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The Atheist Who Strangled Me (theatlantic.com)
26 points by tokenadult 1726 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

Sam Harris does not appear to be a rational individual who discovered atheism through logic and evidence. The man just appears to be bat-sh*t crazy.

The author casually tries to put this man in the same leagues as other atheist such as Richard Dawkins. But in my view Dawkin's is a sane individual trying to cope with an insane world. I cannot say the same about Mr. Harris after reading this article.

Your response is nonsensical - nothing in the article suggested anything even remotely resembling what you got out of it. It's a puff piece about hobbies. What that means, is that to you, the content is immaterial - where does this reaction come from then?

Can you expand on that? The article is about a man who enjoys meditation and brazilian ju jitsu. What in this article makes you think he's bat-sh*t? I did not catch any such vibe.

The man practices chocking other people to the brink of death in some sort of pseudo-BDSM tournament. What sort of sanity comes from a hallucination induced by oxygen deprivation?

You immediately associate Brazilian ju-jitsu with BDSM and he's the crazy one!?

I think you'll find that after attending one or two sessions of BJJ its not as crazy or sexually charged as you're assuming it is.

It really speaks pages that the first thing comming to your mind after hearing about BJJ is BDSM tournaments, and that it stayed the only thing long enough for you to reply that.

In his defense, he only does it 3 times a week.

The author isn't the one who put them together, Christopher Hitchens did. They get lumped together all the time, just google for the phrase "Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse" and you'll see quite a few references and videos pop up- including this video, published by The Richard Dawkins Foundation, of the four of them having a nice chat ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqVNz7kdvd8 ).

To claim that they aren't in the same league is pretty bold, especially when Dawkins himself seems to disagree.

Without really knowing how many or how often, the man does seem to receive enough death threats that some 'craziness' might be understandable, or even warranted.

What makes you say that? I think he seems like the most rational and intellectually honest of the 4 horsemen.

How does this particular article make him look / sound / appear irrational ?

A follow-up interview by the same author with Sam Harris on the techniques of unarmed combat against armed attackers:



Most martial artists have done knife-defense drills where their partners attack in a very stereotyped way--lunging forward with a single thrust and leaving their arm out there so that you can perform the technique. This is just a pantomime of combat, and it is dangerously misleading.

This was why I found traditional martial arts like karate to be daft. They only seemed to teach you defence against someone else who punches like a karateka.

I was listening to Robson Moura (BJJ black belt) talk about why he loves the art so much. He said something like: when you walk out of a karate class, after a lot of sparring, you feel like a tough-guy who's ready to kick some ass, but when you walk out of a BJJ class, where people smaller than you have just repeatedly demonstrated that they could kill you with their bare hands, you feel very humbled.

The effects on ego tend to weed out a lot of assholes, and between this and the mental challenges of the sport, it is one of the reasons I've come to love it. (Ryron & Rener also do a pretty good job of distinguishing between self-defense and sport jiu jitsu, at least in the videos I've seen from them.)

Any decent martial art will take pains point out the difference between art and science though. I practice kenpo for instance and my sensei is crystal clear about how stupid it would be to use anything in a kata in real life.

It's more to build muscle memory, self awareness of the body and a knowledge of the mechanics of combat. For the most part, I think traditional martial arts can be seen as a form of dance. It's not something to be applied as much as interpreted. Many of these disciplines were used to train actual soldiers, warriors, and peasants after all. I think their real value comes in not taking them at face value though.

Obviously ymmv in regards to any particular art.

Your sensei has common sense. A lot of them don't. Years ago, one of my college philosophy professors brought in her sensei to give the class a demonstration in kung fu. At one point he lightly pinched his opponent (a fellow black belt) on the chest, and the man collapsed to the ground in agony.

"Pressure points are very real," said the sensei. "Anyone who doesn't believe it can come up for a demonstration afterwards." The class laughed nervously. Afterwards I approached him and said I was skeptical, and asked if he could demonstrate on me while I stood there and did nothing. The class gathered around us in a circle. I really thought he'd make a believer out of me, and just hoped I could refrain from peeing myself in front of everyone.

