has with Sam is that Reza, is *already* using his own definition of religion and will not grant Sam his due for accurately scewering the more traditional and significantly widespread approach to religion.

2) In Reza's descriptions/definitions, I can't see how a distinction can be made between the 'truths' found in The Holy Bible and the 'truths' found in The Adventures of Huckleberry-Finn. Nor how the history and development of 'urban myth' through the the ages should be treated any differently in terms of the 'knowlege' contained therein than the 'knowlege' contained in religious history.

So in essence, as a practical matter, what Reza is advocating really is the irradication of religion (as we know it and define it). His definition of religion, makes religon indistinguishable from literature, moral philosophy and science.


Mon, 12 Feb 2007 20:17:00 UTC | #19932

evolver23's Avatar Comment 8 by evolver23


On a lighter (but contributive) note, your second point reminds me of a segment in Julia Sweeney's monologue, "Letting Go of God." She comes to the (short-lived) realization that perhaps the Bible is relevant because it is "psychologically true." However, after reflecting on this, she quickly realizes that Darth Vader and the Little Engine That Could are also psychologically true.

A brilliant piece of work.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 20:48:00 UTC | #19936

IPV4's Avatar Comment 9 by IPV4

I'm not sure where Reza stands in all this? He makes claims such as "most christians don't believe in literal interpretation, thats just silly". Im sorry they dont? They dont believe in communion, they dont believe that Jesus was the son of man. Where does he get this from? He also states that their are plenty of christians that don't believe that Jesus is God. Let me see I think even I can figure this one out....if you dont believe that Jesus is God (son of God) then your not Christian, its as simple as that I believe. Though Christians actually believe that God, jesus and the holy spirit are majically one entity.
I would of wished to see Sam really get on him when he mentioned that Sam was being intellectually dishonest and was taking a simplistic view of religion. No sir, Im sorry, religion is extremely simplistic ,too bad you are not able to see the light if you know what I mean.
I mean was their any real reasoning going on on reza's part?

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 22:53:00 UTC | #19971

Pete_C's Avatar Comment 10 by Pete_C

I watched it all- I think that Reza made very good points against Sam in the area where Sam's arguments are weakest, i.e. the sociological ramifications of religion, especially Islam. I think Reza's most important sociological point could be summed up like this: if a random Muslim committed apostasy, it is simply not the case that 1.2 billion people would vie with each other for the chance to throw the first stone - regardless of what it says in the Qur'an. If Sam and Reza were arguing about philosophical questions such as the existence of gods, the truth of religion, etc., I have no doubt that Sam would have won as handily as he did in his debate with Andrew Sullivan. But that is not where the discussion went - and I'm actually glad it went the way it did. Sam Harris is a formidable champion for atheism, but he is just getting started; we all need to keep learning. We have to realize that scholars like Reza Aslan, Scott Atran, etc., are not "adversaries" - where they are wrong, they are very wrong, but let's not pretend they are wrong about *everything* or that there is nothing we can learn from them.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 23:05:00 UTC | #19975

Thor's Avatar Comment 11 by Thor

I have now seen, heard and read so many statements by Reza Aslan that are factually incorrect or missing large parts of the truth that I really don't know what to believe any more.

I can not imagine that someone like him would be an apologist for radical Islam, someone who tries to downplay every problem presented to him - but maybe I am just too gullible.

Because the only other explanation would be that he is an utter fool and a naive idiot, and contrary to his accusations to Sam Harris that Harris' arguments "lack sophistication" it is him who is blinded by what he can't see OR does not want to see.

I have stopped quite a while ago to believe in the truth of anything whatsoever said by this unserious pretty-boy pop-academic who makes a living by telling everyone "It's gonna be alright - nothing to worry about"...

He is either a despicable and deplorable apologist or an utterly delusional poor half-wit (I know I am repeating myself but seeing this debate got me so angry!)

@Pete_C: No, Aslan's point as well as Atran' arguments (if you are referring to what he said at the Beyond Belief conference) are not good points but actually rather misleading.
Yes, there is a whole host of sociopolitical factors at work here, but the same amount of poverty and misery exists in many other places on this earth - the ideology of Islam happens to be the only one right now that creates such violent, mediavel behaviour.

