If you’ve a mind to, you can watch the whole thing here. I should probably warn you that it is more than two hours long, but in my opinion it is worth every second. Some years ago I covered here in some depth a series of speeches that made up an Oxford Union God debate. In terms of profundity this at Notre Dame makes that at Oxford look like a squabble in a Sunday School.
As a seeker after truth who cleaves to the mantra that emerged in this blog from the mouth of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “I do not know”, I find these discussions fascinating. I instinctively recoil from fundamentalism in all its guises, but I find listening to fundamentalists sometimes triggers creative streams of thought. Perhaps that is one reason for me to be such an uncompromising believer in free speech.
I prefer not to try to analyse two hours of deep discussion; but it happens that on YouTube someone has lifted one of Sam Harris’ speeches from the debate, and has posted it under the heading of Sam Harris demolishes Christianity. Shall we see?
Though quietly and soberly uttered, this is a powerful 11 minutes. It gives you some idea of the quality of the arguments that you will meet in the rest of the debate.
To me his most obvious weakness, and it seems always to occur in discussions of this nature, is in conflating religions with spirituality. They are not, despite what all religions claim, the same. The former are manmade attempts to codify the latter, and that process necessarily limits it by binding it into a particular shape. They each claim that theirs was a divinely inspired manmade shape, but then they would.
Harris does indeed here make a very effective job of shredding Christianity as it is taught – as the video claims – but he is attacking merely that manmade shape. To my mind he lays not a scratch on spirituality in general.
For instance let’s look at a small section that begins at the 50 second mark. This is the same tired argument that Stephen Fry offered here. Imagine a loving father standing at a kerb, holding the hand of his three-year-old toddler. On the other side of the road is an ice-cream kiosk, and the toddler wants ice-cream. The father will not allow it, perhaps because the road is too busy to cross safely, perhaps because the toddler has some sort of medical disorder causing an ice-cream intolerance. We can imagine very many legitimate reasons for the father to withhold this desired treat, but the 3-year-old cannot. At that moment, as far as the toddler is concerned, the father is behaving unkindly. The toddler is not in possession of the bigger picture.
If there were any spiritual entity, of whatever description, being the cause and the root of all existence – let’s, for the sake of argument, call it God though in truth it could be very different from any God that any religion has described – then it’s safe to assume that it would possess a picture bigger than ours. Now Harris’ argument in this small section, and Stephen Fry in that interview, sound like that toddler in ignorance throwing a tantrum. Yes, I am conscious that deprivation of ice-cream doesn’t have an obvious equivalence to thousands of deaths from a tsunami, but the abstract principle still holds. Now we see through a glass darkly.
This speech is a good appetiser for the whole debate, which I found deeply absorbing. Does it go anywhere towards crystallising my ill-, perhaps I should say un-, defined spirituality? No, but the seeking after truth is what matters. Like André Gide I mistrust any who claim to have found it.