Sam Harris on Real Time with Bill Maher

In case you missed Real Time with Bill Maher last night, Sam Harris was a guest on the show. The video is below:

The good: Harris made the important point (we’ve heard it before from him) that the reason smart people like Francis Collins can believe ideas like “morality is instilled in us from God” is not because they have a “neurological disorder” or are compartmentalizing. Instead, it has to do with the social taboo we have on criticizing religious beliefs. We don’t do it because it feels impolite. The most effective thing atheists can do to spread rational thinking is to criticize it in all its forms.

The awkward: Harris mentioned that his book The End of Faith was the beginning of the “New Atheism” movement. He’s right. It was published in 2004, before any of the other bestselling books. Maher said he thought the movement began with his movie Religulous (which came out 4 years later). It could’ve been a joke, but it sounded like Maher was serious. And miffed. Harris handled it well.

  • Jay

    Maher was just kidding.

  • Tom

    I find the most significant thing Harris said was towards the end in response to Maher’s question of if we should label religion as a neurological disorder, or something else.

    Sam says, “…it’s a social disorder, it’s a conversational disorder, it’s the fact that we can’t apply enough pressure to these ideas, and it’s taboo to do so”

    He hits on some important ideas. Society plays its part it fostering religion simply by applying some sort of peer pressure. Societies must change in order for individuals to change, is another way to say it. No one is a true freethinker. By conversational disorder Sam means to hit on the fact that we as atheists and theists agree on so much but the disagreements cause such confusion because there exists no mode of conversation that can clearly bridge these two spheres. The vernacular needs to evolve so that dialog can be more successful. Finally, Sam offers a conversational solution by using the word taboo to identify what he is trying to define as the disorder. It doesn’t make complete sense, but it is a good word. I’ll throw the term social hierarchy into the mix.

    And yes, I definitely read kidding

  • http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com Bruce Everett

    Maher didn’t sound serious to me about Religulous being the beginning of the (ahem) “New Atheism”. Humour is subjective of course. :D

  • Beth B.

    I’m going to third the “Maher was joking” interpretation. Maher’s been paying attention to the New Atheists for years. On Real Time he’s interviewed Dawkins and Hitchens before, that I recall.

    I also appreciate Harris’ emphasis on a multi-pronged approach to inculcating the public with reason. Though he was talking more about people in different spheres of public influence, it brought to mind the conversations in the online atheosphere lately about “diplomacy” vs., say, the PZ Myers approach. A diversity of voices can only be a strength.

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com Fatpie42

    Well Maher has been pushing atheism long before he made his movie “Religulous”. Doesn’t his show pre-date Sam Harris’ book?

    Anyway, Sam Harris once again pushes his old line of ‘moderates don’t exist’ and/or ‘moderates are religious extremists in disguise’. Bill Maher opens by asking, what about ordinary believers who say “you aren’t talking about me” and Sam Harris responds by essentially saying “yes I am”. He then says that no one is willing to criticise extremist religion, but that is clearly false. Heck, when it comes to things like the Westboro Baptist Church even the Fox News channel are willing to criticise them quite explicitly!

    Also, Beth, the P.Z. Myers approach is, and always has been, much more diplomatic than that of Sam Harris.

  • AlphaBitch

    Maher was totally joking. He wasn’t serious about thinking his movie started anything. He was just going for some giggles.

  • Jay

    Anyway, Sam Harris once again pushes his old line of ‘moderates don’t exist’ and/or ‘moderates are religious extremists in disguise’.

    What is moderate about believing there is a magic sky wizard?

  • http://nutsandreasonsblogspot.com quedula

    Jay,

    I do agree.

    Can it ever be described as “moderate” to believe in an Invisible Magic Friend and, if you do, are you in any position to exert practical influence on those who have their own Invisible Magic Friends giving instructions with which you happen to disagree? Isn’t this the very root of the problem? All you will end up doing is to argue about which of you has the true IMF; to which of course there can never be an answer.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I agree that Maher was kidding. Its been a running joke.

    I like Harris and thought he made some good points about religiosity being a social disorder.

    Anecdotally, I personally know “moderate” Christians that had no particular problem with Westboro Baptist Church until they started picketing service-men funerals. These “moderates” tolerated the gay bashing, but when the nationalistic insult was added to the equation, it became too much. Yes, there is a very strong societal pressure not to question religion.

  • Citizen Z

    All you will end up doing is to argue about which of you has the true IMF; to which of course there can never be an answer.

    I think the result of a “moderate” position would be less about arguing “which of you has the true IMF” than both of you agreeing that there is some Invisible Magic Friend, and that’s a sensible, reasonable position to take.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I think “Citizen Z Says” summed up Harris’s point fairly well. The extremist will argue a narrow theological point that can more easily be criticized by other people. A moderate will offer general inclusive religious statements with the effect that they become woven into the social fabric until they are subconscious and unquestioned.

