Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Small Gripe with Gabriel Gudding; My Larger Gripe with Sam Harris


On a web page promoting his new book I see that Gabriel Gudding is listed as teaching ethics at Illinois State University. My recent interactions with Gudding make me wonder how such a match-up can possibly work out: Gudding and ethics. How can someone who believes so strongly in censorship be teaching ethics at an American university?

It's because of Gudding's "ethics" in online discussion that I write this. He shows a deep contempt for the basic rules of debate (rules based on the democratic tenet, taken for granted by most of us, that open debate is good in itself). Indifferent to such rules, Gudding's first reaction to ideas he disagrees with is to censor them: he will delete others' ideas from the debate and then, which is even more telling, he will try to erase the evidence of his censorship. I've seen him do this enough times now to be finally disgusted by it; a disgust in this case mixed with deep disappointment. Since I've taken Gudding's work seriously in the past, my disappointment makes the experience almost painful.

This post is titled "My Small Gripe with Gabriel Gudding". That's what I titled it when I first began keeping record of my debate with him. Now I don't feel the gripe can be called small. The following entries trace the development of a thoroughly failed conversation that, had it been conducted in good faith, could have proven worthwhile for all concerned. In some other world I suppose.

* * *

I know it's a small thing to be even typing about. Still I am quite disappointed.

I've long been an admirer of Gabriel Gudding's work, having taught it in my classes and written about it (esp. his 2007 Rhode Island Notebook). I share many of Gudding's notions of what our poetic writing should be now: his universalizing satire; his crackbrained playfulness; his hilarious portraiture of animals and the importance he accords them. Gudding's skill at mapping the borders of the speakable in our American idiom makes him one of our best currently working linguistic geographers.

In some things, however, I tread quite different ground from Gudding. In the matter, for instance, of religious belief. In terms of religion or "spirituality" or "spiritual practice" (terms Gudding may prefer, I don't know) Gabriel practices vipassana meditation, whereas I am a Christian. My Christianity has often been unorthodox, but certainly it is in the Christian tradition that I find the most compelling explanations of what we are to do here as humans.

I do not consider Gabriel Gudding a sub-par mind because he hasn't adopted Christianity; likewise I'd hope that those who practice vipassana wouldn't be dismissive of Christians. The thought is a challenging one for many of the politically correct, I suspect, but it's actually true that one can have worthwhile discussion with people who subscribe to something as unprogressive as Christianity.

I've been friends with Gudding on Facebook for a time, after first meeting via email. Things I post on Facebook are open for comment from friends, that's the idea after all, and I believe most people think of wall posts this way. Especially if one has a wide swath of friends, over 500 say, one should consider that wall posts are open to a range of comments.

Gabriel posted a youtube link featuring part of a talk by Sam Harris. Harris, a major figure in the "New Atheism" movement, has been arguing for years that the three Western monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, should be vigorously criticized and eventually hounded out of existence because they are demonstrably false and even dangerous in our modern world. It is important to note that Harris is not merely a critic of fundamentalism (I too am a strong critic of fundamentalism) but is against religious liberals and moderates too, whom he sees as people pretending to have faith. I've read Harris' major early work The End of Faith (2004) and many of his articles and interviews since. I know his arsenal of arguments and am not very impressed. I find him repetitive and reductive, and think his attack on religion in the name of science is misguided and arrogant. If you want to hear Harris giving some of his best soundbites--he almost always says the same things--you can do so here.

Gudding posted this same link under the title "Christianity, Judaism, Islam as Rationalization of Barbarity." It was mostly the dismissive title of the post that irked me. After I listened to Harris' remarks, which taught me nothing new, I posted the following:
Simone Weil, Erasmus, Desmond Tutu, Rumi, Theresa of Lisieux, Thomas Merton--a few prominent rationalists of barbarity.
Gabe replied to me:
Your irony notwithstanding, Eric, I think what you write is, on its face, correct: the people you mention are, in a very real way, each an apologist for a system of domination. My sense is Harris would say that what makes /some/ of the writings and ideas of the thinkers and activists you mention useful is not their theism in general but their moral perspicuity in particular. And that moral sense does not stem from religion. Harris answers this common objection within the first 90 seconds, or so, of the video.
Gudding's reply suggests that I don't quite understand Harris' position on the innateness of ethical impulses. But I do understand it; I just don't think it's significant in the current argument, given that aggressivity and selfishness can also be shown to exist in infants. Harris may point out that humans don't need religious systems to teach them empathy, that such empathy comes with being human. But so what? By the same token, selfishness and aggressivity also come with being human, so why, in this instance, imply that these latter traits are learned from the Bible or the Koran or organized religion, but empathy is not. It's a very clear case for both Gabe and Harris of wanting to have their logical cake and eat it too. I posted the following rejoinder:
Yes. Harris would have it that our moral sense is innate but that our depredations stem from our scriptures. It's a kind of Rousseauism almost. And here again, which is typical for him, Harris suggests that the reason people believe in one of the Western monotheisms is simply that they are looking for a list of rules to teach their children. This is incredibly reductive. The grounds of faith or belief are deeper and wider; they are other. I find Harris to be a windbag. He is a philosopher to the same degree that Pat Robertson is a saint.
Now Gudding could have continued our discussion by clarifying just how he understands Harris' logic (what is the relevance of invoking the innate in this context) or by taking up some other point on which he disagreed with me. But he didn't. Instead he just deleted my post. He removed my remarks from the page because, I suppose, he found them unworthy of the forum of discussion he had opened by posting Harris' speech to begin with. By quickly censoring my remarks, Gudding ensured that the page was left with my one initial comment followed by his correction of my "common objection" to Harris. Though presumably my subsequent points weren't worth debating, in any case Gudding thought they couldn't be allowed to stand as the last word. So he just censored them.