It was all bullshit. No matter which nerves he tried to poke or prod, it just wasn't that painful. He then tried to deflect attention from his failure by showing some cool way he could put me in an arm lock, which would only work as long as I didn't jerk my arm away while he was doing it. I think he honestly believed that he was a lethal killing machine. The problem with idiots like him is they tend to convince too many students that they're actually learning self-defense.

Nerve strikes sometimes work and sometimes don't, which is an annoying detail martial artists seem rarely to mention. There is some science to some of it, buried deep deep under the mysticism and bs. Unfortunately, people expect "five palm exploding heart" when the best they can hope for is probably "make someone's arm go numb if you're lucky and they're arranged right." Arm locks are the same way... they can work on the right person for like a second or two (i've been the dummy for that) but after that you're supposed to do something. Put the cuffs on them or step on their neck or break their arm or something.

Punching them in the throat always works though.

Arm locks can work for much more than "a second or two." Watch Brazilian jiu jitsu, submission grappling, or even MMA competitions. But, in order to maintain the control of an arm lock, you often have to go to the ground. When standing, people have too much freedom of movement.

I was at the rules meeting for an amateur MMA competition one time. (Someone I trained with was fighting, not me.) Someone asked if pressure points were legal, and the entire room rolled their eyes. The official paused for a second and said, yes, you can use "pressure points."

I don't remember what happened to that fighter, but I know he didn't win through pressure points.

> They only seemed to teach you defence against someone else who punches like a karateka.

Good thing the lower-level students show very little technique during sparring.

I'm not familiar with the full range of Harris' writings, but I found it interesting that as an explicit and unapologetic 'atheist', Harris actually says at one point:

  ...we don't know what happens after death.
It is in the context of discussing death with a child, but still... the hardcore atheist position would seem to be that we do know what happens: nothing, the total cessation of experience. To say "we don't know" seems to allow for some tiny shred of religious mystery, which I didn't expect from Harris.

The only requirement to be an atheist is to not believe in a deity. There's no such thing as a "hardcore atheist", because there's no central dogma to be hardcore about. Many atheists do follow some sort of non-theistic belief system, such as Buddhism or Daoism.

You're thinking of the people who are what I'd call "anti-theistic", that is, explicitly opposed to the concept of deities, religion, or mysticism in general.

OK, then, I thought of Sam Harris as being 'anti-theistic'. (That was the idea I was shooting for with the term 'hardcore atheist' -- being not just doubtful but actively opposed to the idea of dieties/creators.) His book is after all titled The End of Faith.

Allowing for the idea that anything interesting might happen to consciousness after death strikes me as atypical for anti-theistics.

"I thought of Sam Harris as being 'anti-theistic'"

There are gnostic/agnostic atheists.

I'd fall under your definition of 'anti-theistic' and I'm still not entirely sure what happens after death. I'm perfectly happy not knowing though.

Atheism is a disbelief in god(s) and doesn't say anything about life after death. To the extent that an atheist might take an evidence based approach to belief they may also disbelieve in life after death. Given what we know about consciousness and brain function it's not unreasonable to say that we know there is no life after death because there is no known mechanism for it. ie - no brain, no electrical activity, no sense of self. That the belief in life after death remains so prevalent indicates a prodigious ability for wishful thinking.

Indeed, but here is a person (Harris) who avowedly disbelieves in god(s) but says "we don't know what happens after death", which seems to allow for something happening. That same sort of fuzzy allowing-for-possibilities, if applied to the question of god(s), would yield something other than what I understand Harris's position to be.

He's been saying things like this for years, mostly because we don't know enough about consciousness yet and that he spent too many years hanging out with Buddhists.

As what I suppose you might call a "hardcore theist", I see no inherent contradiction between the most severe form of atheism (the firm and unquestioned belief that there is no deity) and any particular belief or lack of belief (or belief in knowledge or lack of knowledge) concerning what humans experience after physiscal death.

Sure, lots of atheists come to atheism through (at least, in their own description) a form of empirical positivism where rejection of anything that is not a necessary explanation for observed physical phenomena is sort of the default belief position, which would put life after death in the same category of disbelief as deities, but just because that's a common aspect or justification of atheism doesn't mean that it is intrinsically linked to atheism.

the hardcore atheist position would seem to be that we do know what happens: nothing, the total cessation of experience.