And Aslan' comparison to Catholic freedom theology in Honduras are - comparing that to the violent Jihadis - are just beyond the pale in intellectual dishonesty or pitiful ignorance.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 23:10:00 UTC | #19978

icouldbewrongbut's Avatar Comment 12 by icouldbewrongbut

Seems that maybe Aslan defines religion to himself as the cultural history of people seeking the transcendant/mystical, and he seems to equate others' invalidation of (his notion of) religion as an invalidation of the pursuit of the transcendant/mystical experience, without realizing that Sam is actually in support of the pursuit of this experience and is, in fact, arguing for a decoupling of this experience from the trappings of organized religion.

Seems like Aslan hasn't formed the idea, that Sam and others have, that the subjective transcendent/mystical experience can be separated from religion and be valid on it's own, within a secular reason-based framework, and without it being invalidated via materialism, as he suggests. Rather than being automatically indicative of religious experience, this experience is instead fully compatible with atheism.

Aslan seems kind of irresponsible in not clarifying, for his own understanding, what definition of religion Sam is rejecting. And he doesn't seem to be aggressively seeking out where it is that he may agree with the atheist.

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 23:44:00 UTC | #19986

Ryan Booker's Avatar Comment 13 by Ryan Booker

I found it interesting that Aslan continually, but somewhat subtly, attacked Harris in almost every comment he made. He always mixed it in with his main points, most of which seemed airy fairy nonsense.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 03:04:00 UTC | #20011

Aussie's Avatar Comment 14 by Aussie

I found this debate incredibly frustrating. Aslan monopolised the time inexcusably. He constantly patronised Harris by frequently attacking Sam's approach as lacking sophistication and by implication claiming his own was intellectually superior.

I found this guy arrogant, inconsiderate and dogmatic in the extreme.

He did raise some points that were worthy of further exploration but then did not allow proper dialog to proceed as he singlemindedly pursued his myopic diatribe in an unforgivable monologue.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 03:33:00 UTC | #20014

eggplantbren's Avatar Comment 15 by eggplantbren

Geez, moderate waffling religion seems to be the biggest waste of time and energy ever invented.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 03:57:00 UTC | #20020

ketandev's Avatar Comment 16 by ketandev

Well done Aussie.

"...he singlemindedly pursued his myopic diatribe in an unforgivable monologue."

Brilliantly stated!

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 04:06:00 UTC | #20021

enzogiovanni's Avatar Comment 17 by enzogiovanni

After Aslan's third comment about Sam's "lack of sophistication" and "profound misunderstanding and simplifying" without giving any plausible explanation whatsoever of what his views are I just stopped watching.
Don't blame me :)

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 06:06:00 UTC | #20042

Yorker's Avatar Comment 18 by Yorker

I couldn't watch all of this. I was surprised Harris didn't take Aslan apart to a greater extent; I wanted to jump in and do it for him. For me, Aslan typifies the intellectual bullshitter; a person with a hidden agenda who adopts a fence-sitting posture because he fears to come down upon one side lest some superior antagonist exposes the flaws in his intellectual fa├žade.

I found his waffling on about interpretation and sophistication almost literally puke-making; is he really unaware that the majority of people do not read religious material with the sophistication of a literary critic? These writings are not works of poetry or other entertainment, they are presented as facts and meant to be believed; we shouldn't have to "read between the lines" with a discerning mind.

Sorry Reza, I see you as an intellectual coward as well as a bullshitter, you deserve to have your arse kicked, perhaps even literally!

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 06:20:00 UTC | #20045

Yorker's Avatar Comment 19 by Yorker

For Aussie:

A quick aside, I saw your comment about being in the same field as I and we seem to think similarly. Is there something about the brains of software engineers that cause us to see the wood in spite of the trees perhaps? :)

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 06:26:00 UTC | #20050

CruciFiction's Avatar Comment 20 by CruciFiction

It was a terribly unfair debate to begin with. Aslan and the moderator are on the exact same page when it comes to their extreme respect and [nauseating] sentimental feelings for religion. They effectively admitted to this within the discussion.

As for the moderator, Sam was twice not permitted to respond to Aslan's long diatribes that were filled with strawmen and other nonsense. First was when the moderator suddenly called an end to the debate portion, and then he cut Sam off for a second time by abruptly bringing the Q&A portion to an end. This of course gave some the [mistaken] perception that Aslan made valid points where Sam could/should have refuted them if only given the opportunity.

