Thursday, December 14, 2006

Follow up Harris-Prager

Matthew D. left the following comment on my recent post about Dennis Prager-Sam Harris God/no god debate. My original post here.

Matthew writes:

Hey Chris,

Honestly, why does everything have to be about "development"? 'Prager can't admit that Harris' development is a mature though limited and often arrogant (although that may just be Sam's persona) system.' [Matthew quoting me].

Seems like an unfair reading of Prager. Maybe it is due to the fact that I more than occasionally listen to his radio show broadcast over the internet, and thus I can hear the actual sound of his voice, but I don't see anything to point you reasonably towards that conclusion. To be honest, your conclusion sounds like boilerplate Wilberspeak.

And, reading your post, you seem to criticize Harris far more than Prager. Personally, I agree with that. Prager, by his own admission at the end, was never out to "win" an argument, but to clarify the two positions. (And, he's not lying, he actually does say that on his radio show, all the friggin time).

Let me end here -- what criticism by Harris did Prager not answer?all best,md

One. I don't think everything is about development. I just tend to (not exclusively), tend to emphasize the point because I think verticality is missing in the way people often communicate, think, and feel. People I know, the blogosphere, the media.

Just because I focused on a levels argument in this post, doesn't mean that is all that is going on. It's just one piece of many. I don't think the colors/levels piece is the final word on the subject; I don't think it is unimportant either.

Two. Call it boilerplate Wilberspeak, call it whatever you want, I don't really mind, the question is not whether its Wilberspeak, but whether that analysis brings clarity to the issue. I think it does. If you like, show me that the arguments are wrong, have wrong premises, faulty logic, etc. But labeling isn't going to persuade me.

I think your right that Prager was out to clarify the two positions, which he does a good job of I think. But to me, reading both of them, they were just speaking past one another. My point about the levels argument was that I don't see a way for them not to do that. I showed frustration/sarcasm not so much directed at either Dennis or Sam personally but with the fact that these debates play perfectly into the media/blog, common thought patterns that there must be this stark either/or choice. I think it is, in part, an illusion created by the limitations of a stage. There are, I think and experience, glass ceillings or whatever you we want to call them, to people's awareness. And feeling in one's consciousness/awareness whatever term, from a certain viewpoint, the issue doesn't arise in the first place.

Not that one side or the other wins. Just a realization that the whole argument is built on an edifice that only matters if you are stituated in a certain position relative to life. I say that because these types of arguments used to matter to me a great deal and then something changed (trust me on that assertion or not) and I no longer feel the need to pick a side. I feel like I see/feel what they are looking out at.

I'm not saying it's wrong. I think it is just stuck.

We've been over this point seems like a thousand times but just to be clear. I don't think the stages analysis works well (or at all) for art and literature. It works--as in brings some clarity--for artists' and critics' interpretations of works of art. Again in part. Just as a general sense of where the individual is coming from. I think the analysis does work for issues like social visioning, politics, philosophy, and theology. Not say an individual's personal or impersonal relationshp with God/universe, nothing.

But anyway, qua Prager, in the 4th installment, Harris writes:

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

Harris oversteps and reduces his best argument by his ham-handedness. He should have said, not that such belief wouldn't even remotely suggest that God exists just that all it did prove was that humans needed belief in God (or a god) in order to have social cohesion, a sense of destiny, and therefore moral clarity and a future--i.e. they we will reproduce.

And that needing a belief system (a la Freud/Marx) was in no way some evidence for the existence of that believed in.

Prager response to the point is, "Can you name one thing that does not exist but is essential to human survival?" I can. The one I just pointed out. The existence of faith in God is not proof for the existence of said deity. Even Prager knows that--I don't know he trips over himself here.

And the two evidences that Prager brings forth--Francis Collins and Judeo-Christian values have complications.

First whatever the relative merits, demerits of the two on the question of the waterfall/Trinity, etc. science neither proves nor disproves God's existence.

As a Christian and believer the second point is masking elements of the story.

When discussing religious pluralism it was the rise of secular modernity and the Enlightenment that brought about many of these achievements. And achievements I think they certainly are. Of course, Prager is right that they are sourced in the Biblical text, but often came from non-religious or at least non-confessional types. The Catholic Church at every turn in the 19th and early 20th century condemned: women's voting, democracy in general, human rights declarations, dis-establishment of churches/religious pluralism, hell even the telegraph and the railroads were condemned by the Papacy.

Abolitionism and civil rights in the US were both religious Christian movements that affected social change. He's certainly right about that. And at each point those groups were fought by religious members of their own communities who quoted Biblical texts in favor of slavery and segregation/white supremacy.

It just is more complicated than his words lead on.

And further as a Christian myself what he terms Judeo-Christian values are to me reflective, as I said in the last post, of certain patterns of moral/religious evolution. There are many good things in what he has to say, but there are limitations (as I see it) as well. I as a believer do not like his argument only insofar as there are moral positions that I take that are different from his--hence by that definition I am not any longer being a moral Christian.

