“Debate” between Rick Warren & Sam Harris in Newsweek

I recently subscribed to Newsweek magazine and the top of the cover notes: “Is God Real? Rick Warren & Sam Harris Face Off.”  The article was on p.54 (four pages after an article on those Geico cavemen), and it wasn’t as bad as I had expected.

I do not totally buy into the Rick Warren phenomenon (though I do believe that churches and individuals should be purpose driven) and I would, of course, disagree with much of his doctrine and theology, but he seems a decent fellow and sincere about his faith.  And Sam Harris is a popular atheist these days (If Dawkins is Evolutionism’s Pope, perhaps he can be a young and promising Cardinal), whose book Letter to a Christian Nation is currently fairly popular (it is my understanding).

I can’t help but note here a quote from a book review by Michael Novak: “The letter that Harris claims is intended for a Christian nation is in fact wholly uninterested in Christianity on any level, is hugely ignorant, and essentially represents his own love letter to himself, on account of his being superior to the stupid citizens among whom he lives.”  His review of Harris’ book — as well as Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Dawkin’s screed The God Delusion — is available on the American Enterprise Institute’s website, titled “Lonely Atheists of the Global Village.”  The section subtitled “My Agno-Theistic Daughter and How She Got That Way” I found particularly interesting.  Here’s my favorite paragraph from that section:

She decided that atheism cannot be true, because it is self-contradictory. Moreover, this self-contradiction is willful, and its latent purpose is pathetically transparent. Atheists want all the comforts of the rationality that emanates from rational theism, but without personal indebtedness to any Creator, Governor, Judge. That is why they allow themselves to be rationalists only part of the way down. The alternative makes them very nervous.

But, I have digressed a good bit, haven’t I?

Don’t let Newsweek’s description of the Warren/Harris discussion as a “debate” mislead you.  There really seems to be no formal structure to the discussion other than presence of a “moderator” as the source of questions.  Sometimes the questions are only directed to one of the two, sometimes to both.  But the format is rather free for each to change the subject a bit and redirect the discussion if they so feel the need.  At least the exchange seems to be cordial (as edited by Newsweek, perhaps?).

I didn’t find the article particularly enlightening, but at the same time I’ve read a great deal about this sort of stuff and this article had a “same old same old” feel to it.  If you’d like to read it yourself, you can find it on the Newsweek website here.

I did find Harris’ discussion of spirituality towards the end of the article interesting, as well as Warren’s evaluation of Harris’ perspective: “You’re more spiritual than you think.  You just don’t want a boss.  You don’t want a God who tells you what to do.”  I don’t think that Harris necessarily backed himself into a corner there (his response: “I don’t want to pretend to be certain about anything I’m not certain about.”), but I do think that Rick Warren is on to something there.  And, I note, it fits in very well with the paragraph I quoted above in my digression, which surprises me as much as anyone else, since I generally do these entries without a good deal of pre-planning (generally, my rough drafts are my final drafts…).

In the Bible, Peter prophesied that “scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation'” (2 Peter 3:3).  I wouldn’t say that Peter had men like Dawkins and Harris exclusively in mind this prophecy — there are just as many “theists” and “Christians” who have forgotten, as well, the promise of His coming.  But I wouldn’t kick them out of the club either.

5 thoughts on ““Debate” between Rick Warren & Sam Harris in Newsweek

  1. Dear Mr. Smith,

    I LOVE that quote from “My Agno-Theistic Daughter”. It hits the nail on the head. So does Warren’s evaluation of Harris’ perspective as you cite it. Humorist Leo Rosten once put the matter in a similar light: “Maybe an atheist can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman.”

    I have met exactly ONE atheist in my life who was honest enough to treat atheism as a faith proposition and reason and live accordingly — and ethically, so far as I could tell. All of the others were running from God, or more often from false religion — as if their denial of idolatry was ipso facto a denial of God. One of those was running from the aftermath of the apostasy of the WCG. Sad, isn’t it?

  2. 13Brian

    I do not get/take the time to read your blog very frequently, although I do enjoy it. This fact has produced cause, in my mind, to comment on more than one entry at a time. Hopefully, tying them together (somewhat). Let me start by saying that I REALLY enjoyed the cell structure/activity video, as I am reading backwards through your posts it came at an opportune time after reading about the athiest debate. In my experience with atheists I would have to wholly agree with Harris’ daughter’s comment, very eloquently stated- I was very impressed with her cementing of the thought process involved with such folks. What came to mind is wishing to ask an atheist (more an evolutionist, I guess in my mind I don’t see how they could possibly NOT be one and the same) how exactly they would explain these processes at a cellular level as occuring without a Master designer. Truly amazing and awe inspiring, I do so wish it could be such for everyone.