It's a little thing, I know, but still it has really disappointed me. Scrubbing one's blog or Facebook page of unwanted comments is something I associate with the likes of Sarah Palin, not a champion of the vagaries of voice like Gudding. I think it would be prissy (to use a word Gudding likes) to suggest that my remarks deserved to be deleted because they were somehow offensive. If I call Harris a "windbag," it's because I think this characterizes him perfectly. Complacency plus rhetorical skill equals windbag. Gabriel Gudding, a poet, should know the formula. And who is more complacent than Sam Harris?

What are the ethics of Facebook posts and the debates that ensue? I think they're clear in this case, and that Gudding did something shabby by erasing my remarks. But of course if one agrees with Harris that Christians and other monotheists are anathema in a modern society, then it becomes rather easier to justify censoring their contributions to any given debate. Just as, given how clearly things are laid out by Harris, it wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing to begin burning their scriptures, in hopes that finally these people will just go away and a New Age of Enlightened Scientific Spirituality may dawn.

Since I am a Christian, the assumption is that I disagree with Sam Harris' arguments because I don't understand them. And as for those who lack understanding, what they write in the public arena--isn't it better to simply make it disappear? Doing so is not so much a matter of censorship really as it is a matter of good editing. This is also part of Harris' attitude to religious discourse: the more clearly arrogant part. For him there is something uncouth about people who would cherish the traditions left us by the Bible. After all, many of the accounts in the Bible can be shown not to accord with science, so what other than stupidity could lead people to find in it the spiritual treasures they claim? Presumably Harris and his cohorts in the New Atheism movement think they could do better in the matter of writing texts worthy of humanity's worshipful attention. The arrogance of hoping to supplant the Abrahamic traditions with the skimpy models and metaphors and neurological maps Harris has to offer is almost embarrassing.

Richard Eskow at Huffington Post has done a good job of sizing up Harris' contribution. Particularly useful is the way Eskow uncovers one of Harris' most egregious vices: the man's knack for setting up straw men. In fact Harris has spent much of his ink over the past decade drawing caricatures of modern believers, then vigorously attacking these same inky figments of his own discourse. A pseudo-philosopher like Harris can make a public career from such intolerant, reductive stuff. Poets have more serious work to do.
* * *
As of 8/23:
Surely story is not the stuff of science. I'm not so sure. . . . If story is not the stuff of science yet is about how we get on with making our ever-changing livings, then science, not story, must change. --biologist Stuart Kauffman, Investigations
Since I've ranted as much as I have above, there's nothing for it but to make a complete record. When I noticed Gabe had deleted my post, I politely protested by posting the following: "Was going to add something to this discussion, but I see you've gone and deleted my most recent remarks, so why should I bother?" Gabe then deleted this complaint. I intended to leave it at that, not planning to further engage Gudding on the question of atheism. But another participant, John Poch, a poet and creative writing teacher like Gabe, began to post under the Harris link, and I followed their back and forth until finally I decided to add something more. My addition concerned what I saw as Gabe's too narrow notion of "story". Gabe, this time, left my remarks stand and replied to them, adding some links that might, he believed, better educate me. I didn't, however, find these links very educating. I think Gabe understands what I'm getting at in my last postings, but I don't think he comes close to agreeing with me that story is always already inclusive for humanity. Anyway, I post the whole discussion here for the record:

Eric Mader: Simone Weil, Erasmus, Desmond Tutu, Rumi, Theresa of Lisieux, Thomas Merton--a few prominent rationalists of barbarity.

Gabriel Gudding: Your irony notwithstanding, Eric, I think what you write is, on its face, correct: the people you mention are, in a very real way, each an apologist for a system of domination. My sense is Harris would say that what makes /some/ of the writings and ideas of the thinkers and activists you mention useful is not their theism in general but their moral perspicuity in particular. And that moral sense does not stem from religion. Harris answers this common objection within the first 90 seconds, or so, of the video.

