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The Problem with Atheism

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(This is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007)

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just how strange it is that a meeting like this is even necessary. The year is 2007, and we have all taken time out of our busy lives, and many of us have traveled considerable distance, so that we can strategize about how best to live in a world in which most people believe in an imaginary God. America is now a nation of 300 million people, wielding more influence than any people in human history, and yet this influence is being steadily corrupted, and is surely waning, because 240 million of these people apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers. Of course, we may well wonder whether as many people believe these things as say they do. I know that Christopher [Hitchens] and Richard [Dawkins] are rather optimistic that our opinion polls are out of register with what people actually believe in the privacy of their own minds.  But there is no question that most of our neighbors reliably profess that they believe these things, and such professions themselves have had a disastrous affect on our political discourse, on our public policy, on the teaching of science, and on our reputation in the world. And even if only a third or a quarter of our neighbors believe what most profess, it seems to me that we still have a problem worth worrying about.

 

The Sacrifice of Reason

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Humanity has had a long fascination with blood sacrifice. In fact, it has been by no means uncommon for a child to be born into this world only to be patiently and lovingly reared by religious maniacs who believe that the best way to keep the sun on its course or to ensure a rich harvest is to lead him by tender hand into a field or to a mountaintop and bury, butcher, or burn him alive as offering to an invisible (and almost certainly fictional) God.

 

Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren

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From the Introductory Essay: “Is God Real?”, by Jon Meacham

If you know anything about the two men, you will not find their answers surprising. The details of their arguments and the play of their minds, however, shed light on the nature of the clash about religion at this moment in America. Warren believes in the God of Abraham as revealed by Scripture, tradition and reason; Jesus is Warren’s personal savior and was, Warren argues, who he said he was: the Son of God. Harris, naturally, takes a different view. “I no more believe in the Biblical God than I believe in Zeus, Isis, Thor and the thousands of other dead gods that lie buried in the mass grave we call ‘mythology’,” Harris says. “I doubt them all equally and for the same reason: lack of evidence”...

Rick Warren is as big as a bear, with a booming voice and easygoing charm. Sam Harris is compact, reserved and, despite the polemical tone of his books, friendly and mild. Warren, one of the best-known pastors in the world, started Saddleback in 1980; now 25,000 people attend the church each Sunday. Harris is softer-spoken; paragraphs pour out of him, complex and fact-filled— as befits a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. At NEWSWEEK’s invitation, they met in Warren’s office recently and chatted, mostly amiably, for four hours. Jon Meacham moderated. Excerpts follow.

God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren

 

Selfless Consciousness Without Faith

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I recently spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered in the noonday sun, taking photographs.  As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts.  In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

 

Reply to B. Alan Wallace

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Having now published two books critical of religious dogmatism, I have had many opportunities to marvel at the extent to which intelligent people still rise to the defense of all the divisive lunacy in our world that goes by the name of “religion.” While I have encountered many silly, vacuous, and even infuriating responses to my work, B. Alan Wallace’s review of my book, Letter to a Christian Nation, in the pages of this magazine has given me rare cause for astonishment. While Wallace purports to have exposed many “tragic” shortcomings in my book, I find that every one of his substantial criticisms has already been refuted by the book itself.  Consequently, I am at a loss for how to reply. I will grant that Mr. Wallace appears to have read Letter to a Christian Nation, as he quotes and misquotes from it readily, sometimes without attribution. But he has not understood it. While it would, of course, be very sportsmanlike of me to concede that Wallace has put forward many fine points that demand my further reflection, he hasn’t—and I am left to reflect only on the evident limits of written communication. I have neither “idealized” science, nor denied the profundity of contemplative experience, nor committed any of the other sins with which Wallace seems so (over) eager to charge me. There is only one point on which Wallace has offered a useful criticism: I am now convinced that I should have used the phrase “do not accept the idea of God” rather than “reject the idea of God” when referring to the religious attitudes of our most elite scientists. There is undoubtedly a difference between these two phrases, and I am embarrassed not to have caught it prior to the book’s publication. And yet, it is a difference that does not make the slightest impact upon my argument as a whole. The truth is that Wallace’s reaction to my book is symptomatic of the very political correctness and intellectual apathy to which Letter to a Christian Nation is itself a response. While my book undoubtedly has many flaws, Wallace appears to be precisely the sort of reader who cannot find them.

January 2007

 
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