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Sam Harris Decimates Dennis Prager
But the blowhard, Prager, clinging to the irrationality of religion like a rat on driftwood, refuses to notice. Here's just one excerpt below. But read the whole thing, starting here:

I raised the teapot argument because you accused me (and all atheists) of being certain that God does not exist, inviting our readers to appreciate just how absurd and intellectually dishonest such certainty is. Russell’s argument reveals why an atheist need never pretend to such certainty (as I don’t). The burden is upon those who believe in Yahweh, Zeus, or celestial teapots to provide evidence in support of their doctrines. Russell’s argument does indeed apply to you. And it will apply to your children’s children if we don’t get our heads straight as a civilization.

You wrote: “In the West, people and societies who reject the God of Judeo-Christian religions are more likely to become morally confused and foolish than believing Jews and Christians are.”

As you are well aware, the United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence. It is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen-pregnancy, STD infection, and infant mortality. Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism, are especially plagued by the above miseries, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms. Clearly, strong religious commitment does little to guarantee moral behavior or societal health.

But there is a far more important point for you and our readers to understand. Even if your claim about the link between faith and morality were true, it would offer no support whatsoever for your religious beliefs. Even if atheism led straight to moral chaos, this would not suggest that the doctrine of Judaism is true. Islam might be true in that case. Or all religions might function like placebos. As descriptions of the universe, they could be utterly false but extraordinarily useful. Contrary to your opinion, however, the evidence suggests that they are both false and dangerous.

I suspect, Dennis, that you and I agree about many questions of morality. I trust we both feel that slavery was an abomination, despite the fact that no matter how you squint your eyes the Bible tells us that it is okay to keep slaves. (Who decides what is good in the Good Book? Answer: We do. Our moral intuitions are still primary. It makes absolutely no sense, therefore, to think that we get our basic sense of right and wrong out of scripture). We surely agree that political correctness has undermined the intellectual and moral integrity of much of our discourse, both within our universities and elsewhere.

But the linkage you have drawn between immorality and atheism is spurious. And, needless to say, the taboo that got Lawrence Summers fired is the same taboo that would keep an atheist professor from criticizing the lunatic religious convictions of his students. What we need, across the board, is intellectual honesty—not more dogmatism.

Harris offers a substitute for believing in The Imaginary Friend, which he jokingly calls "The new religion of Scientismo":

Here is its creed: Be kind to others; do not lie, steal, or murder; and oblige your children to master mathematics and science to the best of their abilities or 17 demons will torture you with hot tongs for eternity after death. If I could spread this faith to billions, I have little doubt that we would live in a better world than we do at present. Would this suggest that the 17 demons of Scientismo exist? Useful delusions are not the same thing as true beliefs.

And Harris winds it all up with this:

With regard to your wager about the religiosity of murderers and rapists—it depends, of course, on what you mean by “religiously active.” If you are suggesting that these violent offenders rarely believe in your biblical God, I will happily take this bet. The rate of belief among murders and rapists in the U.S. must surely exceed the rate of nonbelief. I would even be willing to handicap it: We can leave aside the thousands of ordained child-rapists in the Catholic Church (or weren’t they “religiously active” by your lights?).

I should also point out that you sealed your last missive with a fallacy. You wrote:

“You are right that this moral clarity and courage among the predominantly religious does not prove the existence of the biblical God. Nothing can prove God’s existence. But it sure is a powerful argument. If society cannot survive without x, there is a good chance x exists.”

No, Dennis, this moral clarity is not a “powerful argument,” or even an argument at all; please keep your x’s straight. If humanity can’t survive without a belief in God, this would only mean that a belief in God exists. It wouldn’t, even remotely, suggest that God exists.

A further irony, of course, is that the civilizational threat that worries us both—Islamic fascism—is purely the product of religious faith, held for precisely the reasons (or pseudo-reasons) you defend. If Muslims didn’t think of themselves as “Muslims”, Jews as “Jews”, and Christians and “Christians”, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Let me assure you that “sophisticated” Muslims resort to the same rationalizations that Francis Collins does to prop up their belief in mighty Allah. Indeed, your “awesome beauty of nature” is one of the chief rationales for faith found in the Koran. How many more people will have to die because of this Iron Age response to the beauty of nature?

Posted by aalkon at December 1, 2006 11:31 AM

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Dennis had a rough month. See also

wherein Volokh hands him his ass.

Posted by: Crid at December 1, 2006 4:22 AM

Sam Harris made up a Holy Teapot? What, he never heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
Raaaaa-men! Thy will be done!

Posted by: Cat brother at December 1, 2006 6:14 AM

Prager and Frank Pastore are in a tie as far as the question, "Who is the biggest, rudest boor Amy has ever appeared on television with?" goes.

Both are highly irrational and use booming voices to talk over people as a substitute for rationality -- all the while insisting that their loudly professed irrational ideas make absolute perfect sense.

Sam Harris made mincemeat of Prager's contentions, but as is typical for Prager, he pretended not to notice, and used specious arguments against Harris', pretending they made sense.

Prager is an intellectual thug of the lowest order -- with pretensions to morality and all that is good. I have more respect for a street hooker -- by far -- than for Prager. (At least the street hooker is honest about what he or she does for a living.)

And, if you go to the URL Crid posted, you'll note that "the work that we wish to affirm as our central text in America", duh!...the Constitution. Furthermore, our country was not founded as a Christian country -- more bullshit perpetrated by Prager and others. I've posted on this contention time and time again.