For example I do not share his absolute denunciation of the relativity of human thought, nor the (partial) social construction involved in all religious and moral discourse. Especially even in what we consider the divine moral revelation. Relativism, for Prager, is a code word for secular Western Europe soon to be over-run and out bred by hordes of Muslims, who don't hold "Judeo-Christian" values.

Relativism, for me can be used properly (and still is quite limited) or misused and turned into a intellectual-religious-moral deadend. I would agree with Dennis that more often than not that second avenue is the one taken by Western Europe and PC multicultural America. But I advocate and believe in a step forward, beyond that dichotomy. I don't see that both/and in his writings, which led me to analysis and classification as I did.

Even if I wasn't a believer, I am not convinced by the argument which Prager does make that without a God-based morality there is no objective standard for right/wrong. In this article of his. Again it isn't, from the viewpoint I'm expressing, an objective standard of right/wrong per se but objective standards relative to the intersubjective worldspaces involved. What is right from one level may become wrong from another.

In the end I argue that Prager believes in reasonable faith and Harris secular reason. Again as the faith is interpreted, explained, argued for in the world of ideas. That's not that I'm a better believer than him. Or worse would I ever be saying I know I am a better Christian than him.

I'm critiquing how that faith (for both) gets translated into social, political, moral advocacy. thanks matthew for the question.


At 8:59 AM, Anonymous md said...

Hey Chris,
I'll forego a long response.

To your point, you assert that "'Prager can't admit that Harris' development is a mature...system".

Based on what?


At 9:08 AM, Blogger CJ Smith said...

that's probably not the right way to put it. what i meant was something like Harris' form of atheism, while flawed, is a legitimate form of "belief."

prager i think sees it as a threat to his own position--which it is. for me it is not. but ur right Prager is much better than Harris in the sense of he has a broader mind on the issue and doesn't come off as a prick.

they would have done better (imo) instead of replaying the cliched positions, to start from their own deep existential experiences of beauty/truth and how they interpret those.

what i was saying with Harris' mystical experience interpreted through an atheistic lens. i trust Harris' description of that event as genuine and his interpretation, while limited, does conform to a legitimate pattern.

i meant that statement in the specific sense of Fowler's Stages of Faith which as I said fork at the worldcentric/modernist phase.

I don't think Prager, maybe I'm wrong on this, would see that as positive development.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous md said...

Prager sees atheism as a "threat"? Or just that it is good ole "wrong"? (or, in Prager's term, "intellectually dishonest")

Quoth Prager:

The atheist says he knows, despite the fact that what he "knows" is unprovable. The believer believes because he knows that what he believes is ultimately unprovable.

I see that as 100% right on. Thus Prager artfully demonstrates atheism of Harris' sort to be intellectually dishonest. How is Prager wrong here, if he is? Or, to use your term, how is atheism intellectually "legitimate"?


At 12:04 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...

I don't disagree with that, in fact in the first part I said the same thing.

Atheism is a belief, as both you and I (and Dennis) know.

When it goes from being a belief to being a certitude/knowing, then it ends up in contradiction.

But as faith, seen in long view, there is a legitimate form of atheistic faith. Or at least it continually manifests itself, has good points bad points and limitations, over and over again in our world.

i take that to mean something is working itself out in that.

the Chrsitians when the first came on the scene (and Muslims too) were called atheists by the animists-polytheists of their day. Not because they believed in no god, but because they didn't believe in their gods.

Atheists in our world don't believe in the mythic G/god any longer, but they do believe. If nothing else in reason.

That's why I said Harris should have begun with his own mystical experience and how it brought him to realize the equality of all human beings and why he advocates for such training/expereince and where his deeply beautiful prophetic rage against the crimes of mythic fundamentalist religion comes from. those are genuine religious moments. just not theistic religions ones.

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous md said...

Of course atheists believe in reason. They say that every time. The claim, however, that the religious devout, such as Prager, don't, however, doesn't necessarily follow. Even Prager admits some of the religious do, and some don't. It depends.

So then, would you revise the Prager sees Harris' atheism as a "threat" angle you forwarded?

And, while you and I agree atheism is a faith, do actual atheists? I'm not aware of any public ones. And more specficially, does Harris?

The answer appears no (unless I missed something of the exchange). And if it is no, then that shows that on what I take to be the fundamental point of contention -- faith vs science on the question of religious belief -- Prager is being intellectually honest (i.e., right) and Harris intellectually dishonest (i.e., wrong).

And, bigger picture, exactly how is Harris intellectualy honest about anything fundamental to the "does God exist?" question? I fail to see any instance where he is.

all best,

At 4:23 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...

i find it a little odd that I endedup defending an atheist, but your right. Harris, and no atheist I know, would say that is a belief.

Dennis definitely is more honest in the debate. and like I said doesn't come off as an a-hole. the two i imagine are closely related.

so yeah, i'll concede the threat point. I wasn't talking about intellectual honesty with Harris vis a vis God, cuz ur right none really to be found.

I was talking more of the phenomenology of his own experience--which I brought in from another reading of Harris (can't remember where now maybe in his first book?)--and that confused the matter. You stuck onoly to the debate as such, which was probably better to do.




Post a Comment

<< Home