The Cenk Uygur Interview with Sam Harris : Why Reasoned Debate is Important for Atheism

Recently Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks had Sam Harris on for a marathon 3-hour interview. This interview comes on the heels not only of the Maher/Harris controversy, but also appearances by Reza Aslan and CJ Werleman on The Young Turks. Werleman appeared on a panel discussion where he compared Harris to Sarah Palin, and called him dangerous because of a passage in his book “The End of Faith” regarding nuclear first strike and Radical Muslims.Werleman, who recently was caught plagiarizing in his articles (I speak about that on this post), is known for his polemics, and is not shy about saying so, but he seems to purposely misunderstand Harris’ meaning on this particular point. Reza Aslan did an interview with Cenk where he denigrates Harris as just a blogger sitting in front of a television, and thus can not possible understand the complexities of religion, especially Islam. Sam Harris is not a religious scholar, true enough, but he does have a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, which I personally think qualifies him more to speak about crazy dogmatic bullshit that people come up with than does Reza’s questionable credentials (which are exposed ably on the Friendly Atheist blog here.) Of course Reza also injected himself into the controversy by going on CNN and playing the role as official Apologist for Islam (my thoughts on that here). While many lauded him for his “smackdown” of Maher and Harris, there were also plenty of others who called him out on his misrepresentation of facts, as well as just outright wrong information (A good example of these refutations is here.)

The interview itself was definitely interesting, and even at three hours, did not ever drag, although I will admit it took me two sittings to watch the entire interview, but that’s just due to my busy schedule. I thought Sam did well in explaining his position in a thoughtful, rational way. I have always thought he was a bit thin-skinned and thus easily offended, a conclusion I came to while following the tiff between him and Glenn Greenwald over a year ago, but I think perhaps some of his criticisms are justified. One point on the mechanics of the interview which I noticed, and which frankly pissed me off, was Cenk’s frequent interruptions while Sam was trying to make a point. If you watch his interview with Reza Aslan, you will notice that Cenk allows him to go on at length with nary a peep. Cenk does not seem to extend the same courtesy to Sam, cutting in on several occasions. Another point is that while Cenk came across as rather brash, often jumping to conclusions before Sam could finish his point, Sam came off as very thoughtful and deliberate, always seeming to think through every point he makes and being careful to use the proper words to convey whatever point he was trying to make.

I won’t go into a full summary : you can watch it for yourself here and come to your own conclusions. I for one think Sam did an excellent job in putting forth his arguments and “clearing the air” in regards to his views on Islam and extremism. Cenk did an adequate job as the interviewer, but I think he tried to inject himself too much into the dialogue, and Sam was perhaps too timid in asserting himself when it was necessary. All in all though, I thought this interview was a win for expressing some of the views and ideas behind Atheism, and getting those ideas out to a wider audience. And Sam Harris is as good a spokesman as could be asked for.

The Downfall of Werleman, And Why It’s Not Good for the Atheism Movement

There has a bit of an uproar in a section of the Atheist community over the plagiarism imbroglio involving CJ Werleman. Mr. Werleman is a writer whose pieces have shown up on AlterNet and Raw Story, among other outlets (though AlterNet has taken down his articles and issued an apology for publishing his work). His style can be best described a polemical and combative, and thus has made his share of enemies. When he started making accusations about Sam Harris and the “New Atheists”, though, he really stirred up a hornet’s nest. The point of contention seems to be Werleman’s contention that Harris and his ilk are guilty of bigotry and Islamophobia (a term which I detest) because they cite the real harm done in the name of the religion of Islam. In turn Harris and Company have accused Werleman and his backers of being politically correct and unwilling to look beyond their liberal righteous anger to see the true harm that people do in the name of Islam. Incidentally, Islam is not a race, it’s a religion, a fact that Werleman can’t seem to wrap his head around when accusing others of being racist when it comes to Islam.

In the midst of all this hullabaloo came Godless Spellchecker’s blog post accusing Werleman of being a plagiarist, and citing many examples to support his contention. This post was done in consultation with Peter Boghossian, a prominent and respected name in Atheist circles, so this was not some hack job. The evidence was there, and Werleman was for all intents and purposes busted. He later issued a sorry-not sorry type of apology (which has disappeared but is summarized on Godless Spellchecker’s blog post), and then later another apology which while more extensive still reeked of insincerity. Then came news that he was possibly using another Twitter account another a different guise to promote his “official” Twitter account, and to basically represent a fawning supporter of his position. Curioser and curiouser.

Needless to say, Werleman’s reputation is now in tatters. Plagiarism is a serious offense in the journalism world, and whether it was intentional or no, it displays laziness and sloppy writing by forgetting to cite your sources. Of course, his snarky apology didn’t help, and his feeble attempt at a tu quoque defense by accusing Sam Harris of plagiarism as well made it even worse. Of course, he has his defenders, and undoubtedly he will still publish writings that some people will read, but he will probably never reach the same level of credibility as he has previously enjoyed.

