Listen now (87 mins) | Yascha Mounk and Sam Harris discuss whether America's rapid secularization has been a force for good or ill.
I'm listening to this conversation and wondering, has either of these men ever spoken to a religious person who wasn't an idiot? I ask this not because, as Mr. Harris says, being religious automatically loses you 30 IQ points, but because their idea of what an intelligent religious person believes sounds like something that a couple of clever kids came up with in the junior-high lunchroom.
Unfortunately, you can't get Rabbi Sacks anymore, but I'm sure Rabbi Mervis, his successor, could set you straight. Or Ari Lamm, or any of a dozen people I could provide. I know rabbis because that's my beat, but sure, pull David French in, or ask him for a Christian theologian to consult. Please.
Sam Harris will always be on the wrong side of the accurate assessments of Jordan Peterson on this topic.
As early as 2003, Steven Pinker (a traditional liberal Democrat) wrote a book titled ‘The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature’. By 2003, ‘woke’ thinking was clearly dominant in academic circles. In 2006, Larry Summers mentioned by the GMVH (Greater Male Variability Hypothesis) as one possible reason there were relatively few women in elite academic positions (he had several other explanations as well). The hysterical reaction to his (very tame) remarks shows that ‘woke’ thinking was already dominant in many places (certainly including Harvard).
Of course, long before 2003 or 2006, it is quite possible to find examples of ‘woke’ thinking. I first encountered the word ‘woke’ in 2016 when a group of Hillary staffers boasted about how ‘woke’ they were. Back then, ‘woke’ was something that some people boasted about. Now, it is used in negative way roughly similar to how PC is used.
I don’t regard this as perfect, but word use charts show that the transition was around 2010. See “How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening” in Tablet magazine. Note that the obsession with ‘trans’ / pronouns came later.
A broad(er) point is that historically (FDR, Truman, JFK, etc.) the Democratic party was a blue-collar, working class party. Now it is dominated by upper-class liberals. Some time ago, I read a comment written (presumably) by a traditional liberal/leftist. He wrote “we are going to hear a lot more about ‘trans’ over the next year, than the minimum wage”. His comment was a bitter lament. Of course, he was right.
I'm reading this interview now. I don't wanna make the host of this site feel bad, that's the first thing. So I'll say thank You, M. Mounk. I've read a number of good articles by You. And TY for providing this thought-provoking interview.
But if You strictly apply *LOGIC,* in a very strict Way, then the only conclusion One can come to is that Sam Harris is wildly delusional and hypocritical. I'm sorry. I hardly know what to say about it. It's so *blatant* that he and *most* of the irrational Atheists like him are delusional and hypocritical, I'm surprised it's not more obvious. I may, or may not, write more when I finish the article. Dunno.
"A little about me, tho nobody'd be interested:"
I'm 50% Fundamentalist Atheist myself. I was raised by two Fundamentalist Atheists, and One doesn't just have One's core beliefs disappear outta the subconscious mind, or the conscious mind either in a lotta cases. I call the other 50% "Religio-Spiritual." Contrary to most expectations, there's no contradiction with these views that bother me, at this time.
I attended a College for a year (not counting a little Community College). In 1972 i noticed what I'm sure others before me had noticed. Atheism and in particular the Scientific sect of Atheism is a Religion pretty much like any other. It has its dogma and it's Holy Books (today's lousy Journals). M. Harris is, himself, one-a the High Priests of this Religion. One-a the *Highest,* right?
Again, I don't mean to offend, but I decided to write this little trinket when I reached a certain part of the interview. Anybody who thinks that the Atheist Religion, Science, and the rational mind can answer *ALL* the necessary questions is irrational themselves and has, IMO, lost *75* IQ points.
Before anyone gets all hot-and-bothered, I never "said" all-a that Religion didn't answer *ANY* questions. I just stated the fact that they can't answer *ALL* of them. Science is as much of a miracle worker as Religion is supposed to be. (Me being no expert in miracles, myself.) But Science is limited to answering questions about things that can be measured one way or the other, right?
