Harris Hedges Debate

Truthdig and UCLA recently hosted an interesting debate between Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) and Chris Hedges (American Fascists:The Christian Right and the War on America) about whether religion, in the hands of ordinary humans, is inevitably divisive and violent.

I'll confess that I was disappointed in Hedges. Like so many really good people when they are defending faith, he obfuscated. He gave words idiosyncratic meanings and did a bit of character assassination rather than responding directly to what Harris was saying. He even rolled out the old canard that Pol Pot and Stalin and Hitler were godless. (Oh, please!) In doing so, he demonstrated an utter failure to understand Harris's premise, which is that unquestioned dogmas are dangerous; that our beliefs need to be morally, rationally, and empirically accountable in spirituality as in all spheres of life.

But that in and of itself is informative. As a war correspondent and investigative journalist, Hedges has been undercover in fundamentalist and dominionist subcultures. He describes these subcultures with complexity and clarity. Yet even he, when faced with an outside challenge, displays our remarkable and almost universal human instinct to defend the religious impulse against all comers! He insists on seeing fundamentalism as a corruption of religion rather than simply one of its faces, one that comes to the front cyclically when cultural conditions are ripe.

As a psychologist, I find it fascinating that so many smart people refuse to admit in public (or perhaps to themselves) that we need to scrap our tribal traditions and rework our sacred texts if we are to serve peace, love, and life itself. Rather, they try to redefine Jehovah or Allah or Christianity or Islam, so that the evil flows not from these constructs but from something outside of them. They sing the praises of belief while denying its power.

In the end, such attempts to make our religious traditions benign while leaving them intact fail because they are psychologically flawed. They require a level of abstraction that doesn't interest the general public. They are the work of smart people, lovers of complexity and mystery, remaking God in their own image and refusing to acknowledge the mental life of most humans. Chris Hedges' remarks illustrate this beautifully. But he is not alone. Rather, he stands with the tolerant, modernist progressive majority, Christian and not, who are more easily aroused to defend religion (in the abstract) than to challenge it (as it exists in the real world).


Carl said...

Valerie, I'm reposting this in respoce to your latest blog. I see a lot of the same issues being brought up again and again. I'm "happy" that you are not my psychologist. That's for sure.

The most obvious fact in the spiritual climate of our age, to which the preaching of the Christian gospel must adjust itself, is that a world view, usually defined as scientific, is discredited in its interpretation of the human situation by contemporary events. It is discredited though it boasted tremendous triumphs in the technical conquest of nature; and had gained such prestige that "progressive" Christianity thought itself capable of survival only by reducing its world view to dimensions which would make it seem compatible with the scientific attitudes of "progressive" men.

There was a curious pathos in this adjustment, because the failure of our culture to understand man and his history stemmed precisely from its inability to appreciate the uniqueness of man as distinguished from nature. It therefore misunderstood everything about man, his grandeur and his misery, because it transferred attitudes and techniques, which had been such a tremendous success in understanding nature, to the human situation, where they were the source of misunderstanding.

The "idea of progress," for instance, resulted from a transmission of the concept of evolution, true enough in nature, to human history, where human freedom made a determined development impossible; for man was always free to use his growing powers over nature for egoistic and parochial, rather than for universal, ends. Thus modern culture was unable to anticipate or to understand the evils which would arise in the technical possibilities of modern society, or the demonry of the cynical revolt against the standards of civilization manifested in nazism, or the even greater evils in the Communist revolt, which was animated, not by moral cynicism, but by a utopianism akin to the very utopianism of the liberal world.

In short, everything in our present historic situation -- is not understood because of characteristic, rather than fortuitous, errors in modern culture. Its confidence in the perfectibility of man rested in its trust in both the virtue and the power of mind. This was akin to the confidence in mind of the Greek rationalists; progressive optimism also shared the Greek belief that evil was the subrational forces of the self which mind could gradually master. Hence our psychologists are always looking for the roots of human "aggressiveness" on a level where scientific techniques can eliminate them. They did this precisely in the moment when the fury of Communist idealism and fanaticism proved its most dangerous "aggressiveness" to be compounded of monstrous power lusts and illusory heavenly visions. These are in a dimension which is not understood by those who think of man as one of the objects in nature, to be manipulated and beguiled to seek "socially approved ends." While they prate endlessly about the "dignity" of man, they actually rob him of his dignity. They make this mistake because they do not understand that his dignity and his "misery" have the same root in man’s radical freedom.