This is truly a shame, because whatever you may think of Mr. Werleman and his views, he did offer up some good points in refutation of arguments put forth by Harris and others, and, as JT Eberhard points out in his blog:

I think the atheist movement is better for having a multitude of positions, so long as those positions are fairly debated with the intent of figuring out what is true, not with just trashing people who hold different opinions.  Over the past few years we have gotten less adept at this, but holding to that principle is why I’m so sad to see CJ doing this to himself.  I know a lot of Harris supporters are happy about this, but even though I mostly agree with Sam I’m not happy. I want my opponents to be people of integrity. Even if we disagree on some points, we’re still ultimately allies on atheism. That’s enough for me to want them to be good people.

Mr. Q on his Quaranify Me vlog says something similar (Shameless plug: I just became a patron of the Quranify Me podcast. If you want to as well go to his Patreon page. It’s a great show!)

If there is not open and honest debate on issues surrounding Atheism, even if we may disagree on these ideas, then our ability to defend ourselves from other positions will atrophy, and this will benefit no one, and will certainly open us to attack from real adversaries, such as right-wing religious nutjobs. And I, for one, do not want to see that happen.

Harris, Christina, and the Need for Atheist Unity

Initially, this post was going to be about the recent Twitter feud between Greta Christina and Sam Harris (You can find a recap of that battle at Greta’s blog here.) However, after listening to the Noah Lugeons’ diatribe on the latest episode of The Scathing Atheist, I had a change of heart, and have decided to instead expound on the need for some strain of unity in the “Atheist Movement”.
Noah’s main point was that despite any differences Atheists have among themselves, these are nothing compared to the to the actual, demonstrable damage caused by the words and actions of religious nutjobs on a regular basis, and that Atheists are shooting themselves in the foot by airing our dirty laundry on Twitter for all the world to see.
Obviously, I’m not implying that these disagreements are not substantive or important. Misogyny is a real problem not only in the movement, but in society as a whole. I absolutely agree with Greta on this issue, and I thought Harris’ defensiveness on the issue to be another example of his aversion to criticism, even when he is mentioned only indirectly (Take a look at his feud with Glenn Greenwald if you want to see another example of this). Atheists need to take a hard look at themselves and figure out how to confront this issue honestly, and we need to come up with concrete solutions.
We must, however, put our internecine conflicts aside when faced with the larger goal of confronting the destructive influence of religion in our world, and the best way to achieve this is for all of us to concentrate our efforts on exposing religion and its dangerous dogma for all to see. I see this as one of the most important battles we can engage in, and I honestly fear for our species if we fail.
So, in the spirit of reconciliation, Sam Harris should write a blog post apologizing to Greta for his overreaction and thoroughly lambaste those misogynists in our ranks (He actually did tweet and apology, which to me was tepid and forced. Greta, however, thanked him for even that acknowledgement.) We then need to get back to the important work of educating people, each in his or her own way, on the pitfalls of religion and the importance of maintaining a impenetrable wall between Church and State. This is our duty to our fellow man, regardless of whatever disagreements we may have among ourselves.

Sarah Silverman : Atheism Icon?

   I heard about Sarah Silverman’s speech in acceptance of her Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special, and I immediately had to go watch it for myself on YouTube. After being rather agnostic on her previous comedy shows and her show on Comedy Central, I really enjoyed her latest HBO special, We Are Miracles. Of course, who could forget her innocent little girl take on the most disgusting and hilarious joke for The Aristocrats? When I saw her latest special, however, I knew she really was hitting on all cylinders. Her rise has been ongoing for a while, of course, as I’ve known about her since the ’90’s, but I think she really came through to the mainstream with her appearance in a mainstream movie, “A Million Ways To Die In The West”, directed by Mr. Family Guy himself, Seth MacFarlane, whose visibility has increased considerably with his directorial debut in the movie “Ted”, as well as being the driving force behind getting a new Cosmos series aired on Fox.

 I’m not going to lie, I find Ms. Silverman not only to be hilarious, but also sexy as hell to boot; and seeing her in that low-cut dress at the Emmy’s definitely increased my pulse considerably. But it was she said at the very end of the speech that really impressed me. After thanking all the people who made her win possible, which is standard fare (apart for making a reference to “Mr. Fancy Pants Sheen”, which had me scratching my head a bit), instead of thanking God, or Jesus, or fill in the blank with a divinity, she instead said “… And we’re all just made of molecules, and we’re hurling through space right now.  Thank you.”

  Simple, eloquent, but completely expressive of who and what Atheists really are. The great majority of Atheists who live the same lives as other people. We eat. We sleep. We scream at drivers who cut us off. The only difference is, we just happen to not believe in a Supreme Being. And like Ms. Silverman, most of us aren’t in-your-face about it, unlike so many Christian Evangelists who love to try to shove their religion down our throats with huge billboards and nationally broadcast, well-produced television shows in massive mega-churches, funded by tax-free cash that rolls in by the bucket-load.

 Sarah is the perfect icon for Atheism in today’s world. She’s funny, telegenic, and brutally honest about who she is and what she’s about. She is not the type of person to instigate a confrontation, but she sure as hell won’t back down if someone gets in her face. Yeah, she’s hot, but that is only the icing on the cake. So, thanks Sarah for showing America the true face of Atheism. I sincerely hope you keep up the good work of being yourself.