Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sam Harris vs. Andrew Sullivan debate


I just finished reading a debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Sam Harris' website.  You can find the debate here (although I warn you it is a rather long read if I do say so myself):


I won't be going into details about this debate.  Instead I'll let you check it out for yourself to form your own opinions.  However, there was a brief exchange I would like to talk about a little bit.  A piece of Sam Harris' argument really caught my attention in an inspiring way.  After reading it I knew I had to share it here with all of you.   Then I read Andrew Sullivan's response and thought it was at least worth sharing as well if only for the sake of clarity.  So here are the excerpts from the exchange:

Sam Harris:

        "I’m asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as “Japanese” as opposed to “French” science; we don’t speak of “Hindu biology” and “Jewish chemistry.” Imagine a world that has transcended its tribalism—racism and nationalism, yes, but religious tribalism especially—in which we could have a truly open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our experience of love and compassion for one another. Ethics and spirituality do not require faith. One can even achieve utter mystical absorption in the primordial mystery of the present moment without believing anything on insufficient evidence."

Andrew Sullivan:

        "My first thought is: where are all these children separated from their parents? Would they have to be sent away to protect them from the influence of parental dogmatism? And my second thought is amusement at your use of the passive tense: “are taught”. By whom? You? Who is teaching these finally liberated children, and on whose authority? And where is this discourse they will enter that is “contingency-free”? I have never heard or read or engaged in one.

That is because I have never met a human being or a human mind that is “contingency-free”, and never will. No child grows up without the contingent facts of their family, place, genes, and any number of details that make us who we are. You and I would be very different people if we had different contingent genetics and different contingent histories. This is the experience of being human, an experience eternally different from the dream of your new, unfettered, purely rational “education,” where the young are severed from the toxins of contingent culture and faith and family. You echo the later themes of Plato’s Republic in this respect, and Socrates’ irony still echoes through the millennia. You are not the first person to come up with such an idea, Sam, and I have no doubt that the guardians you will pick to educate the young will be selected in good faith - your good faith, not the children’s or their parents’. And I am not the first person to find this project for all mankind absurd in my lighter moments and deeply sinister in my darker ones."

Okay, so the point Sam Harris is trying to make here is one that we can all agree is a very nice concept.  Essentially he is talking about a world in which we do not indoctrinate our children and instead simply teach them how to think for themselves and form their own conclusions/opinions.  Andrew Sullivan points out the flaw in Harris' use of "contingency-free".  I respect Sullivan's argument against such a concept in that we as human beings cannot truly be contingency-free.  I think, though, that he was completely missing to point trying to be made.  In fact even Harris points in out in his reply later on.

If we, as a species, could simply disregard our own personal beliefs (or lack thereof when talking about Atheism) and just simply let a child's development happen naturally the world would be a much better place.  For one, children would be free to develop their spirituality without all the religious dogma and doctrine.  In this way their enlightenment and views of the world would most likely make them more tolerant of others and their beliefs.  This assumes, of course, that they develop a sense of spirituality in the first place.  If they do not and instead take a more methodical, scientific approach to everything then it will be no worse for wear.  The point is the advancement of our species could only benefit from such a utopian existence.  That is something I strive for.  Something that I believe, since I am an Atheist, puts me at an advantage when it comes to raising my two boys.  I would hope that others, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of, would think and act in this same way.  If we are ever to advance to a state of world peace, of technological advancement beyond our imaginations, to a level of understanding of our universe and its origins that we could never think to comprehend, then the first great step in that direction is to raise the next generation in as a contingency-free world as we possibly can.


  1. Sam is such a communicator, such a writer with a great clarity and sense of purpose, I'm going to copy paste and print (if I may) and put on the wall. Inspiring stuff that needs to be remembered. Thank you.

  2. Are you in New Zealand?

  3. No, I'm a U.S. Soldier actually. I'm currently deployed to Afghanistan.

    Thank you for supporting my blog :)