Eric Mader: Yes. Harris would have it that our moral sense is innate but that our depredations stem from our scriptures. It's a kind of Rousseauism almost. And here again, which is typical for him, Harris suggests that the reason people believe in one of the Western monotheisms is simply that they are looking for a list of rules to teach their children. This is incredibly reductive. The grounds of faith or belief are deeper and wider; they are other. I find Harris to be a windbag. He is a philosopher to the same degree that Pat Robertson is a saint. [deleted by Gabe]

Eric Mader: Was going to add something to this discussion, but I see you've gone and deleted my most recent remarks, so why should I bother? [deleted by Gabe]

John Poch: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol's your system of domination, Gabe.

Gabriel Gudding: Hi John. I don't see the point you are making. Is it that these four despots killed millions of people because they had at various points been adherents of Marx? And that this somehow has to do with the Abrahamic religions? If so, that is a non sequitur. The following link might save you some time. It's a list of common objections, in the vein you attempt, to atheism, along with their counter-arguments: [link: "Common Objections to Atheism and Counter-Apologetics" at]

John Poch: You might admit what happens in societies that eschew religion, in the societies that were the most adamantly atheistic. I make no claims about Marx. I find it appalling that you could support argumentation linking Abrahamic religions to barbarity, but you would deny that atheism has anything to do with nearly 100 million people killed. Recently.

Gabriel Gudding: John, have you watched Harris's talk?

John Poch: I watched it. It's a very limited and skewed view of Western religions, especially Christianity. The fact that he says there is very little worth in the scriptures is ridiculous and incredible for a supposed learned person. I find much beauty in the scriptures, much love, forgiveness, and the greatest story ever told. Harris is an apologist for a system of domination whether he knows it or not. Recent history shows that if we take God out of society, it crumbles. Morals crumble. (Note the atheist leaders I mentioned above.) The most charitable nations aren't those atheist counties he mentions. They might have less high crime rates, but I don't think he proves this has anything to do with religion. And his first assumption is wrong, as the scriptures don't teach that morals are an escape from damnation.

John Poch: Don't give up on stories, Gabe. Some of them are based on a true story.

Gabriel Gudding: Absent evidence, those stories, John, are lies and fantasies. You can purport that the story you were told (versus some other religion's) is factual. That doesn't make you right. It just makes you ignorable. And foolish.

Eric Mader: "Absent evidence, those stories are lies and fantasies." Think about the line you're drawing here. I submit, Gabe, that the belief that you or I have rights, or that there is such a thing as rights, is grounded on a story--a long and very valuable story retold in the Enlightenment but one which itself has no "evidence" (in your sense) to ground it. To be honest about it, there isn't really reliable evidence to prove much beyond Descartes' Cogito--if that. The scientific method on which you and Sam Harris think we must depend is the working out of but one among many stories--a story that is very useful for some things and irrelevant to others. In terms of science as a ground for ethics, we have plenty of inspiring examples from the 20th century, to which John also referred, and which should make us think twice. Do you really believe the scientific method is your most valuable story genre? Your meditation practice is also grounded on a story, Gabe, a kind of narrative you've told yourself about how the mind or the self should be, and a kind of practice that puts this narrative into action. Being that this practice was communicated to you in language, there are necessarily parts of it grounded on metaphor rather than anything like evidence. And language being a deeply metaphorical phenomenon, we may even say all of it, all of your notion of how vipassana is valuable, is metaphorical. Thus to accuse Christians of believing in something that is "only a story" is a pretty paltry jibe. In my mind, it is paltry to the verge of being meaningless. There are many levels on which stories can be engaged, many different kinds of epistemology according to which they may be valued.

Gabriel Gudding: Hi Eric. Given what you write here, I find myself wondering if you really know about the meditation I practice, the nature of scientific method, or the state of current moral philosophy as it is informed by neuroscience, if you are suggesting that scientific method is just a story, one among many, or that vipassana is based on a story, that science can say nothing about values, or that scientists just tell each other stories. In terms of discursive models (as a metaphor of comparison), it might be more accurate to say that scientific method is a rigorous dialog, a disciplined conversation, that does not admit mere assertion, no matter how compelling or widely-adopted a story, if it does not accord with facts. In that very clear sense, no, it's not a story. // In terms of the 20th C: which army's belt buckles bore the inscription, "Gott Mit Uns"?; how many religious wars were fought?; and, prior to that, how many continents were not conquered in the name of a god? (answer: one). // As for your other assertion, that science can say nothing about morality, take 20 minutes and see if any of this makes sense to you: [link: Sam Harris: "Science Can Answer Moral Questions" video at]

Gabriel Gudding: Or (for the others reading this) this superb panel: [link: "The Great Debate Panel" at]

John Poch: A good book to read is Can Man Live Without God? by Ravi Zacharias.

Gabriel Gudding: Does it contain chapters on Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? Or is it a part of a whole series on living without Magical Superbeings.

