Saturday, November 25, 2006
I have finally reached the end of the conference videos. Wow. I can't wait until next year's conference. What an impact the internet makes! Imagine how much money people would be willing to dole out to attend this thing, and here you are given a front row seat, actually better than a front row seat for free.
There were so many highlights and so many amazing conversations I can't recount them all, not even the ones I enjoyed the most. I was most struck by the quality of the usage of language amongst all of the participants. Sam Harris was one of the center-stage discussion members in many topics and he is just as succinct in oration as he is in writing. So much more can be accomplished in discussions when people can use language crisply. And when you are in an audience of people who are trained bullshit detectors, there's none of this getting away with sleight of hand illogic that you might see in a political discussion or an internet chat room, without just a universal and heartfelt disapproval across the room, even by those who might agree with that person's position. This is the beauty of reason, and it can't be easily found in other arenas of discourse.
The emotional focal point of the conference reached a head in the morning of the third day when Sam Harris debated
Melvin Konner and James Woodward.
Konner and Woodward are atheists who think that using reasoned arguments against religion is not going to get anyone anywhere and is a waste of time. Konner even said that humanity is religious and I love humanity, which pretty much sums up his desire to accept religious dogmatism as an integral part of humanity. This is precisely the attitude that Harris considers one of the major inablers of religious insanity. Within the debate you had your standard bullshit response that "its not all about religion because of Stalin and Pol Pot..." blah blah blah. Harris had to waste valuable time refuting this deplorable sophomoric horseshit, and he did so by saying that he could have changed the title of his book to "End of Dogma" and added a chapter about totalitarian atheists and it wouldn't have changed anything. When I hear these religious apologists continuously try to equate these insane dogmatic dictators with modern secular humanists, I know that it's a shit argument laid reflexively and strainingly on the table due to the fact that there isn't any other argument to be made with any impact. It's as if they are saying that since there are other forms of dogmatism which create atrocities, so stop picking on religion. This is just a direct fleeing from the battle, a total cowing away from the issue at hand. Dawkins joined the discussion table and went off noting that just because viruses are not the only things which cause disease, since bacteria do to, we should not quit worrying about viruses (sad that such an observation needs to be made at all, but it did). Then Konner makes this off-handed totally specious remark that we wouldn't be able to live without bacteria. Can you imnagine? What a silly bullshit statement! Dawkins' reply was "but we CAN live without religion". Then Konner and Woodward demanded the "emprical data" that this is true, at which point you can see Sam Harris trying to hold his cookies. For Jesus fucking christ sake what is the point of this manure? Had they been present during the conference at all? Did they not notice 9/11? Did they notice that issues like Gay marriage and stem cell research dominate the national conversation? This is a pure illustration of the absurdity of this moderate religious worldview, constantly doing gymnastics in order to defend religion under any stripe. I am glad this whole thing was caught on tape for all time.
What was readily obvious was that Harris had a full load of ammunition and examples to demolish every whimper of an argument the other two made, and Woodward and Konner were left stammering and stalling. Konner found Sam's reference to Nazism as being specious and tedious. Harris pointed out that the entire concept of anti-semitism which spurred the German public sentiment stemmed "from stem to stern" from religion. Konner pulls out some more gymnastics and notes that anti-semitism pre-dated Christianity by a long time because of tribalism, which is totally besides any point whatsoever because last time I checked the non-Jewish German population at the time was not filled with Arabs debating race issues with Semites and fighting over land. This is common in a debate where you have no valid rebuttal- you choose some totally irrelevent trifle of fact which is unrelated to the spirit of the argument and pretend it discounts the argument. Beautiful piece of work, he should be a Fox news analyst.
Konner's talk was particularly annoying. His attitude was that rational argument is not effective in changing the minds of the faithful. I have already helped convert one Jewish friend in my life to a leaning towards atheism after merely listening to Dawkins and Harris on YouTube and reading their books. She plans to come to my house this weekend because she feels like her life has been turned upside down by this alteration in beliefs and needs to talk to me about it. Her husband didn't take it too well. I suspect she will raise her two children slightly differently now. This is life changing stuff for people, and it wasn't that they didn't already intuit the problems with their religious upbringings, it's that they needed the resources to clarify their thoughts and let them know that it is okay to come out of the closet. I suspect Harris and Dawkins' books are changing lives all over the place. They clarified my position, they offer ammunition to those who enter into debate, they spark conversation. I have not heard a single impactful argument against the positions of Sam and Richard. The only thing argued somewhat effectively is that the staunchness of their atheism scares away the religious and further entrenches them. A fair argument, assuredly true for some people. But it's not a rebuttal of the facts. When you listen to Sam and Richard you see people who devote time and energy to what they do out of a desire to reduce human suffering and to increase human understanding. We need their no prisoners approach, even if it only persuades believers half way.
What happens as Harris has pointed out, is that nobody publicly changes their minds at these conferences. They privately change their minds, then slowly alter their position over time and then try to claim that they always held this position. Nobody is ever allowed the glory of changing someone's mind publicly until perhaps years later. As Kipling said- "those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still".
Religion is getting reduced. And reasoned argument is why it is being reduced. Just because it happens too slowly to be gratifying doesn't mean reasoning is pointless. It becomes more and more obvious that arguments against evolution are embarrassing and dishonest, and some people are realizing that. Creation science will never take hold because there are too many intelligent people in the country who know better, and to any reasonable open minded observer of the data, the facts are just as obvious as any of the other accepted elements of science.
After watching this particular debate I can see the problem more clearly that Harris elucidates. His first response to Konner and Woodward was that he was grateful for their talks because they illuminate the problem itself. I wholeheartedly agree.