Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sam Harris on the radio

A certain Sam Harris wrote a small book recently, a sequel of sorts to a larger one from two years before.

A radio show that I like then proceeded to have Mr. Harris on for the first half of a two-part series on religion and public policy. During his interview, Harris explains his position and reasoning regarding politics and religion. In the second half, two clergymen are interviewed in order to represent an opposing perspective. (Note: radio-haters or YouTube addicts may prefer the other Sam Harris links at the bottom of this entry.)

You can listen to the first half, with Sam Harris, by going here.

You can then listen to the second half, with Pastor Russell Johnson and Reverend Timothy McDonald, by going here.

Read no further if you want to have the opportunity to listen to the series without the influence of my opinion. After listening to both sides for yourself and considering them thoughtfully (hopefully without my comments introducing bias), you can then read the following for my take......

First, some comments on the second half of the series.

Pastor Johnson was incredibly frustrating to listen to. For instance, the host has a very hard time getting him to actually answer questions as they are asked. So much so that she actually re-asks one or two questions at least three different times, which still results in Johnson refusing to give a direct and honest answer. He uses the word "candidly" so many times it becomes humorous. Then he uses it even more and it becomes insane (and makes him sound just plain dumb).

Pastor Johnson displays a constant misunderstanding of the issues Sam Harris has raised: he consistently gives misdirected answers, and relies almost exclusively on the same fundamentalist rhetoric that Harris is trying to criticize. Somebody even chuckles at him around the 22:08 mark.

Pastor McDonald is a bit more sensible. He criticizes rigid literalism and the extreme religious right, pointing out that such a position has always resulted in harm in the past. He is also critical of the present problem of religious belief that tries to impose laws that discriminate against the freedom of individual people.

But McDonald's responses have their own set of problems. He too is unable to actually respond directly to several questions raised by Sam Harris. One defense he offers is that moderate Christians can act as a check-and-balance against fundamentalist Christians. But this defense doesn't seem an adequate answer, in light of the actual issues raised by Harris concerning moderates actually helping foster the problem of fundamentalist religion. McDonald also claims, boldly but ignorantly, that atheism is a religion. He is also quite wrong in his attempt to make the defenders of religious liberty (and the separation of church and state) seem identical to Christians who want to legislate their "morality" across the board, forcing those who do not share their belief to obey their edicts. The two positions are distinctly different (diametrically opposed, even), and both he and Johnson are apparently blind to the difference.

The few people who call into the show during the second interview are, well... Their contribution to the discussion speaks for itself.

Now, to quickly comment on the first half.

Harris' comments, introducing the thrust of his books and summarizing a few points from them, are succinct and cogent. He's clearly prepared to give short and understandable explanations that both answer the question(s) raised and invite the listener to read his book to view the entire argument. He even deals well with Mrs. Martin's somewhat sloppy interview.

For a shorter chat with Harris that aired a few days earlier and on a different NPR program, click here; for yet another program's short report from a few weeks later, click here (both are handled more professionally than the interview by Mrs. Martin). However, if you're interested in a longer and more sustained presentation (or if you're just more visually inclined), you can click here to watch Harris talking at ideaCity for about 19 minutes, or you can watch his lecture at the NYSEC (click right here for part 1 of 4).

What do you think:
After having listened to the two-part radio series, what are your thoughts? What are your reactions to the issues Harris raises? Are you satisfied with the answers given during part two? Or, if you watched the videos instead (or listened to a different radio clip), what is your response? If you choose to be generous enough to take the time to respond, please specify which radio/video clip you're talking about..

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