It is not possible to understand this radical freedom if we try to comprehend human selves as parts of some system of nature or of reason. This freedom can be apprehended only in dramatic-poetic terms, because it consists of the self’s transcendence over every rational or natural scheme to which it may be related. In other words, the affirmations of a religion of history and revelation are based upon the presupposition that there is a power of self-revelation in the mystery of the divine; and then the power of faith to apprehend such a revelation is a proof of the human self’s greatness. These presuppositions are precisely the treasures about which modern Christianity was so embarrassed and which it tried so desperately to fit into systems elaborated by a Hegel, a Comte or a Marx. They are the sources of its understanding of man and his history, including his wholly unanticipated and totally tragic present history.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hello Valerie, I have read a book called Deas and Imaginigns by you. Only in fragments. I have not read anything else, but I want to ask. Are you an atheist? I mean you are against fundamentalism but is that the same as being an atheist? Your book The Dark Side, I'm sure illustrates problems that happen in church and organized religion, you talk alot about shame and guilt and how fundementalism contradicts and often sacrifices core values of Christianity. Does that mean that you beleive in God and are a Christian but just not a fundeementalist Christian?

Anonymous said...

"in the hands of ordinary humans"

This is one of the most important messages of the gospels. God was taking away authority of the Preists and putting the ability to communicate with him directly in the hands of as you put it quite eerily, "ordinary human beings" whatever you mean by that is not clear. Are you a special preistess or something.

The temple curtain was torn in two.

It is not because religion is in the hnads or "ordinary human beings" that it has caused such suffering, it is becasue people have been trying to mend the temple curtain and take God away from the "ordinary human being".

I wonder if you categorize yourself as an "ordinary human being" or as an extraordinary human being capable of handling and spoon feeding the masses their dose of religion. I'm sure you are used to a sustem where everyone is a patient and needs their medication.

Religion is not a drug.

Study history and you will see that Harris' premise is a fiction a ploy a bait and hook argument based on nothing substantial but design to trap his opponents into meaningless onesided babbling about bogus facts.

History will show, that very rarely if ever has religion been in the hands of "ordianry human beings" in fact it has been in the hands of oppressors who use it to pacify, control and order populations as you do with your medications.

When religion is in the hands of "ordinary huamn beings" then and only then is it ever true religion. When it is in the hands of people like you, the preists and preistesses, then it is only a tool to use for your own ends.

The thing you fail to see, is that you are the same as a preist or a televangelist, you both work to arrest the "ordinary human being" before they can develop a tru relationship with God, one offers a false faith, while you offer a non/false faith or medication.

Here, take this, you will feel better.

Georg said...

Bonjour Valéry,

My congratulations to this fine text, clear and up to the point. In my own blog, I just published "Religion and Tolerance" but have to admit, I was unable to write so elegantly as you did.


PS: my regards to Prup (Jim) who indicated your blog to me.

Valerie said...

Anonymous 2 - We are all ordinary people, as far as I can tell. That includes me. It includes the people who I think speak with the greatest clarity about issues of ultimate significance. It includes those we have traditionally thought of as wise or insightful. It includes the writers who wrote the fragments of scripture, the committees that pulled them together, and the preachers that interpret them. We are all ordinary humans; each a blend of hobbit, elf and orc. Of course, being an ordinary human I am the lens through which I see the world, and I do tend to think of myself as the center of the universe ;).

Anonymous 1 - Your question about whether I am a Christian is an interesting one. Being a Christian means thousands of things to different people. So, when you as this question I assume that you have your own point of view, and I don't know what it is. I also wonder if the reason you are asking is that you place a tribal value on the label; if someone calls himself a Christian then what he or she has to say on moral and spiritual matters is worth considering; if not,it is not. If God be Truth, then all truth serves God regardless of it's source and falsehood dishonors God--even if the purveyor calls himself Christian or genuinely seeks to comprehend the Ultimate Reality that we call "God."