I think *most* people, if they THINK about it, will agree with me that those aren't really the most *important* kinds of questions, right?
Personally, I've read a few books by Professor Iain McGilchrist and I agree with him that a lotta the problems in this world come from Science's view that everything should be quantized. And an implied view that if we only have enough time and data, everything can be explained in the end by the Scientific Method. That's largely an assumption that has to be taken on faith, right? And I agree with Dr. McGilchrist's view that this quantizing of everything is a bug in how the two hemispheres of the brain interact with each other, unfortunately. That's a long story, and I wanna get back to reading and thinking about the interview.
TY again, M. Mounk, for the interview.
I love Sam Harris's clarity of thought.
The problem with religion, as my studies have brought me to frame it, is not so much with the transcendent ideas of the existence of god(s), nor even with faith itself as the inner certainty of a 'presence'. It is with the dogmatism inherent in most religions.
Dogmatism which, far from being an aberration, is very much a constitutive quality of the organised side of religions, because it is a very strong tendency of the human mind that creates a very useful power tool for organised hierarchies (who do not operate consciously in this respect -- there are no - or very few - evil plots of elites -- but nevertheless operate very effectively).
The sense of an absolute truth that cannot be questioned, and that because it cannot be questioned makes us comfortable, offering us directions, no matter how inane, that make us feel protected and relieve us from the terrible burden of choice.
There is one thing that a vast number of us intellectuals miss: that for a really large number of people, being free to choose is not a freedom but a terrible burden; the search for the indicators of what is right or wrong or simply effective, the need to create one's own scale of values through the examination of those available, the constant uncertainty of changing conditions, the necessity to be ready to reconsider the whole premises of our choice -- for me, it is what makes life worth living, but I have realised that for many, many others it is an agonising stress, an intolerable weight that would happily be dropped.
Enters dogmatic thought. The producer of absolute truths.
It is not restricted to religion at all -- we see it in many attitudes even toward science, we see it in the dictates of custom appealing to the wisdom of the ages, in the mentality that refers to Nature as a perfectly balanced Whole, in political ideologies that categorise the entire human experience through their lenses, even in militant atheism. But in religion it has its most clear and undisguised manifestation, probably because it the first that came to the human mind, it is so old, has grown so much onto itself.
And this is the problem with religion: the things that cannot be questioned. And that must rule us, so that we are relieved of the burden of choice.
In the end, I think that religion does not necessarily make everything worse, but has the potential to do so, as soon as its dogmatic nature interferes with freedom of choice and encourages thought to be limited. (Which is something, again, that humans seem to in large numbers desire)
And I would add... the worse or better very much depends on which dogmas one uses to assuage one's need for faith. Like Harris notes, there are many faithful that take from a religion the pieces that they agree with and discard those that they feel are untenable or repulsive.
And there are some good, truly good pieces in most religions. And there are some really ugly, really harmful pieces.
Now, if only we could prune the latter off, we only would have the better outcome of faith. But how do you do that when you start with a block of absolute truth that is all 'directly come from god in that very exact shape'? If you decide that this part is the word of god and that part is not (has been done, with huge schisms throughout history) you have to go through some pretty complex philosophical gimmicks-cum-conspiracy theories about the evil priests that warped the word of god at one point. Or you have to admit that what you call the word of god is hearsay -- human interpretation dated by age and culture of a vision once perceived. And this latter brings faith to another metaphysical level altogether, one which cannot deal anymore with dogmatic truth but only with a constant search for the will of the divinity... something that does not work so well for relieving the human mind from the burden of choice.
But with the drop of appeal of organised religion, the dogmatic need simply seems to shift to other constructs. At this point of the reasoning, I always get the feeling that there is an inescapable stalemate.
Is America (the United States) systematically racist? There are a number of ways of looking at this, but they all yield the same answer. No.
1. The US and Canada have very different racial histories. However, the black/white income gap is remarkably similar. See “Black Canadians and Black Americans: Racial income inequality in comparative perspective” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233008532_Black_Canadians_and_Black_Americans_Racial_income_inequality_in_comparative_perspective).