And, regarding whether Ellison should swear on the bible (see Crid link above), a vow sworn to god on a bible by me is worth as much as a vow sworn by me on a comic from piece of bubble gum or a copy of "Where The Wild Things Are."

Dennis Prager, again, is clinging like the blowhard rat on driftwood he is -- out of fear, I'd imagine -- to his unfounded views of the bible as central to American society. This is, essentially, calling primitive belief in an imaginary god central to the foundations of our society. Unreal. Read the Constitution, blowhard.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 1, 2006 7:15 AM


Posted by: Crid at December 1, 2006 7:19 AM

"No, Dennis, this moral clarity is not a “powerful argument,” or even an argument at all; please keep your x’s straight. If humanity can’t survive without a belief in God, this would only mean that a belief in God exists. It wouldn’t, even remotely, suggest that God exists."

Says it all beautifully.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at December 1, 2006 7:33 AM

Who, me?

I guess I just see him as catnip for the naive, and thus, quite dangerous.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 1, 2006 7:42 AM

I got thoughts about Prager, and have come here to share them with you now, in this blog comment.

> an intellectual

Are we sure he qualifies? He's not a philosopher, or researcher, or historian of note. He was president of the debate club or whatever in high school and has done a lot of public speaking. But I don't know that he's ever offered an idea that was intellectually demanding... Certainly not an original one. He has some experience as a religious scholar, but his background isn't scholarly. I get the sense that he was "that nice tall boy" at synagogue when he was growing up, and he learned how to make a living at it. Apparently he made some travels to pull threatened Jews out of the Soviet Union in the cold war; this may have been terribly courageous stuff, but it wasn't essentially brainy.

Yes he's a blowhard, and that's how he came to have these two loathsome appearances on the radar this week: I think he's in love with appearing on cable TV news, a non-intellectual enterprise if ever there was one. He says he's smarter than other people, and he's quite fond of himself, and makes these things clear to those he meets: That doesn't make him intellectual.

> thug of the lowest order

That's intense condemnation... That scale goes down pretty far. How did he get there?

> with pretensions to morality and
> all that is good

Nobody's allowed to think that they're both right and virtuous? Then a lot of us are in deep trouble!

I listened to Prager a lot for a year or two after the riots, then realized that he often used debate skills to shitcan layfolk who had serious, meaningful challenges to his beliefs... That is to say, his blowhard-ism eclipsed his utility. On the other hand, he does have a few principles that are worth reviewing.

You're not wrong about him, it's just that none of us agrees with anyone perfectly... If you do, it's hero worship. It ought to be OK to acknowledge that people have strengths and weaknesses. Being low on my list does not mean that Hilary Clinton is actually the Antichrist.

Posted by: Crid at December 1, 2006 5:54 PM

It's close, though.

Posted by: Crid at December 1, 2006 5:56 PM

I had never of Prager before yesterday. But I happened to find him getting bent out of shape in today's TBT (Tampa Bay Times, a free daily) for Keith Ellison, America's first elected Muslim, choosing to swear his oath of office on the Qu'ran. As I see, Crid has already posted the Paula Zahn debate with Prager over this very issue.

I'm very impressed by his arrogance, to say the least, when I read the actual article that Zahn quotes.

Apparently, Prager, as a radio talk show host and columnist, has been vested with the authority to tell our elected officials what conditions are required in order to serve.

Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.[Emphasis added.]

Well, that's certainly enlightening! I had no idea Prager had the right to tell elected Congressmen whether or not they could serve.

This is also interesting:

But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.

Really? Who says? I personally couldn't care less if he wants to take his oath of office on the Bible, the Qu'ran or the Farmer Fanny Cookbook, or even if he chooses not to take his oath of office at all (as did Herbert Hoover and Franklin Pierce). But where is this law that Prager is citing?

In any case, if my own experience is any indication at all, Prager got what he wanted: the headline. I had never heard of him until yesterday, but now, by going after an elected official with his own brand of righteousness, he has increased public awareness of him. I'm reminded of so many less politically aware friends of mine who had never heard of Ann Coulter before she went rabid on the 9/11 widows. So, it seems that Prager has joined the ranks of those that have decided notoriety is more important than actually promoting what's right.

So, Amy, if you got elected to public office, would you take an oath at all? I'd love to see an atheist take their oath on Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

Posted by: Patrick at December 2, 2006 2:11 AM

Re Cat brother comment on Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Celestial teapot was originally a construct of Bertrand Russell. Although it may not predate the FSM, I'm pretty sure it predates any references to the FSM.

Posted by: Robert at December 2, 2006 9:57 AM

Amy You're a dear but I think even you have been influenced by the spew. I see more evidence for God than for Islamic Fascism : flavour-of-the-day spin from the masters of hate mongering.
Suicide bombers - including 9/11's Saudis - are no longer around to trouble us. The rest is pushback from the assault of ignorant self-righteous idiots who think killing people in other countries will give them a safer world.
Nah. It just gives more a reason to be seriously pissed off.

Posted by: opit at December 2, 2006 5:45 PM

Dammit, and I LIKE Bertrand Russell, I should have picked that up (hangs head).

Posted by: Cat brother at December 2, 2006 6:22 PM

Opit, come on, you see no evidence of god. If you have evidence, do present it. Evidence, that is...real evidence...not strongly held belief in silly crap.

And there's plenty of evidence of suicide bombers. Whether their particular form of irrational crap think is better than your particular form of irrational crap think...well, I'll let you fight that one out in your own head.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 3, 2006 1:40 AM

"Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature, as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without having good practice?"

-James Boswell

Posted by: Fritz at December 11, 2006 10:41 AM

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