Valerie said...

Carl -

I don't know where to begin. Suffice to say this. Your will and ability to articulate such a complex web of truth and distortion in the service of our bronze age inheritance is a humbling reminder of how careful I must be about the webs that I myself am capable of weaving.

Anonymous said...

This is Anonymous 1, There is a lot of truth in your answer. I don't really know what it "means" to be a Christian. The word Christian was actually a nick name given to the early church, it was a nick name that began as derogatory such as the word Hippie did. I have always been uncomfortable calling myself a "Christian" as if i beleong to some sort of, as you would say, tribal society. I believe I have a relationship with God that is personal. I tried going to churches but was only judged for things that I happened in my past. Whenever the collection plate went around the men sitting by me would stand up and watvh me so that I would not steal anything out of it. I never would. Also, I never voted for Bush, and could not understand why one day when I went to church there was a big framed poster of him and is wife sitting on a petestool in from of the pastors podium and why everyones car had stickers on it supporting him in the next election. I thought to myself, either they are all really stupid, or they are really afraid. I think tey were really afraid. I never felt fully excepted there and I don't go anymore. I got tired or waiting for them to start a soup kitchen downtown. Before they could do it, they had to have a few years worth of meetings, bring in their finacial and legal advisor, start a commitee and give every one on the committee a salary. It is five years later and they still have not started the soup kitchen.

I have moved on, and am trying to help others becasue I have it in my heart to do so. I am organizing a basic needs drive for the area homeless shelters. They need, razors, soap, shampoo, deoderant, many things you or I take for granted. I also want to open a thirft stroe where poor people can actually aford to shop.

There is a Salvation Army and a Good Will where I live and the proces are rediculous.

The Salvation Army claims that their profits go to their soup kitchen, but I have been thereand it is all usda food.

Non-Profs only have to give a certain amount of their profit towards their casue. The rest gets absorbed else where.

When I first began my active relationship with God I did not own a Bible, so I said to myself, if God is real, he does not live in a Bible, in a book, I would go for long walks and talk with him and he would answer me. If it was my own mind talking back to me, well, I must be pretty wise when I listen to myself, becasue the guidance that that voice gave me has changed my life.

I do read the Bible, but if I was on a deserted Island without one, I would still have God with me.

I think about Hellen Keller. She was deaf and blind, she could never hear nor read the gospel, yet I beleive that God has the power to reach her and in that same way he reaches all of us.

I don't know where people get the idea that the Gopsels are perfect. It never says that anywhere in it. I mean they may have been inspired to write them, but that does not mean that they are perfect. It is interesting that in the Gospels themselves, Jesus is many times rebuking the desciples for missing the mark. I think people need to use their minds that God gave them. When you read the Bible, I think you need to read it while inspired by God to read it. Whatever that means. The Bible has a lot of reality about life, and we need to learn to read it in manyways.

Most people never take into account the historical and cultural situation when reading the bible either.

I believe in Christ becasue of personal experience. And believeing in Christ mean many many things. I believe that God is bigger than any church, denomination, religion, political party, or government. That is faith to me.

Take Care Valerie and thanks for writing back. I really appreciate it.

Adrian Miu said...

