As an atheist who is often frustrated with the failings of some of the most outspoken and well-known atheists of the current day (namely Dawkins, Hitchens, and Maher), I had read in this rather interesting piece that Sam Harris tended to approach the religion argument on different grounds.

In an attempt to understand Harris a bit better, I stumbled on the recent email exchange between Harris and Noam Chomsky. It’s... rough. I agree with the headline: Harris does come off as an idiot.

The basic premise of the long exchange, for those who want the CliffsNotes version: Harris reaches out to Chomsky, asking for a public debate. Chomsky isn’t interested, but does engage in the email exchange, and eventually agrees to let Harris publish the exchange though he sees it as a “strange form of exhibitionism”. The backstory is that in Harris’ first book in 2004, he criticized Chomsky for his statement that 9-11 was the same type of atrocity that the US had routinely committed elsewhere (with the primary example discussed being the 1998 bombing of the Sudan Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, which led to tens of thousands of deaths). He argued that Chomsky completely ignored intent in addressing the issue of morality, and judged the concept of an “atrocity” based purely on the death toll rather than the nuances of the situation. Chomsky claims this is a misrepresentation, and I would argue, rather expertly dismantles Harris’ argument. Harris continues to assert that Chomsky doesn’t care about intent, though it seems eminently clear that he does. The two just don’t agree on what the US intent actually was, nor do they agree on what type of morality supports an action that will knowingly create substantial collateral damage.

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An analysis on Salon makes an important point. Harris seems to be arguing that intention is everything in judging the morality of an action that leads to deaths. But then why would he not judge al-Qaeda’s motives to be morally in the clear? They think they’re doing the world a great service. Chomsky seems to be the only one in the debate that understands that morality and intent are not clear-cut matters with simple rules.

There’s a distinct possibility that I’m reading this with a bias, because I already knew and respected Chomsky, and didn’t really know Harris. I found parts of his argument interesting at the outset of the exchange, but his arguments just can’t hold up under the scrutiny of Chomsky. And he starts resorting to tone-policing Chomsky:

I cannot help but feel that the peremptory and censorious attitude you have brought to what could, in fact, be a perfectly collegial exchange, is partly to blame. You appear to have begun this dialogue at (or very near) the end of your patience. If we were to publish it, I would strongly urge you to edit what you have already written, removing unfriendly flourishes such as “as you know”, “the usual procedure in work intended to be serious,” “ludicrous and embarrassing,” “total refusal,” etc. I trust that certain of your acolytes would love to see the master in high dudgeon—believing, as you seem to, that you are in the process of mopping the floor with me—but the truth is that your emotions are getting the better of you. I’d rather you not look like the dog who caught the car.

Uncomfortable and eyeroll-inducing. Chomsky is definitely abrasive in his replies, but I think he has every right to be when his position has been misrepresented. And Harris replies to Chomsky’s understandable irritation at this in a completely condescending tone to admonish him for being so irritable.

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Harris comes off as an arrogant ass whose only goal is to win the argument, more concerned with scoring debate points by calling out fallacies than actually discussing content. Chomsky comes off as a cranky but smart old man who is tired of dealing with arrogant asses.

Is that how other people are reading this?

I might still check out Harris’ recent book “Waking Up”, even though I’m currently not that impressed with him. I think I’m just desperate for more thoughtful secular philosophy (read: not by Dawkins, Hitchens, or Maher).

I’m in an odd spot with my personal philosophy. Honestly, even I’m not sure what I believe a lot of the time. My own belief system morphed from Christianity, to an adolescent questioning period where I flirted with Buddhism and Wicca, to agnosticism (the “we can’t know so don’t bother worrying about it” variety), to atheism. The last step was catalyzed in part by my starting to date bearddamnheroes, a staunch atheist. We’ve fought about religion a lot over the years, despite both being atheists. I still have the foundation my parents gave me about the importance of respecting different cultures, which is at odds with bearddamnheroes’ belief that religion is actively toxic in the world. I maintain that fundamentalism in any religion is toxic, but religion by its nature need not be. My general stance on religion is probably similar to Chomsky’s in many ways, as I’ve used the same comparison he does to explain why I no longer consider myself agnostic: am I meant to consider myself agnostic about the Greek gods too? He uses the same argument to reject “atheism” as a term. It seems he views religion as simply irrelevant. But this is where we disagree.

Atheism is a political identity in today’s climate. I think we need stronger atheist voices today, but by that I don’t mean more aggressive. I see moderate, pro-science religious people as my allies, not my enemies. I think religious fundamentalism is a serious and growing problem, particularly in the US, and we need to fight against it. I just wish all the loudest atheist voices weren’t so irritating.