Dennis Prager v. Sam Harris

A friend of mine just pointed out to me a publicized e-mail exchange between the obnoxious Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Dennis Prager, conservative Jewish radio talk show host, that has been published on the Internet. They can be found (starting with Sam Harris' opening e-mail) here. I haven't had the opportunity to read each of the e-mails, but after Harris' typical nonsense, Prager begins his discussion with a truly insightful comment.

There is one thing you and I agree on, Sam. You write that you are "quite sure that we need only use words like 'reason,' 'common sense,' 'evidence,' and 'intellectual honesty' to do the job."

I agree because I am certain that use of those wonderful vehicles to truth make the case for God, not for atheism.

Yet you and other atheists—as opposed to agnostics, who simply claim doubts about God—appropriate words like "reason" and "common sense" to maintain a position that is hardly the fruit of reason and common sense.

Is it really reason and common sense that lead atheists to their certitude that everything, all existence, came about by sheer chance? That there is therefore no God, no creator, no designer? Unlikely. Atheist certainty and religious certainty are both faith claims that transcend reason and common sense. But at least religious believers have the intellectual honesty to admit theirs is a faith claim.

Nevertheless, I am not as certain about God as you are about no-God. When I look at the unjust world God created, I have questions, sometimes even doubts. But not atheists like you, Sam. No, they look at love and consciousness, at the grandeur of the universe, at the birth of a child, and they hear Bach’s music and conclude that all of this and everything else just came about by itself.

It is an understatement to say that I do not find that position intellectually compelling. And when held with certitude, it borders arrogance.

I love that response. I can't wait to read the whole thing.


slaveofone said…
Myself, I don't like the response at all... Prager attempts to elevate theistic belief at the expense of atheistic—a kind of oneupmanship—by saying we admit that our beliefs are essentially based on faith whereas you atheists do not. Not only is this generalized statement about atheists wrong (which I will explain in a moment), but it asserts therefore that since the theistic position is more honest with its origin, it is presumably better. But why should the theistic position be better in a naturalistic atheism perspective if the generalization was true? There is no naturalistic criteria which favors an honest or even truthful belief over a dishonest or illusionary one (a concept that should be familiar to anyone here who knows of Alvin Plantinga). Therefore, a more “intellectually honest” response doesn't amount to anything more than a “well, my beliefs are better than yours so nanny nanny boo boo”.

But going back to the generalization about atheists... Harris and many other atheists might not admit that their beliefs are based primarily on faith—but they can hardly be held to represent the sum total of atheists. I read an article about four years ago in one of the major papers which was written by a leading atheist in the Los Angeles or Southern California area—the President of an atheistic society or something like that down here... This is not the first time I wish I had cut it out and preserved it... In that article, the leading atheist spokesman defended atheism and leveled the playing field by saying that theism is no better than atheism because both are based on faith. Therefore, not only have I seen with my own eyes an educated, leading atheist contradicting Prager's statement about himself—but the atheists' argument, therefore, is a better one according to a theistic perspective because now it is the theist (Prager) who is being intellectually dishonest—if only about an opposing perspective.

But what really makes me loathe Prager's response is that his basis for theistic belief is on faith separated from reason. Prager admitted outright that, ultimately, reason, common sense, did not lead him to believe in theism any more than it led the other to atheism, but that it was non-rational faith that led him to theism. Who then is being arrogant if Prager says the atheist came to his belief in the same manner as himself and then holds his own viewpoint to be the better one simply because he holds it and the other doesn't? At best, we have a stalemate of paradigms where both persons believe their viewpoints are better, at worst, we have a Theist being inconsistent and therefore making the atheistic argument come out on top. But the real knock-out punch is admitting a belief not originating in reason. Unlike Prager, I do believe there are atheists who are being intellectually honest when they say they became atheists solely and fundamentally because of reason—just as I will say truthfully and honestly that the primary reason I believe in Yahweh is because of reason and that I am ever ready to give up my beliefs and change them according to the same. I do have criteria that would make me abandon belief in God and curse his name and, similarly, I have criteria that would make me chose to believe in atheism. Therefore if there is a problem in my beliefs, it is not because they are faith-based, but because I am flawed in my reason upon which I depend.
BK said…

I personally didn't read Prager's comments the same way you did. But I certainly understand how you came to your conclusion even if I still don't come to the same conclusions after reading what you wrote. I don't think he is divorcing faith from reason, but rather he is pointing out that both viewpoints have an element fo faith because both viewpoints have an element of doubt. Still, I welcome your opinion as a legitimate second way of seeing it. Anyone else?

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