Nice words Anonymous1 but I don't buy your apparent meakness. It always sadden me to see how people fool themselves. Do you believe in Christ? Well, I have a bad news for you: you don't believe in God. A belief in God should be self-sustained. As you said, if you would never read the Bible and never heard of christianity maybe you would still end up believing in a God. But since you believe in Christ, you believe in Yehova. Just as a believer in Zeus is not allowed to say he/she belives in God but in a god so do you. You believe in a god just like anybody else that has a story passed from generation to generation about a god. If God is bigger than anything humanity could come up until (bigger than any church, denomination or religion) now than you don't believe in it. Probably because of the desire for a pleasant after-life that contrasts with you current life pushes you to believe in a god that offers this promise. Just like others did before you, you took the notion of "God" and created "a god" for yourself.
What's so wrong about the ideea of a God without a Son?
What's so wrong about the ideea of a God that will not offer you one second in heaven or hell?
What's so wrong about the ideea that God doesn't give a shit about humans or at least it doesn't care about whether or not we believe in it?
Think about it. What's holding you back and pushes you to defend an omnipotent being (do you really thing God would need your help in any way)? What's pushing you to defend the belief in God when there are many beliefs in thousands of gods that are bringing the worst out of people? Are you so selfish that you only care about your own personal experience while dening the personal experience of a muslim that is blowing himself in public market?
I am not trying to ask not to enjoy whatever personal experience you had but to keep it as your god is: personal. Because whenever one is defending the notion of God is actually defending the belief in thousands of gods. When you say the word "God" a muslim at the end of the world with think "Allah wants Jihad", or a dominionist will think "Christ must appear on our flag".

Anonymous said...

"If God is bigger than anything humanity could come up until (bigger than any church, denomination or religion) now than you don't believe in it. Probably because of the desire for a pleasant after-life that contrasts with you current life pushes you to believe in a god that offers this promise."

Adrien, you do not know me. I am not afraid to go to hell. And I will if I have too. The statement that I made was a statement of faith. I beleive that God has revealed himself to me through Christ. The word "Christ" is a significant title also I must point out. There is only one Christ and I beleive that he loves me, and cares about me and answers my prayers. I hear him speak in many many ways.

I did not vote for Bush, I don't support the war, I won't discrimiante against homosexuals, immigrants are fin by me, most our ancestors were immigrants, and some probably illegal.

I beleive in Christ. God is just a word, and so is Christ. There are things that language fails to communicate. That is why I brought up Hellen Keller.

Adrien, you remend me of those spiritualy dead people who connive about a soup kitchen at the church I once went to. Are you? If you are then you know who I am.

Anonymous said...

My experience with fundamentalists has also been a negative on. I think that the word "mental" appears in fundamental is interesting.

Fundamantalists religion is based on fear, comparisons between other people, doing what everyone else is doing.

Fundamentalists are all talk. They talk a lot of trash. Jesus said that it is not what goes into a mans mouth that defiles them but what comes out.

Fundamentalists are greedy selfish people concerned only with themselves and the possibility of a "pleasant afterlife".

The criticize people rather than help them and tell people that their lack of "faith" is why they are poor and in that way people with more money and material wealth and success are understood to have more "faith" than others.

Fundamenatalist religions are false idolotrous religions.

God is not on T.V. he is not on the radio, he is not in a mega church, he is not in a self help book, he is not IN the bible.

God is in us, where people can not see. God is invisible in us and becomes visible through us.

Fundamentalists are in fact working to push people away from God with their "elitist" attitudes.

"Christians" people who know God and truly "serve" him, or do his will, are not afraid of hell.

As for heaven, they beleive that they are already there.

They love people unconditionaly.

Thet believe in Love, Life, Faith, Hope, Forgivness, Peace and Joy, not that these things are merely ideas, but that they are real, more real than anything we can touch and see. Thet make us real and without them we are nothing.

Being a Christian does not mean you are a Fundamentalists. Their are many of us who abhor the actions of Fundamentalist organizations.

Another way of saying that "God is bigger than any church, denomination, religion, political party, or government.", is this: After all these things have passed away, there will still be God.

Help people, go out into the world, and do good things. If you do not desire to do good, still do good for in time you will come to desire by having done it.

Peace everyone. And Valerie, I've seen your picture, I think you have a few fans on this blog who get jealous when another person writes to you.

Adrian Miu said...