  • mike

    I was expecting Maher to just use Harris as his springboard for “ranting to the choir”, as it were. But I was surprised to see him actually asking more “devil’s advocate” kind of questions.

  • justanotherjones

    A moderate will offer general inclusive religious statements with the effect that they become woven into the social fabric until they are subconscious and unquestioned.

    Which makes it “normal” not only for them to assert things like “God bless America” and “this is a Christian nation” and “my angels follow me everywhere”, but also to be taken seriously.

  • Rob

    Is it just me or does Harris always seem smug and condescending in his interviews? For example his rejection to the term “atheist”.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    You all keep saying Maher is joking, but I’ve seen him in more than one interview claiming that his movie is responsible for doing much more for atheists than it actually did… it’s a “joke” that has died on more than one occasion, so I’m curious why he still says it…

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    IMO, Maher is engaging in a subtle form of self-deprecating humor where he is making fun of himself with making this outrageous claim that he started the new atheist movement. This type of subtle humor only works when one repeats it at every opportunity until it becomes a running joke. That’s my take anyway. He also gets a plug for his movie in there in the process.

  • WCLPeter

    so I’m curious why he still says it…

    Even though the joke is flat, and he likely knows it, when someone buys his movie on DVD he gets a cut from it.

    He can’t exactly stand up every show and say, “Hey everyone! I made a movie about religion, its called Religulous, go and buy it!” because it would get annoyingly old extremely quickly. But if an influential atheist comes on the show, and they talk about how influential their work is, he can make a snide comment about how he thought he was the influential one.

    Everyone watching knows its a plug for Religulous couched as a flat joke, nothing more. The fact that its no longer funny means he should probably give it up, but every sale is money in his pocket so why wouldn’t he plug it?

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com Veritas

    I think Bill finds it funny to suggest his movie is the start of this whole movement. It’s certainly a contributing factor. But the start? Is a looooong while ago. Anyway, I think it’s just a bad joke he’s saying to make sales.

    If he seriously believed it, he’d probably push it harder. I suppose it’s possible, though.

  • Dave

    Are you really debating if he was kidding? He SAYS “I’m kidding. ” Go listen to that part again.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Harris is generally well-spoken, but he does suffer a bit from black-and-white thinking. As for moderates; if moderates made up the majority of religious believers, and if separation of church and state was a bright line which was universally respected, I wouldn’t give a **** what they believed on their own time. But every coin in my pocket attests that this is not the case. Religious beliefs and practices are being forced on the general populace, and if the moderates truly believe in separation of church and state, they are not doing enough to act out that belief.

  • Aj

    Fatpie42,

    Anyway, Sam Harris once again pushes his old line of ‘moderates don’t exist’ and/or ‘moderates are religious extremists in disguise’. Bill Maher opens by asking, what about ordinary believers who say “you aren’t talking about me” and Sam Harris responds by essentially saying “yes I am”. He then says that no one is willing to criticise extremist religion, but that is clearly false. Heck, when it comes to things like the Westboro Baptist Church even the Fox News channel are willing to criticise them quite explicitly!

    a) That’s a complete lie, it’s fucking pathetic how Sam Harris haters act. Sam Harris certainly does not claim “moderates don’t exist”, he wrote an article in The Times specifically about moderates and certainly didn’t suggest they were fictional, and that’s not the only time he’s wrote about moderates as if they exist.

    b) When asked about those who say “that’s not me”, Sam Harris responds with facts about beliefs, that present an alarming picture of beliefs among Americans. So he is essentually saying “that might not be you, but there’s plenty of people not like you” but apparantly that was too complex for you.

    c) Something is making it difficult for you to understand this simple point, and it’s probably called prejudice. How is Fox News criticizing a church an example of criticism of extremist religion? Fox News… not exactly a religious extremism free broadcast. That’s religious people criticizing other religious people for not having the same beliefs as them and how they go about expressing their religious beliefs. Is Sam Harris saying religious extremists don’t get criticized? No, that’s fucking obvious but it’s a nice strawman argument for people who are incapable of arguing against Sam Harris’s actual points.

  • Jay

    AJ,

    Ramen!

  • http://www.DangerousTalk.net DangerousTalk

    I really think Maher was joking. I ally think that Harris is my favorite of the four horsemen.
    -Staks

  • J

    To add to the choir, I find it surprising that someone would even consider Maher was NOT joking there. Verbal AND non-verbal clues abound in those 10 seconds. Kinda worrying, but maybe I am the one with a problem reading those…?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Which makes it “normal” not only for them to assert things like “God bless America” and “this is a Christian nation” and “my angels follow me everywhere”, but also to be taken seriously.

