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Sam Harris Rebukes Richard Dawkins

John on October 3, 2007 at 2:03 pm

It was an indirect rebuke but striking nonetheless. Considering how chummy these two have been in the past I wonder what’s going on behind the scenes. The action took place at an atheist convocation in Crystal City, VA. Dawkins, as usual, came out swinging in full moral equivalence mode:

Dawkins portrayed a black-and-white intellectual battle between atheism and religion. He denounced the “preposterous nonsense of religious customs” and compared religion to racism. He also gave no quarter to moderate or liberal believers, asserting that “so-called moderate Christianity is simply an evasion.”

“If you’ve been taught to believe it by moderates, what’s to stop you from taking the next step and blowing yourself up?” he said.

Sam Harris rebuke apparently came in a later session:

While Harris said he believed science must ultimately destroy religion, he also discussed spirituality and mysticism and called for a greater understanding of allegedly spiritual phenomena. He also cautioned the audience against lumping all religions together.

The refrain that all religions have their extremists is bull-t,” Harris said. “All religions do not have their extremists. Some religions have never had their extremists.”

Specifically, he noted that radical Islam was far more threatening than any radical Christian sect, adding that Christians had a right to be outraged when the media treated the two religions similarly.

Harris also criticized movement atheism and questioned the use of the word “atheist.” “Atheism is not a philosophy, just as non-racism is not,” he said. “It is not a worldview, though it is frequently portrayed as one.” “Rather than declare ourselves atheists, I think we should emphasize reason,” Harris added.

While the audience gave Dawkins a standing ovation, Harris received only polite applause. One questioner later declared herself “very disappointed” in Harris’s talk.

In one of his BBC specials, Dawkins compared a mega-church service to a Nazi pep rally. It was a stupid overstatement of the kind Dawkins regularly indulges in, but he did have an underlying point. The church service wasn’t a place to think but a place to feel.

Fair enough. We can argue about whether that’s harmful or helpful another time. For the moment, let’s just stop and note that the tepid response to Harris’ demonstrably factual remarks shows the atheist event was little different. What the audience wanted was red meat rhetoric. Dawkins gave it to them and Sam Harris, well, he was too much of a free thinker. Too nuanced. In short, he was thoughtful rather than demagogic. Why is this significant? Because it demonstrates that atheist events of this type are driven more by emotion than reason. They think they’re different than their theistic fellow citizens but they’re really not.

Scientists love predictions so here’s mine. The bigger the new atheism gets, the more religious in character it will become. Wait and see. Dawkins doesn’t realize it but those of us (including many atheists) not in his thrall can already see that his real ambition is prophet, savior and king.

I’ve been pretty tough on Sam Harris here in the past, but kudos to him for stating the obvious in front of a really tough crowd. Telling atheists they’re too hard on religion has to be about the least enviable speaking job in America. But if the new atheism has any real future it’ll be because of people like Harris, not people like Dawkins.

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Category: Atheism |

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