Anonymous you haven't addressed any of the questions I have raised. Why of all the gods you chose one that you say it's personal and yet bring it in a conversation when your personal experience is as relevant an anybody's? If your stance is that the word "God" fails to communicate than why do you bother? What drives you to take this doomed-to-fail task of talking about a personal flavour of god? This kind of behaviour it's dishonest towards others. You come and present and ideea that you personally think its true and immediatly stop the conversation by saying that language fails to communicate. "What can be asserted without evidence, can also be dismissed without evidence", keep that in mind before engaging in a conversation when the language fails to communicate.
In your second post you make assertions without any proofs. On what basis can you tell that God does not manifest through the fundamentalist? What rules do you apply to test if they hold a wrong interpretation of the Word of God? Are these rules your own personal rules or the rules of your denomination? Or they are some universal rules that could lead even to an invalidation of your own interpretation?

Anonymous said...

"Why of all the gods you chose one that you say it's personal and yet bring it in a conversation when your personal experience is as relevant as any body's?"

It is a personal relationship and that is proof to me. I don't need to prove it to you. God has already revealed himself to you but you rejected him.

My personal experience is something that I can use in real life.

"What drives you to take this doomed-to-fail task of talking about a personal flavor of god? This kind of behavior it's dishonest towards others."

I don't consider my relationship with Christ as a personal flavor. I consider it a friendship that is always growing and changing.

Actually I am being very honest and open about very personal things just to show people or express the way I understand it what a relationship with God, or my relationship and experience with God is.

As for doomed to fail, well the future can only tell. Perhaps ten years from now you will be giving a sermon about how you were an atheists and you remember this one person who kept posting about his personal relationship with God and you could not grasp it but now you understand, yad yada yada.

Yes there are things that language fails to communicate entirely. God is definitely something that language will always fall short of expressing.

That is why it is vain for you to try and prove with language and through language that something that is being communicated by language is not true.

God is invisible in us and becomes visible through us. Desire. God is a burning fire in your heart.

My EXPERIENCE with fundamentalists has shown me much about their religion. I don't believe, from what God has revealed to me so far that Christ would approve of their "money seeds" and mega churches and political campaigns.

As for rules, life is real, alive, spontaneous and creative. We make our own rules, they come from the heart. That is what Jesus said, that our hearts will betray us. A man full of hate and murder will hate and murder, a man full of lust will lust, a man full of greed will never be satisfied, but an man full of love will love.

You are what you worship or focus on or eat. You are what you eat.
Christ is the bread of life.

Yes, Christ is the bread of life. Eat him.

Goodbye Adrien, whoever you are.
I love you.

Valerie said...

Anonymous -

Thank you for the compliment.

I think, perhaps, that Adrien reacts to what you are saying because words like "Christ" and "Jesus" imply loyalty to a very specific anthropomorphic tradition. (Correct me if I'm wrong, Adrien.) Friendship with an icon or an archetype like you describe with Christ is something that can be nurtured within many sacred frameworks. But all of these rely on a very human way of grasping the world around and beyond us. In a sense, they require us to make the universe in the image of our own psyches and to say that we know what we cannot know.

In reality, given the tools at our disposal, it is far easier to figure out what is not true than what is. Where the contributors to this site try to take a stand is to say: there are some things we know not to be true. There are some things we now understand to be human construction. Some are even human frailties and failings with God's signature forged on them. And we, collectively cannot afford to live in these falsehoods any longer. Our lives and the life around us have become too interdependent and fragile. We must stay grounded in the real world contingencies that govern joy and suffering and life and death.

Truth-seeking is desperately important these days. And that, I think, is where Adrien pushes back. Hard.

But you also talk about about loving people without bounds and carrying your experience of the divine even to a desert island, and these seem to rest on a bedrock that transcends Christianity. Why not stay there, on solid ground? Why externalize this experience into another person's interpretation of another person--as the poet has called it "an anglicized version of a helenized version of a hebrew name"?

You pick nuggets of moral and spiritual gold from the rubble of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it is you who is doing the choosing. You measure the tradition by a standard that is deeply uniquely yours and find parts wanting and others wonderful. Why not claim this power and the creative responsibility that goes with it?

Anonymous said...

"You pick nuggets of moral and spiritual gold from the rubble of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it is you who is doing the choosing. You measure the tradition by a standard that is deeply uniquely yours and find parts wanting and others wonderful. Why not claim this power and the creative responsibility that goes with it?"

WOW! You are awesome.

Adrian Miu said...