    In computer science geek talk (my apologies to you non-geeks), moderates define the interfaces and abstract “classes” for all the other religious people to fill in concrete theological details. Thus, I personally agree with Sam Harris that the moderates enable the fundamentalists.

  • Charon

    Hemant,

    1. As pointed out by Dave, Maher said he was kidding (1:55).

    2. While he may have delivered “I thought it was me” deadpan, he smiled right after saying it (1:53).

    3. It did get a laugh. You may be right that it doesn’t always, but it did here.

    Not to say that I don’t find Maher irritating at times, but I don’t understand how you could be confused about this being a joke.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Well Maher has been pushing atheism long before he made his movie “Religulous”. Doesn’t his show pre-date Sam Harris’ book?

    Maher is not an atheist.

    I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books.

  • Neon Genesis

    Don’t you love it when anti-theists bash moderates for enabling fundies but award Bill Maher for a Richard Dawkins award when he’s not an atheist?

  • J Myers

    Don’t you love it when anti-theists bash moderates for enabling fundies but award Bill Maher for a Richard Dawkins award when he’s not an atheist?

    Not particularly.

  • Aj

    Maher defines the word atheist as a belief that gods do not exist. For this definition Harris and Dawkins are also not atheists. If you read the more recent quotes from Maher such as this one:

    I’m not an atheist, though, because the belief that there is no God only mirrors the certitude of religion. No, I’m saying that doubt is the only appropriate response for human beings.

    Is similar to the doubt that Harris and Dawkins advocate, making Maher an atheist meaning “lack of belief in gods”. Perhaps Maher’s views changed after reading Sam Harris’s End of Faith.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I’m personally an advocate of the concept of “big tent” atheism meaning simply not having theistic beliefs where theism is the belief in controlling, interacting god(s). It would therefore be possible to be an atheist but not an “adeist” at the same time. The atheist tent would be big enough to include deists. Many religious people would like to narrow the term “atheist” to mean just those that are damn sure that there is no God. I think it only hurts the atheism cause to define atheism in this narrow way.

    All atheists would not have a belief in controlling, interacting gods. Some atheists also don’t believe in a god that set things up at the beginning and sat back and watched. Of course there are some atheists that are pretty damn sure there is no God of any kind, but why limit the term to just those people?

  • http://www.banalleakage.com martymankins

    As with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris presents a simple and intelligent view of what an atheist is. It’s pretty much how I live my life. There is no belief to hang onto. You simply live your life without that focus on religious beliefs.

  • Alex Caemmerer Jr M.D.

    In my opinion most people who say they believe in God and Christian dogma really don’t or they would not behave in the way they do. If they thought a god hears silent prayers they would believe that a god monitors their thoughts 24 hrs a day , If that idea were accepted, human behavior would be entirely different–large checks would be sent to churches, there would be no coins in collection plates, people would be uniformly righteous, honorable, loving, and excel in all the virtues.They would also be so scared of death and other fears that psychiatrist’s offices would be crowded and have long waiting lists. For most the so-called belief in a god is not reality to them–it is like an adult Santa Claus.The belief in a god is an attempt at having insurance against death–hoping the beliefs to be true. Also, humans have multiple identifications–often quite childlike characterized by primary process thinking–that is strong investment in wishful thinking and the use of denial, .Highly intelligent, mature and accomplished people can also have childlike and adolescent identifications existing alongside their mature selves with religious beliefs to match in naivete. There is also a fear of denying religious beliefs, as if one would be punished and feel isolated from the mainstream society Neuro=scientists have located the brain area where the need for religious involvement is located–suggesting that there is a real neurological basis for interest in religion. Children who are inculcated in conservative religious beliefs early on have a great difficulty in shedding them as adults and hold onto them just “in case”. As Freud said, ” the voice of the intellect is soft”. The question should not be ” Do you believe in God”, but : Do you believe there is a god?” as the former question makes implies that there is, in fat, a god—and ruling out the existence of a god is scary for even most believers. Atheists are considered antisocial and suspicious and not to be trusted as they don’t subscribe to the socially accepted mores and tenets of acceptible behavior.The god part of the belief is not the important part–its the social commitment that is looked for in which is considered missing in atheists–they are “not one of us and therefore not to be trusted.”. As for the real fundamentalist believers in resurrection,etc–they are so far off they’re not even worth considering–as their beliefs are primitive and infantile and so illogical and irrational as to be really socially accepted delusions. As a psychiatrist I would diagnoses Jesus as having bipolar disorder–delusions of grandeur–the son of god–and suicidal–by the criminal justice system. He invited himself to be executed. And as he said, “anyone who loves their mother and father more than me is not worthy of me, and anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” What grandiosity and narcissistic arrogance —this is the talk of a god?

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    Maher has made the same joke multiple times. He is definitely kidding.


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