2. One clue is to look at societies where ‘racism’ (the white kind) hasn’t existed for a very long time. The Haitian Revolution was 217 years ago. If ‘white racism’ was really such a powerful force, then Haiti should be highly successful. That does not seem to be the case.
3. The per-capita GDP of Singapore is only 34X of Haiti. The US/white role in each country has been quite small. Both countries are removed from the USA and yet show disparities even larger than found in the USA.
4. In World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in various camps and typically lost everything. Yet, by the middle 1960s, they were more successful than whites in America. Back then, racism towards Japanese-Americans wasn’t hypothetical or limited to the internment camps. See “ALIEN LAND LAWS IN CALIFORNIA (1913 & 1920)” (https://immigrationhistory.org/item/alien-land-laws-in-california-1913-1920/).
It should be noted that the Japanese-Americans in question were hardly elite. They were brought to America as farm laborers. However, even after the Word War II camps, they were highly successful. See “"Success Story, Japanese-American Style” (New York Times (1923-Current File); Jan 9, 1966)
5. It turns out that all of the most successful ethnic groups in America are non-white. Some are wildly more successful than whites. Some statistics. Median Household income for Indian Americans ($107,390), Jews ($97,500), Taiwanese ($85,566), all Asians ($74,245) is greater than Whites ($59,698). As can you see, non-white ethnic groups are at the top and Jews earn (far) more than non-Jewish whites.
These numbers are real, but have two major problems. First, Asian households tend to be larger than non-Asian households. Using personal income provides a better measure than household income. Asian personal income is also higher than non-Asian personal income. However, the positive gap is not as large as the household income gap. The second problem is the nature of the 1965 Immigration Act. The 1965 Act favored (rightfully so) highly educated immigrants over less educated immigrants. The cliché Indian-American immigrant to the US is a doctor. Of course, that is a cliché. However, it is a cliché because it has some element of truth to it.
6. It turns out the school funding is not equal across the United Sates. New York state spends the most (over $24K per-student, per-year) and Utah spends the least (around $7K per-student, per-year). However, the results almost exactly the opposite of what ‘white racism’ theory predicts. Utah has higher test scores that New York state. Of course, ‘white racism’ theory would predict the Utah would spend more than New York state. That isn’t even remotely true.
7. Police fatalities are not equally distributed by race. In 2019, just 17 Asians were killed by the police. For whites the number was 406, and blacks 259. ‘White racism’ can not possibly explain the amazingly low number of Asians shot by police. For a typical factoid, in one year, two Japanese-Americans were arrested for murder. Not 200, or 200,000. Just two.
8. The Asian incarceration rate is 74.5% lower than the white incarceration rate and 95% below the black incarceration rate. ‘White racism’ can not possibly explain these astounding differences.
9. It turns out that schools discipline rates are tracked by race. See Figure 15.3 of “Indicator 15: Retention, Suspension, and Expulsion” (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_rda.asp). ‘White racism’ can not possibly explain these astounding differences.
10. That statistics for SAT scores, college enrollment/completion, arrests, etc. are all readily available by race. You can even find COVID-19 vaccination statistics by race. Invariably, you will find racial disparities and invariably Asians will be on top. So much for the mythology of ‘white racism’.
11. It turns out that other groups are almost as unsuccessful in American life as blacks. Of course, these groups have no history of slavery, Red-Lining, Jim Crow, etc. Why are these groups almost as unsuccessful as blacks? The traditional excuses don’t come close to explaining the disparities. For example, according to Pew median family income for the Hmong (in 2015) was just $48,000 vs. $71,300 for whites (Pew, 2014). The rather large differences in family income among Asians are used to claim that the “model minority” status is a “myth”. It’s not a myth, but what people sometimes call a fact. Pew (2014) found that average household for Asians was $77,900.