Anonymous I am not an atheist and I am not a theist either. I have moments when my mind wonders for a few seconds and believe in a god. And yet I have to declare myself an atheist for everybody else around me because no matter how far my imagination takes me about that god it always becomes inconsistent with the reality so in the end I choose to say that I don't know anything about God and that the reality is true. I could be a solipsist and think we are characters in a novel but I choose to believe that God is at least not a deceiver.
And since my mind tells me that nothing can be told about God it is obvious why I don't believe in any god that is spoken about with any degree of detail.

I am not denying you the right to take that illusory personal relationship as a proof for yourself but to stop talking to others about that illusory personal relationship until you have proofs for us, the rest of the world. Not only you don't need to prove it to me but you also can't.

I have a pretty good life but to assign any of my fortunes to the hand of a god that took the time to tweak my destiny would mean to show a complete lack of human decency towards all the victims of all the atrocities in the history (wars, rapes etc). I would be extremely dissapointed if God would have really done anything to improve my life (or like your case to have a personal relationship with me) while not doing anything for the war in Middle East. Have you ever thought that your god may not have the time to stop a child being molested because it was paying attention to your prayer at one time?

I remember how, as a christian, I was praying to Jesus trully believing he exists and listen to my prayers. Recently I have seen a documentary about what's happening in Palestine, all the pain and suffering that's going on there. I became outraged at my christian mindset, how selfcentered one must think be to think that one prayer can be answered when in the opposite side of the planet there is so much death and suffering.

As with regards to all the words you associate with Christ well there are many sources prior to Christ that account for that. Friendship, Love, Respect well at least 400 years before Christ Buddha talked about them. Why don't you have a personal relationship with Buddha? Maybe you should read Tao Te Ching to see how 500 years before Christ someone wrote how a "holy-man" should behave (unfortunately the Christ of the Bible would not pass the test). And yet you chose one character from a book to have a personal relationship based on what? The promise of an after life? The promise of divine justice?

When I was a christian I didn't have these questioned asked and I believed as a reflex that was taught from childhood but also didn't engage in debates so I find hard to imagine how one can rationalize/justifies the belief in a theistic god (not a deistic one)

Anonymous said...

I don't know Buddha. God did not reveal himself to me through Buddha.

Maybe you should read to see how 500 years before Christ someone wrote how a "holy-man" should behave (unfortunately the Christ of the Bible would not pass the test). And yet you chose one character from a book to have a personal relationship based on what? The promise of an after life? The promise of divine justice?

Tao Te Ching was created as a way to order society. Their is nothing about having a relationship with God as far as I have read. It is a different type of "way" that may be good for you or other people. It is just not my "way".

What test does Christ not pass? Who is setting the standard? All of that is irrellevant. In Christ's time he did not pass the test of many of the religious authority. It is in the gospel. He is constantly being criticized and accused of crimes against the LAW.

What is mt relationship based on? Promise of an afterlife, divine justice? Again these things are irreleavent to me. My relationship is based on my personal experiences.

Unlike you, I did not grow up in a church. This is not refelex for me. It is something that takes effort and that I actually have to actively participate in.

What you call illusory is something that I call real. I can't prove it and neither can you. Just becasue I can't prove it does not mean that it did not happen. There are many things people accept as fact that can never be proven. The Big Bang is one of them. Yet a whole science is based on that conceptual scheme.

Why should I stop talking because you say I should. No, I won't stop talking just because you you tell me too. I have as much right as you or anyone else to speak my mind.

Adrian Miu said...

When one of your beloved will die because someone tryed to send us a message from his god by blowing himself in a public market you will understand why someone should stop talking about things that are not understadable.

Anonymous said...

I already understand. I understand that that person believed in a lie. You want proof, then that is your proof. Can anyone say Straw Man.
That was a foolish tactic. Why do you think that painting a negative picture of theism by only showing bad things that happened is disproving theism. There are very many good things that you never talk about. I could easily pull the same crap on you and tell you to be quiet. But I don't because I respect your right to speak your mind. Again, that is a foolish tactic that I see being used over and over again on this site.