    I was then struck by your comment (Mr Smith) about feeling dejected and mournful. Don’t get me wrong, I am most certian that having these feelings periodically is a very useful tool that God has given us to stir us to (correct) action to be re-justified upon our straying; I am immediately put to mind of a recent sermon (recent to me anyhow) by Mr Rod King regarding self-righteousness. The thing that strikes me is our human feelings of self-importance that seem to be so inate, which are beautifully contradicted in the book of Job showing how our sin(s), acceptance or rejection of God and His ways by NO MEANS diminishes His plan or His actions to bring about His family. This added to your succinct comments regarding the vastness of His love and its bridging power by design and the absence of anything greater, which includes His will for us to succeed in His purpose for us, to enter into His family, is very comforting- to me at least. Especially during the Passover preparation of self-examination it is easy to get into a sorrowful state of mind, which can be harmful if not utilized in a direction to stir us to action- in the right direction of course, we do know that this self-sorrow can be used by Satan to discourage us. Also, very succinctly portrayed in your tricycle story.

  3. Howdy, and thanks, Brian! I appreciate your thoughts.

    I have gone into you comment and added some links to the posts you reference, in the event that someone hasn’t read them and doesn’t know what you were talking about. I hope you don’t mind!

    Take care, and I hope your Days of Unleavened Bread are going well!

    Warm regards,
    Wallace Smith

  4. I LOVE that quote from “My Agno-Theistic Daughter”. It hits the nail on the head.

    Bleh. Hardly. I speak for the overwhelming majority of Atheists when I say they do not in any way believe (let alone fear) that rationality comes from a creator. That claim does not make any sense.

    It is an eternally frustrating misconception on the part of Christians: they think that atheists actually secretly believe in God and are angry at him or afraid of him. If that were the case, they would not be Atheists. They would be angry or fearful theists. Atheists are people who DON’T BELIEVE God exists; not people who are AFRAID God exists.

    It’s funny how someone can say “it hits the nail on the head” when they aren’t an Atheist themselves. Only an Atheist could know with certainty how an Atheist feels. If you want to know what an Atheist thinks, you need to ask Atheists, not Christians presuming to know the mind of an Atheist.

    When I want to understand a Christian perspective, I ask Christians, not other Atheists.

  5. Greetings, Mr. Redford, and thanks for the note.

    I don’t think I agree with everything you say — in particular Mr. Wheeler’s “hits the nail” comment represents, at least, a valid position. While its truthfulness may be debated (obviously you disagree), to say that someone can agree or disagree with a comment about atheism only if he is an atheist is just silly. If you read some Christian or formerly-Christian author who wrote something to the effect of, “Wow, all of Christianity sure is illogical and lacking in evidence.” and then commented, “Hey, that really hit the nail on the head!” I would not claim that you could not come to such a conclusion without being a Christian, yourself — even if I greatly disagreed with both you and the writer (and I *would* disagree).

    And besides that point, part of what makes the quoted passage interesting is the fact that it is describing the thoughts of someone who *was* an atheist until she thought through what she believed to be the logical consequences of such a belief system and found them to be wanting. Perhaps you think the father was being deceitful and lying about his conversations with his daughter? Because if you don’t so think, then the quote given does, indeed, reflect one atheist’s perspective and her comments about why she abandoned atheism.

    By the way, who is claiming that atheists believe that rationality comes from a Creator, as you state? I don’t see that in the quote, nor in the comment. I absolutely agree with you: that comment doesn’t make any sense. But I see no one making that comment, so I’m not sure why you bring it up.

    Do I think that some theists believe in a God simply because they are afraid to *not* believe in a God? Yes. Similarly, I do believe that some (how many is irrelevant here) atheists do not believe in God because they are afraid to. To say that it is not possible for such deep seated motivations to affect our beliefs is to fail to recognize what it means to be human, atheist or no. And to say that the *will* to believe something (such as God’s existence or non-existence) does not play a role in what we choose to believe would constitute a similar lack of insight.

    Just to make sure the dead horse is sufficiently beaten… Do I think *all* atheists secretly believe in a God they are trying to avoid? No. (If Mr. Wheeler was implying this in his comment, I would disagree with him.) Do I think that at least *some* atheists do so believe, “deep down”? Yes.

    Does this disqualify these individuals from being atheists, as you claim? In the strictest of technical senses, perhaps, but in a more generally applicable sense (the sense normally used in conversation), no. Many people live in denial of what they recognize only in their deepest parts (see Jeremiah 17:9). And the mirror-image is true, as well: There are many today who consider themselves “believers” who, deep down, don’t really believe in God.

    I have talked to some atheists on such things who, after some time of reflection, came to the conclusion that they could no longer call themselves atheists (and not that they then agreed with *me*, either–generally they moved to agnosticism). You would apparently say that they have only demonstrated that they were not really atheists and that they should be “redefined” retroactively as non-atheists. I would say they were atheists who either became (1) more educated, (2) more willing to accept certain facts, or (3) more willing to accept something they have always believed.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Best regards,
    Wally Smith

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