12. The Jussie Smollett case provides yet another proof that ‘systematic racism’ doesn’t exist (at least in the US). If ‘systematic racism’ was real, criminals such as Jussie Smollett wouldn’t need to go around inventing hate crimes, because they would have plenty of actual material to use. The fact that people like Jussie Smollett invent hate crimes is one indication of how rare such things are. Of course, some types of hate crimes do occur. No one talks about them because they aren’t PC.
13. An economist by the name of Roland G. Fryer (Harvard, with collaborators) has looked at this issue in some depth. Take a look at “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names” and “Racial Inequality In the 21st Century – The Declining Significance of Discrimination” (NBER). The abstract from the first paper reads “In the 1960's, Blacks and Whites chose relatively similar first names for their children. Over a short period of time in the early 1970's, that pattern changed dramatically with most Blacks (particularly those living in racially isolated neighborhoods) adopting increasingly distinctive names, but a subset of Blacks actually moving toward more assimilating names. The patterns in the data appear most consistent with a model in which the rise of the Black Power movement influenced how Blacks perceived their identities. Among Blacks born in the last two decades, names provide a strong signal of socio-economic status, which was not previously the case. We find, however, no negative causal impact of having a distinctively Black name on life outcomes. Although that result is seemingly in conflict with previous audit studies involving resumes, we argue that the two sets of findings can be reconciled”.
The idea that 'wokeness' is a response to Trump is provably wrong. Take a look at "How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening" (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/media-great-racial-awakening). The takeoff in racial paranoia dates from about 2010 (obviously long before Trump). Why? I don't know. However, the data is rather clear.
On a more personal note, I first encountered the term 'woke' as a self-description by Hillary staffers. They of course, didn't invent the term (and didn't claim to), but they did use it as a self-description.
I apologize for tone of previous comment. Was just frustrated. And I know I have as many delusions as the next guy/gal. I’m old enough to know that I’ll never see the end of them in the time I have left.
And there's a *lot* to like in the Way Sam Harris thinks. Plus, I would be negligent if I didn't point out that I'm not a very good meditator. And there’s a *ton* of what M. Harris says that I agree with, of course. He said, “I'm not saying there's no wisdom in those books.” [Religious books.] And this:
“I'm not denying that there are extraordinary experiences that are testified to in some of these books, or that the transformation of the human mind is possible. Unconditional love and self-transcendence is possible, and we should be interested in it.”
I was glad to see M. Harris admit even this:
"So, it's not that progress is just monotonically pleasant, where things just get better and better and better and better with every increment of change. I don't imagine that. We could be paying some kind of price for secularizing rapidly. That's true."
But I would take it a step farther along these lines. The Woke Religion is largely a result of this, right? Wokism isn’t “like” a religion. It’s a *replacement* for Religion for a lotta gullible people. Priests and Priestesses? Check. Zealots? Check, tons. Sacrifices? Careers and reputations, right? Holy Books? KenDiAngelo and 1619 Project, &c., &c.
The problem is that Atheism, like I mentioned below, is a Religion, too. The Four Horsemen have gone a long way to creating the Atheist Tribe. The in-group of all time. Religious and Spiritual people the hated out-group, right? And make no mistake: Is anyone gonna deny that Atheists are as self-righteous as any Religious person, when it comes down to who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s the Atheists way or the highway.
Yeah, I “hear” some say, “But Atheism is built on Scientific logic. Clear thinking. Of *course* it’s right.”
Okay, let’s go with that logic. Can Science *prove* that there’s no afterlife? No G*d(s)? *Scientifically.* Science can’t PROVE, beyond any shadow of any doubt one Way or the other, right? That’s article one of the Prime Dogma of science. That only a fool would consider how they’re gonna end up in a heaven that doesn’t exist, right? How *could* there be a G*d so *immoral?*
(I haven’t studied the New Atheists sufficiently enough to know if they only object to the Abrahamic G*d or the Hindu Gods, or not.)
But strict logic would dictate that the idea that there is, or is NOT, a heaven or G*d(s) just isn’t a question that can even be addressed Scientifically, right? That being a *fact,* then it can only be an *assumption* one Way or the other. But somehow Atheists KNOW that *everybody* is wrong, other than themselves.