Eric Mader: Have gone through most of your links and listened to the Harris spiel for TED and I'm still not much impressed. Harris, I think, is arguing more persuasively against cultural relativism than he is against me. / I think the notion of "story" I was getting at in my remarks of 8/18 is wider than your reply suggests. You offer the discursive model of dialogue as better suited to what science is. And so: a dialogue developed over time becomes what? A drama, or kind of story. Again, the reason the dialogue is engaged to begin with depends on its participants accepting a certain STORY as to its value or as to what it is they are engaging in. Which is not to say that I think the history of science is "just a story" like any other--say, similar in weight or structure to the story of Hansel and Gretel. No, I think it is obviously very weighty, and quite specific as to its "genre rules," if you will. But a story it is, nonetheless. It is a story about truth-finding believed in by its adherents: certainly rightly believed in when it is kept within its purview of verifying fact statements about things that can be tested by repeatable experiments. Often wrongly believed it when it is taken as the main provider of human (say: existential) truths. / And I'd also add: neither is the Christian story similar in weight or structure to Hansel and Gretel. Again, as with science, there's a difference of weight and "genre rules," and there's a huge difference in the truth value placed on the story by those who engage in it. / Given your enthusiasm for these somewhat blunt atheist apologetics (appropriate perhaps for arguing with fundamentalists or people with a weak sense of logic), you may consider the points raised below by Marcus Borg about "fact fundamentalism" to be worthless and just more proof of how we as a culture are (or should be) at "the end of faith." I myself don't agree with Borg about many things, but he's come part of the way toward explaining how we non-fundamentalist Christians understand the truth of the Bible. I review one of his books here. Borg speaks to some of the issues raised by Sam Harris-style discourse: Link: Marcus Borg and the Language of the Bible

Gabriel Gudding: Hi Eric. I wdn't say Harris is arguing against cultural relativism per se. The argument is against culturally prevalent disrespect for facts about well-being. The allies are anyone with respect for facts and evidence -- anyone who doesn't pretend to know things they don't know (life after death, invisible Magical Superbeings (Satan, Djinns, Devas, Archangels, River Spirits, Jehova, Wotan).

Gabriel Gudding: I suppose I should add, though I can't believe it really needs to be said, that if science is just "a dialogue developed over time... A drama, or kind of story," then I imagine successful surgeries, vaccinations, calculus, the cure for polio, sanitation, lightbulbs, dentistry, and the mindboggling intricacies of solid state physics that go into making your computer -- are also just stories. Attempting to reduce the host of hard-won, centuries-long projects housed under the umbrella of "science" -- projects that have saved and bettered countless lives -- to "a drama" (presumably so you can intellectually equate a favorite antiquated text about virgin birth, a magical savior hero and an apocalypse, with a world-wide and centuries-long effort to better ourselves) is ambitious. I imagine a lot of ambition is necessary to maintain these fantasies.

This was not however the last posting. Understandably disgusted by Gabe's suggestion that the Christian God and the Tooth Fairy were in the same intellectual category, John posted remarks to the effect that such sarcasm was "unbecoming" to Gudding, that the comparison was "ignorant," and that he would no longer debate such issues with him. Gabe, again donning his Sarah Palin garb (which perhaps looks good on him, I don't know) deleted John's remarks.

* * *
As of 10/10:

This week John Poch and I again debated Gabriel Gudding on the question of atheism, and again the results were so frustrating, our efforts were so unscrupulously manipulated by Gudding, that I've decided to play the Wikileaks card once more and post the whole dialogue here for the record.

Our debate started when Gudding posted a link to an interview with Harvard professor Steven Pinker about the latter's recent book Our Better Angels, and as part of the link called out to John Poch and I by name as two readers who may be interested to learn something from Pinker. If this was not an invitation to 1) read the link and interview, and 2) weigh in in the comments section, I don't know what such an invitation would look like. In short, John and I were directly invited to enter a discussion of the arguments Pinker raised. Once we did, however, Gudding did his best to make our points disappear by either deleting them or making it impossible for them to make any sense in context. As you will see. I post the whole discussion here:

GABRIEL GUDDING: Pinker interviewed about his book on the remarkable declines in violence since the rise of liberal democracies - gainsaying both neoconservative and theistic arguments, as well as some on the far left, as to how bloody modern nation states are. [link to Sam Harris' interview with Steven Pinker regarding Our Better Angels]

John Poch and Eric Mader might both find this interview interesting, and the above-mentioned talk at, as Pinker specifically addresses the repeated accusations from the christian right (which are variations of the supposition that the 20th century is remarkably violent because it is marked by atheism). Specifically this:

[quoted from Pinker:] First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe.

When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. I present data from the political scientist Rudolph Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.

ERIC MADER: Gabe: Yes, I mostly agree with Pinker here. The liberal democracies that developed out of the West's Judeo-Christian culture have proven far less prone to systematic bloodshed than the other modern political systems. Ultimately we can thank Christianity's highly developed concept of the individual for bringing us this political order, just as we can thank the West's hard-won distinction between church and state for keeping us free to choose what we will believe.