I thought Sam, as usual, had the best arguments by far -- rooted deep in his broad knowledge and coupled with the use of sound reason, common sense, and being reflective of today's reality. And how he always remains so calm and lucid in the face of false accusations and strawmen being thrown all over the place is truely an amazing thing to observe.

Aslan cannot seem to even grasp Sam's points at times. I think his being raised in the thick religious environment (Islam) as he did is primarily responsible for this mental barrier. His claim that people will have religion (worshipping gods) for thousands of years to come, is complete nonsensical poppycock! Beyond the fact that nobody can reasonably (or sanely) make any certainty claim about anything to be true of society in millennia to come, it best demonstrates his deep and irrational passion for people to hold onto religion. To borrow from Dawkins, he suffers from a deep "faith in faith", beyond which he simply cannot contemplate nor fathom an alternative to a world filled to the hilt with god delusion.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 07:03:00 UTC | #20059

John Phillips's Avatar Comment 21 by John Phillips

To be honest, I didn't bother watching this as I have seen him talk before and from the comments already posted it appears he is spouting the same old, same old. He reminds me of those who criticise RD for not knowing his theology, i.e. being unsophisticated in his criticism of religion, when even the average believer hasn't a clue about theology and is order of magnitudes less sophisticated than RD, or Sam for that matter, about their understanding of their faith.

They always argue about some religion that is so obviously not the religion practised and believed by the average believer yet try to imply that their interpretation is that understood by the majority. It is both extremely dishonest and extremely dangerous when applied to either of the two main Abrahamic religions but particularly when applied to Islam. If the flavour of religion that he and the equivalent xtian apologist theologians espouse was the aspect practised by the respective majority in their particular faith there would be little problem. However, intellectually bankrupt believers such as him underline precisely why RD is so right to highlight the danger of the moderate believer in enabling the extremist.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 08:23:00 UTC | #20068

RonnieG's Avatar Comment 22 by RonnieG

I have to say, the first time I watched this debate when the link was posted in another thread, I thought that Reza came out on top. But I watched it a second time, and then I realized just how incredibly skewed the whole thing was. I think all the comments in this thread hit it spot on. Reza is very articulate (and unnecessarily demeaning) but upon reflection, I don't think he can see past his own nose.

I think Reza is a clear representation of the obstacles facing a widespread critique of religion. I agree with Yorker:

"is he really unaware that the majority of people do not read religious material with the sophistication of a literary critic?"

And it's incredible actually, how the same vacuous criticisms against DHD (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett)keep popping up time and time again.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 12:48:00 UTC | #20077

tieInterceptor's Avatar Comment 23 by tieInterceptor

Maybe I don't get it, but Reza seems to define religions (after lots of rambling to get to the point) as "stories that explain the feelings that one gets when one meditates..." or that is what I understood.

If I understood right, then he was getting so out of touch with what Religion actually means to 99% of the population that hearing him talk lost all meaning to me.

he seems to forget that in the REAL world, people do follow what is written on those bronze age manuscripts as unchangeable word of the creator of the universe... and they get really really intolerant of those who don't belive that.

If instead 99% or religious people used Rezas interpretation of what religion texts are, then we probably would not need this web page...

then again, I don't think he actually believes that either... he was forced to stand so high on the fence that the thin air got to his head...


Tue, 13 Feb 2007 13:08:00 UTC | #20079

Ryan Booker's Avatar Comment 24 by Ryan Booker

I found that Aslan said a lot of things that to my mind support atheism. His entire stance of "Well we don't take it as literal truth, we take it as a history of belief", seemed to beg the question "If it's not literal, and there is no other evidence, why believe?"... But he just persistently tacked "BUT, god is out there I just know it!" type rhetoric on the end.

Particular his last point, I found hilarious. If the "debate" had gone any longer I think he'd have hung himself with his own verbosity. He certainly seemed to be rounding out on the opposite point to the one he intended to make, with his last comment.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 13:53:00 UTC | #20084

MitchA's Avatar Comment 25 by MitchA

I'm going to watch this again, but Aslan reminded me a bit of Joseph Campbell(If Mr. Campbell had been arrogant and condescending.) Has anyone seen or read "The Power of Myth"?