I suppose, if You’re an Atheist, You can’t see that this is a pretty fragile assumption, that usually doesn’t turn out well for somebody making the claim. Yet, Atheists assure all the rest-a of us, they *CAN’T* be wrong, and everybody else is thinking irrationally when it comes to Religion.
But mebbe (*MEBBE*) it’s a case that the old saw has some truth to it: “The rational mind is the PERFECT servant. But a perfectly LOUSY master.” I recommend “The Master and his Emissary” for the current views on the ancient “so-called wisdom.”
I won’t spend much time on the deficits of M. Harris’s objections to Religion, except in a broad brush that points out a lotta them don’t stand up to reason.
Harris makes the same mistake talking about G*d that a lotta Religious people do: They think that G*d is made in man’s image. Thinking about G*d as if They had any kind-a human qualities doesn’t make *any* sense does it? It was said that man was made in G*d’s image, but most people take the opposite viewpoint.
And saying how corrupt the ancient Holy Books are doesn’t really make a lotta sense either. The *Science* books of 200 years ago look pretty stupid in light of what we know now. That’s “presentism.” Like looking at the Founding Fathers as if they were RACIST slaveholders when that was just a common occurrence of those times. Of *course* a book 2000 years old can’t be taken literally as unadulterated Truth. (To all but the most Fundamentalist of the Religious people.)
But think about the logic that would judge the value of Religions based on whether 2000-year-old books are *Scientifically accurate.* *That’s* irrational, right? Even M. Harris admits there’s wisdom in them, so do You throw out the baby and the bathwater both?
This is too long as it is. I would just like to point out what happens when the world turns more and more secular, and there’s a *vacuum* left behind. It’s not just the Woke Religion. In addition (and a lotta the Woke Religion is based on this), it’s all too easy for Nihilism to take a hold, right? Isn’t that the cause of a lotta insanity we see these days? Fundamentalist Nihilism?
Sorry this was another long one, and is wholly insufficient in the end anyway.
One of the best episodes of "the good fight" ever. Great back and forth on religion.
I feel that the debate about whether religion is beneficial or not only feels important because we (as a society) haven't fully internalized the epistemic argument against religion.
When we look back it will feel like those debates we had in the 80s or 90s about whether a strong norm against premarital sex makes for a better society they seem kinda irrelevant. At the time it seemed important but once we (at least us urban elites) no longer found the moral principle credible or something serious people believed the debate about whether it would be better for society to enforce such a moral norm just no longer seemed relevant. The debate over social consequences was an epiphenomenon reflecting the fact we hadn't fully abandoned the old moral norms but it didn't really convince anyone and once people were convinced that it wasn't per se wrong the idea of tricking ppl into believing it was wrong because they might display poor judgement became a non-starter.
Similarly with religion. The fight over whether religion is beneficial won't persuade any religious person or convert any atheist and once ppl are convinced of the epistemic absurdity of religion it won't matter if it was good or bad since the idea that we should trick ppl into believing in a false religion will be a non-starter.
Re the UK and moderation: they have the benefit of no primaries. I think the increasing role of party members in choosing the candidates is a serious structural problem in the US.
The ability of the conservative party MPs to deny the members a chance to vote for Boris played a huge role here. The reason we have Trump are the "reforms" that denied conservative elites that power.
Also, TBF the UK has some precedent in the minority PM thing with Disraeli. Still don't understand how he became PM back then.
I don't see any good reason to believe that religion--or custom, or tradition--has done anything to make the world less abusive. I do think there's reason to believe that by regulating and ritualizing the abusiveness of the world, they made it easier to live with than a world where it was coming at you unpredictably--unless, of course, you're one of the scapegoats the system seems to require. The only way I can see to make the world less abusive is to make it less threatening, so that the parts of us that evolved to deal with a threatening world are less likely to be activated. And scientific progress and liberal democracy have done that. Imperfectly, in a two steps forward one step back way, but it still counts. (Unless you're Nomad.)
Fantastic back and forth conversation! Much enjoyed that
Great episode! Was therapeutic.