I remember John and I responded to your previous pro-atheist posts by pointing to an inconvenient truth: namely that it was precisely the atheistic political movements of the last century that committed the most horrendous atrocities. I think this truth still stands regardless of Steven Pinker's neat demographic arguments about percentages of world population slaughtered in the Crusades vs. the gulags or the Cultural Revolution. So I will reiterate: it was NOT political movements based in Judaism or Christianity that brought us the nightmares of modernity, but rather movements that found their legitimacy precisely in some version of "science". In the Soviet Union and China, it was the economic-historical "science" of Marxism (tweaked by Lenin in the one case and Mao in the other) that lent legitimacy. In Nazi Germany, it was a "science" of race and the relative strengths of the different races that did so. Both these movements championed "science" as a new and more reliable foundation for political order.

You may balk about Nazism in this regard. But the attempt to link Nazism to Christianity is, in the essentials, misguided. German Christians were certainly found in support of the movement, but it was also German Christians who offered the most principled resistance. There's a reason we don't see crosses paraded in the footage of Nazi marches and rallies. The swastika is not the cross: the Nazis were offering something sleekly modern and new: a neo-pagan Volk movement that sacralized the state and its leader, a movement that had "science" to back it up. I don't see Jesus as a significant element in this movement.

You imply in your remarks that when John and I offer these kind of arguments about the mayhem wreaked by atheism in modern history that we are presenting the arguments of "the Christian right". Well, John is not on the right, and I for one am solidly on the left. I understand, Gabe, why you'd like to round all us Christians up in the same corral--it's easier to dismiss us as morons then--but the truth is that it's not possible. American Christians cover a wide political and intellectual spectrum, and even many of those who ten years ago could predictably be put in the Republican camp are breaking ranks.

But back to the issue at hand: I submit that political powers that go to "science" to generate their ethical ground will most likely bring forth nightmares. We've seen it very clearly in the last hundred years. Sam Harris seems to me especially glib in this respect. The more I read or hear of him, the more I am convinced: Harris is a rhetorically gifted adult trapped in a teenage intellect. I wouldn't want to live in any modern state that grounded its ethical and legal norms on neuroscience.

[Infuriatingly, Gudding deleted this lengthy reply of mine, then posted the following, which he also soon deleted:]

GABRIEL GUDDING: Sorry, Eric, I ask that you reply to the content of the interview, rather than what you find ideologically incorrect about it, if you want to post about it here. Also, please avoid ad hominem attacks if you want to post about it here.

ERIC MADER: I did reply to the content of the interview. Your judgment as to what is ideological does not provide a neutral ground for discussion. I'll very reluctantly remove my remarks about Sam Harris, since you consider them ad hominem, and repost my original reply, which you just deleted, as follows: [Here I reposted my comments, without the remarks on Harris]

JOHN POCH: Dear Gabe, It certainly doesn't take a Christian to look at the world and see that the governments who reject Jesus' most ardent principles are the ones who, by far, murdered the most people. If you think Jesus (the Prince of Peace) message in any way would "advocate" millions of murders, you haven't read His words. People certainly misinterpret words and facts, as you do in your argument against Jesus. You say "fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism". Happily? You believe that? The totalitarian movements you unwittingly defend are most certainly a rejection of Jesus' teachings and his life. Speaking of fairy tales...if you think people are evolving (better) morally, then you have based your thinking on a narrowly chosen set of data (SEE Pinker/Harris) based on one false assumption--religion is at fault for the bad stuff and science gets the credit for the good! But what should it matter to those who take science's natural selection as THE WAY? Honestly. I can't believe you are still in denial about what atheists did in the last century. You can pick whatever proportions you want, but atheism has a bloody and disgusting RECENT history. Hopefully Sam Harris can change that with his new brand of it. Christianity admits to a fallen world that is humanity's fault as a result of our bad choices. You could try to pin it on God, but if He doesn't exist, you end up with us Christians to blame. The truth is: it's our own fault. All of us. Of course, you have to keep up your wishful thinking that it's only the religious who are at fault. Yet we have a Redeemer who can wash it away. White as snow. Gabe, you get your ideas about religious people from Time Magazine or Atheist blogs or Daytime TV or some weird notion in your head. I will remind you of the Salvation Army's motto: "Doing the Most Good" as a parting thought. Atheists don't show up en masse to help those afflicted by natural disasters. Christians do. Come, let us reason, sayeth the Lord. --Isaiah

ASHLEY CAPPS (poet and Gabriel Gudding's wife): "It certainly doesn't take a Christian to look at the world and see that the governments who reject Jesus' most ardent principles are the ones who, by far, murdered the most people." But the point is that those "murderers of the most people" weren't acting as agents of atheism, or as explicit rejecters of Jesus, any more than they were acting as rejecters of aliens or rejecters of astrology--their atheism, where it was in fact atheism, was irrelevant to their agendas, and where they rejected mercy, kindness, fairness, and humanity, they were *not* rejecting "Jesus's most ardent principles"--compassion and goodness do not come from or belong to Jesus! So to point to despotic movements in which the leaders were not acting on explicitly religious ideas, and call those "atheist movements", and then compare the atrocities of your so-called "atheist, Jesus-rejecting" movements and the atrocities of Christians, in order to say, "atheists have done and do more harm than Christians" just seems like willful obfuscation, an incorrect conflation that produces false dichotomies.