Much respect to Harris for his restraint, I couldn't have done it. I wish he would have had more time, especially comparing a modern shaman to an astrologer. I think that's the only way there will be peace. When religion's status has been marginalized, equal to say--a psychic, then we can move on.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 21:01:00 UTC | #20139

Russell Blackford's Avatar Comment 26 by Russell Blackford

I had to stop halfway through and can't be bothered (to be frank) going back to it now. Both were very smooth and articulate speakers, and neither gave solace to the people I consider my true enemies, i.e. the fundamentalists. The debate was really about how much extremist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are typical of those religions, and Islam in particular, which is a fairly narrow point.

On that point, Aslan did a pretty good job of casting doubt on the more commonsense position (as I'd see it) being put by Harris. I think it was just a matter of casting doubt, but if that counts as "winning" the debate he can feel he won. I did think that Harris hung in there well, saying a lot of sensible things, even though it was territory on which Aslan is supposedly the expert.

I actually hope that Aslan is correct on this, and that Islam is undergoing a broad, grassroots renewal and will turn into something less dangerous than it currently appears to be. I have to say that he didn't give us much to go on - at least in that first half - except his aura of confidence and superior knowledge. I hope his written work contains something more solid to reassure us that he's right.

In general, it worried me that Aslan had to rely so much on point scoring tactics (e.g. the constant snipes of alleged intellectual crudeness and dishonesty, and the frequent twisting of Harris's words), rather than on solid facts. At the same time, he did have Harris defending material where he overreaches: I'm not convinced that any of us in the West, including either of these guys, are really in a good position at the moment to know how "most" Muslims view the Koran and its literal teachings.

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 21:25:00 UTC | #20140

Robert Maynard's Avatar Comment 27 by Robert Maynard

An interesting claim made by Aslan was the association of nationalism and political ideology with secularism, which struck a chord with me.

I sincerely hope that within 50 years, the notion that it is defensible and non-divisive to have dogmatic pride in the excellence of the arbitrary social units we call nations, will be as open and vulnerable to scrutiny as Dawkins and Harris want religion to be today. I personally have a hunch that environmental crises will expediate movements like this, along with globalisation.

Nationality is the last great social divider of modernity. When taken to extremes, it fosters conflict through youth indoctrination, irrationally glorifies sections of land and re-enforces the existence of its arbitrary boundaries.
Someday in the future there will be an intellectual of similar pedigree to Dawkins, saying something along the lines of "When people hear the phrase, 'British child' it should grate like fingernails on a chalkboard."

I'm not being sarcastic.

Wed, 14 Feb 2007 01:28:00 UTC | #20164

Yorker's Avatar Comment 28 by Yorker

Comment #22300 by Robert Maynard

I agree with your anti-nationalism stance. I've long been a naysayer of the detrimental notions of this and patriotism, both are a threat to the survival of humanity. Politicians however, love patriotic and nationalistic citizens, they're easy to control and manipulate, indeed, the ideal cannon-fodder armed forces member is one who has these attributes plus a strong god delusion!

Wed, 14 Feb 2007 02:55:00 UTC | #20172

CruciFiction's Avatar Comment 29 by CruciFiction

Here's a treat for Sam Harris fans. Sam speaking at the FFRF convention in San Francisco, 10/7/06.

Wed, 14 Feb 2007 16:47:00 UTC | #20180

padster1976's Avatar Comment 30 by padster1976

Admittedly I got halfway through but I was struck by Aslan's comments about the '21st centru yinterpretations'. Essentially, I felt he suggested that if we keep the definitions wooly, and therefore evasive, the main tenants of the faith will never be truly challenged.

It was marked I think the difference in their language. Harris was quite straight to the point where Aslan spoke, well a load of shit really. This shows just how different their perspective and way of thinking is.

religious thinking, evasive non-defined notions whereas science is literally fact. Like trying to cut smoke with a blade. What some needs to do is open the window and the vapouress bullshit that is religious rhetoric blow away! This kind of debate is in the right direction but it lacks the killer strike that is needed to attack evasive language.

May reason prevail!

Fri, 16 Feb 2007 12:29:00 UTC | #20264