ASHLEY CAPPS: "Atheists don't show up en masse to help those afflicted by natural disasters." ?? Really? How could you know this? No one would know, actually, because when atheists show up to help, they aren't out there advertising their goodwill as representative of some sort of divine virtue deriving from divine superpowers. They don't show up as ambassadors of atheism. But they do show up, and I would challenge anyone to prove that atheists don't show up en masse. Most of the atheists I know are active volunteers on behalf of the welfare of both humans and animals, and the daily disasters that beset them.

GABRIEL GUDDING: Thanks to both John and Eric for replying. I am fascinated by christian and other theological reactions to actual data, having seen what these delusions do to people. So, a response to Eric, leaving off John's reply for now. Eric, you say: "The liberal democracies...developed out of the West's Judeo-Christian culture that liberal democracies." My response: this is just factually wrong. Wikipedia link: origins of liberal democracy

JOHN POCH: Hi Ashley, I believe that compassion and goodness actually do come from and belong to Jesus, who is God and Creator, and from whom comes the world, good. I partly agree with you that the despotic movements did not act on explicitly religious ideas, as these movements and political institutions were devoid of true religion which has at its heart the idea of human life as sacred and are therefore much more open to perpetrating atrocities. But I wonder if it hasn't been shown that many believers have been and continue to be imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for their faith in communist countries.

GABRIEL GUDDING: Thank you, John, for your fascinating replies. Where Eric's response was mostly factually incorrect, you are claiming the universe was created by an omnipotent celestial hominid who is your personal protector -- an ape who has consigned billions of other apes to eternal suffering. Thank you for sharing these notions here.

GABRIEL GUDDING: From a co-founder of a liberal democracy who apparently didn't get Eric's memo about liberal democracies being Judeo-Christian: "And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva, in the brain of Jupiter."

ERIC MADER: As for Jefferson's line about the virgin birth, I've quoted it myself when debating dominionist Christians who try to paint the Founders as Christian. Most of the Founders, I know, were deists, or in any event showed very little commitment to Christianity in its strict orthodox version.

And why would I, as a Christian, bring up this example of Jefferson's skepticism? For one, I do not like to see people making up American history to suit their religious or political position; secondly, I highly value separation of church and state. As a Christian, I know Christianity is best served by not becoming the official religion of a major power.

As for the place of Judeo-Christianity in the development of the modern West, I'm not thinking of Weber, as you suggest in your note. I will try to get something you may consider "factual data," but this is a matter of a more sweeping interpretation of historical movement and intellectual history. In any case, I believe you would acknowledge that dominant cultural orders often bring about resistance to them within which resistance there remain key elements of the order being resisted. A good example of this is the rise of fundamentalism (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) in response to modernity. Karen Armstrong demonstrated this dialectic very well in THE BATTLE FOR GOD.

In the case of Europe, culminating in the 18th century, the dominance of the churches, especially the Catholic Church, led to an intellectual resistance culminating in the Enlightenment, which resistance itself depended on an insistence on the value of individuals, of individual right and responsibility, that would have been unthinkable without the Christian cultural background/context of particular notions of the individual (the individual as precious, as responsible, as standing before God). Also essential for these Enlightenment thinkers was a concept of the state as something independent of religious authority. This had precedent in medieval practice, and again was buttressed in new ways by the Reformation. Crucially, the modern states were founded on the idea that different denominations had the right to co-exist within one political body. Again, all of this was a matter of complex developments within CHRISTIAN culture, developments that needed particular predominant concepts of "individual," "right," "domain," "soul," "God," to even have occurred. No liberal democracy would have arisen in either Islamic, Buddhist or Confucian political orders.

[Here Gabe did something rather odd. He went and deleted his first remarks on the Harris interview with Pinker--those remarks where he specifically called out to John and I as people who'd be interested in what Pinker has to say. I don't know why Gabe did this, but the affect it produces is pretty obvious. It changes the nature of the whole discussion. With his introductory remarks intact, John and I are responding in good faith to an intellectual challenge from Gudding. He wants to hear from us, and he gets to hear from us. Once Gudding's opening challenge is erased, however, the whole dynamic of the post changes. Now, to anyone who comes upon it, it will appear that Simple Gabe innocently posted a link to a new book by Steven Pinker when suddenly, wham, in came these two Christians who started attacking Gudding, or the book, or . . . well, it's hard to say-- Really, what are these two going on about? In short, by removing his own opening remarks, Gudding cuts the debate as a whole away from its context. Its context is erased. Also, there's a marked change in Gudding's tone in his reply to my remarks on the Enlightenment:]

Gabriel Gudding: Eric, it might be easier to read the book before refuting it. It just came out yesterday. Give yourself some time.

Eric Mader: Granted. But I don't think the issue at this point is so much Pinker's book itself, but more general questions of liberal democracy, Judeo-Christian culture, atheism, and how these relate to each other and especially how they relate to crimes against humanity in history. All of us in this discussion are educated enough to have positions on these questions without reading Pinker's book in specific. Harris' interview, in any case, is there to be read.

Gabriel Gudding: that's. what. the book. is about. in part. hey: maybe read the thing before getting all in a bunch that it doesn't accord w/ yr christian worldview. live a little.

John Poch: I find an unseemly sarcasm in this argument, so I'm bowing out. I haven't found this very fascinating, except for Eric's cogent and open discussion. Gabe, you could be a little more thoughtful and sensitive, as you wish Christians to be. I am happy to be part of a wonderful company: Dante, Milton, Hopkins, Smart, Wilbur, Heaney, Milosz. And yet, Larkin remains one of my favorite poets. He respected a desire: "a hunger in himself to be more serious." Your(and Ashley's) ridicule of my faith doesn't seem to come close to this but maybe it's just this awkward facebook forum. I have heard it said that one of the strategies of the new atheism is to shame the faithful by aligning them with base superstitions. I hope you do realize the problem with this. There are universities, entire libraries full of investigations and thoughtfulness about our faith, and billions who are believers, where no one treats the Easter Bunny or Spiderman this way. I ask for a little respect, even as I give science a great deal of respect. But maybe that is not possible with your worldview. I thank you for the challenge, though, as I do not worship blindly, and I hope to comport myself as the Apostle Peter suggests, "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence". If I have been irreverent, I apologize, as I do have that wacky view that God creates each of us in His image.

[After which post, John noticed that Gudding had deleted his initial remarks.]

John Poch: I feel it necessary to delete all but the last of my posts here. Gabe has changed or eliminated the context of this debate by deleting his original post and other parts of it. I'm sure he meant nothing malicious by it, but it is quite unfair to the discussion.

Gabriel Gudding: John, It's not sarcasm -- just a lack of respect for your superstition. Your faith demands respect it doesn't deserve. So there are many books: There are (and were, before they were burned by religious zealots) also libraries full of books on Zeus, Apollo, astrology, Hanuman, Mithras, Zoroaster, Islam, witches, dowsing, alchemy. They can't all be right. Yet you claim the one true religion (as do they all). And your god is an omnipotent celestial ape ("man" is created in god's image, so god is an ape). So the lack of respect stems from:

(1) Your narcissism. That you alone are right, of all those above. And your god is also a hominid who created everything. Crazy. Without any evidence.

(2) Your faith is brutal. Your ape god consigns billions of people to hell who don't believe as you.

(3) Where a supposition is made without evidence and respect for truth, it can be dismissed without evidence and respect for the non-truth. If you can provide proof of your celestial ape, produce it. But don't demand respect for something that is on its face ludicrous. It's adolescent.

After this last post by Gudding, all of John Poch's posts were deleted. I believe by John himself. I understand John's decision to remove himself from a debate that had seen such direct mockery of Christianity, and one that, finally, was being skewed by selective erasures.

But what is my own place in this tangle? And why have I posted all of this here? If I've done so, it is mainly, as indicated, for the record. Gudding himself has little respect for the record: he quickly airbrushes out opposing ideas the way a Stalinist photo editor would airbrush out figures purged from the politburo. I don't think this Soviet comparison is going too far either. Having read plenty on the New Atheism, I now suspect that both Gudding and his mentor Sam Harris would be more than willing to send religious people to re-education camps if they were ever given the power to do so.

The arguments in our debate are one thing; they can speak for themselves if viewed in sequence. But I want to ensure, finally, that I'm not misunderstood as to this issue of making a record of these arguments.

Gudding finds both John and I ridiculous because we are Christians. He finds it hard to treat religious people with any intellectual respect. Of course this is obnoxious to John and I, but I, for my part, would acknowledge that it is his right. Though the culture he grew up in as an American owes many of its key ethical strengths to its Christian roots, Gudding certainly has the right to think Christians are laughable. That's not my main issue with him. What has incensed me, and finally convinced me that he is a hypocrite, is his enthusiasm for censorship. I don't recognize his right to make statements disappear; I don't recognize his right to this particular instance of airbrushing. If I spend fifteen minutes of my time writing out ideas regarding a subject important to me, especially if I've been more or less invited to do so by someone who disagrees with me, that person will not get away with deleting any of my ideas from the discussion. If someone wants to make my faith and intellectual grounding look ridiculous, I invite him to try, but he will not then in addition make my answers to his provocation disappear.

And further: I refuse to acknowledge Gudding's right, having taken part in a dialogue, essentially an organic structure of discourse moving back and forth between participants, to erase even his own previous statements. He does not have the right to provoke debate, then remove his provocation so as to make those who responded to it look unduly aggressive. This to me is another key piece of the ethics of our interactions here on earth. Dialogue is to be respected as one of the foundational activities of humanity: it is one of our most essential modes of being in community. Gudding with his sub-standard philosophical abilities might not get this last idea, but his lack of philosophical rigor here is beside the point: he is responsible both for respecting others' right to speech, and for what he himself has said.

I will also argue that the fact our debate took place on Facebook, in the context of his "wall," does not change these basic ethical points. Gudding may want to argue that this was not a public debate because it happened in the context of a space shared only by his Facebook "friends". To me this context matters little, for two fundamental reasons: first, Gudding's friend list runs to over two-thousand people. Facebook dialogues in such a context are more or less public. Second, to the degree that one wants to argue this way (cordoning off social media and saying its ethics are less rigorous, more a matter of personal whim) one only impoverishes the public arena. It is one of the (perhaps ultimately unfortunate) facts of our public life that many of our significant debates will take place in the arena of one or another participant's Facebook "wall". A Facebook wall is rightly presided over by the person who opened it, but that does not mean this person then owns the discourse that occurs thereon. If the person posted an item to "Public," it is in effect just that: publicly debatable. I think this particular ethical aspect of Facebook walls is pretty clear to intelligent people, even people shallow enough to admire the likes of Sam Harris. A further comparison might put the issue in context. As follows: I would never consider taking a lengthy email correspondence and putting it online without all participants' agreement. To do so would be clearly wrong, as someone writing email to me may intend the content of the writing to be kept between ourselves. And so I would never do it. But was our debate on atheism here a private thing? It was not framed as such, nor conducted as such, because it wasn't such. There is no such thing as a private correspondence that simultaneously has thousands of potential viewers.

The obvious conclusion: Gudding abuses his Facebook controls to censor and manipulate what are in essence free discussions. We might expect a person with little understanding of our public life to debate this way, but when a teacher of ethics and poetry at an American university does it, it is good reason to call that person out as a hypocrite.


An excellent article on Sam Harris' philosophical grounding, or rather lack thereof, appeared in The Nation earlier this year.


Anonymous said...

I have moved from conservative Christianity to agnosticism over a lifetime, and I am somewhat familiar with Christian theology, history, and the issues discussed in this Mader-Gudding interaction. After reading Mader's introductory remarks my initial reaction was: much too strong and likely quite counterproductive. After reading it all and trying to see this interaction fairly, my vote goes to Gudding, but I would have been better off not reading any of it.

Anonymous said...

Gudding's deletions and arguments here make him look pretty bad.

I'll admit to a particular bias (I am a Christian), but it is possible to remain objective when reading through the entire interaction here. This I have done my best to do.

My comments here are now written to support and encouragement Eric, whom I have never met or known, and whose blog I have discovered only upon doing some basic internet research into Gabriel Gudding and his poetry. That, long after these facebook interactions seem to have taken place.

In these interactions, Gudding has consistently denigrated a specific set of beliefs held by others in these interactions, as he asserts they are indeed foolish and (this next statement presumes the logic behind his arguments) are therefore deserving of ridicule and condescension. Gudding maintains this argumentative stance throughout the discussion, but his deletions are more deleterious to the discussion, as Eric and John point out. They also have the effect of disrespect both for their belief system and for them as individuals.

This is unfortunate for Gudding and is, frankly, poor form. He looks really bad.

It's also overtly aggressive and offensive. For Gudding to do so (in the context of facebook, or anywhere else for that matter) effectively makes him appear as though he's attempting an intelligent tantrum. Perhaps that's the nature of all debate.

It's unfortunate too that the effect of Gudding's argument is one of intolerance and absolutism. I'm not fully familiar with his tradition of meditation practices, but I've long thought that one central tenet to practicing meditation was to remain "open," thereby increasing tolerance and acceptance of differences. Here, Gudding appears neither "open" and certainly not tolerant. He comes off as juvenile.

Which is maybe appropriate. His own writing bears the earmarks of juvenilia, and his own facebook interactions (as reported here) hypocritically bear the earmarks of intolerance and overt condescension, aggression, and offense.

They're ridiculous.

Joanie Mackowski said...

wandered over here quite by accident. Revealing. A reason not yet mentioned for deleting EM's comments: they're too intelligent for facebook-- but then again I've as much respect for facebook as Harris and Pinker have for Christianity. (Stay away from facebook, EM, it will rot your brain and soul!) I've never warmed to the poetry: all trick, no mirrors. Thanks, EM, and good luck.

Eric Mader said...

Thanks for the good word, Joanie. I do think your advice re: Facebook worth taking into consideration. I've gotten involved in many a good discussion there, but that accounts for what percentage of the time I spend reading and following links?

As for Gudding's poetry, his most recent work doesn't much interest me, but much of the early work I find brilliant.