Why do you think so?

To be firmly and insistently ('hardcore') atheist suggests to me ruling out the idea that there is anything diety-like, because there is no good evidence for it. The question of experience after death seems to me very similar to the question of the existence of dieties. The fact that beliefs about dieties and about the afterlife are usually linked in the same belief structure increases my confidence that the two subjects are often reasoned about the same way.

I would therefore expect someone who thinks, after considering all evidence (or the lack thereof), that there are no dieties to also believe, based on similar evidence (or lack thereof) that there is no experience after death. Harris has not (as far as I know) said that "we don't know" if there are dieties.

Indeed, here's an old interview where Harris criticizes agnosticism as "not an intellectually honest position":


> To be firmly and insistently ('hardcore') atheist suggests to me ruling out the idea that there is anything diety-like, because there is no good evidence for it.

This assumes that a hardcore atheist must arrive at that position by being a hardcore positivist/empiricist. This is an unwarranted assumption.

Your "hardcore" atheism is more correctly known as gnostic atheism. You will be hard pressed to find philosophically educated gnostic atheists.

Using the label "agnostic" as a philosophical weasel word to give a nod to solipsism every time it is politically convenient is a form of lopsided pedantry. Unless you think a specific religious god is more likely to be real than, say, vampires or Harry Potter, the distinction does not actually add any useful information. People normally just use "agnostic" as a device to try to frame a debate in a precise way in order to put the burden of proof squarely on the positive claim.

I used the word "gnostic", not "agnostic".

I'm not sure you understand what I said. Let me explicitly state what I tried to imply about your use of the word "gnostic": people who call themselves gnostic atheists are not generally being philosophically ignorant or dishonest.

I just didn't see how your comment applied. I never said that gnostic atheists were philosophically ignorant or dishonest. I just said that they would be harder to find.

Okay. I took your statement "You will be hard pressed to find philosophically educated gnostic atheists" to imply that most people who go by that label are likely not philosophically educated, presumably because realizing that true certainty about anything is impossible invalidates the "gnostic" part. If that's not what you meant, then I apologize. I often see this line of thinking, so I patterned matched incorrectly.

No worries. In my experience, the majority of gnostic atheists are like some of the kids on /r/atheism. There exist educated gnostic atheists, but in my experience, they are more rare than educated agnostic atheists.

The phrase "gnostic atheism" does not have a Wikipedia article (or even be referenced in other articles), so can you be more clear about what you mean?

Can you elaborate? What sort of things would a philosophically educated person know that is so convincing? I'm genuinely curious.

The fact that in all of the history of philosophy nobody has provided a firm argument that the existence of a god is impossible?

There are plenty of kids on the internet who claim gnostic atheism with their "proofs" which usually involve various simple paradoxes that have been resolved by more serious philosophers plenty of times.

By your question, it seems like you may have misinterpreted what I said.

It's almost as if atheists live life with hobbies and interests like decent, churchgoing folks. Isn't that a marvelous piece of "human interest".

(Did I miss a story somewhere?)

"Most martial artists get illusions in training,” he said. For example, if you are trained as a boxer, you come to trust that an opponent won’t try to tackle you to the ground—because that’s not what people do in boxing rings. Instead they hit each other, with gloves on (another condition that is not very realistic).

BJJ also assumes a set of rules, not unlike boxing, wrestling or karate. You're not allowed to take a bite out of your opponents arm while they are choking you, or pull their ear off, or stick your thumb in their eye.

BJJ is also often practiced wearing a gi which allows for different techniques than if your opponent were wearing say, a t-shirt (or no shirt at all).

This is true, and we often use the phrase "sport jiu-jitsu" to make this clear. I have trained BJJ for close to 9 years, and I am a purple belt. Most people who train jiu jitsu also train no-gi, though. Personally, I try to favor strategy that I think would also work in MMA or even a real fight.

However, what differentiates jiu jitsu, wrestling and boxing from a lot of "traditional" martial arts is live sparring. I think that people who practice a martial arts with an emphasis on live sparring will have an enormous advantage if a real fight because live sparring is a close simulation of the real thing. Yes, your opponent won't follow the same rules. But, you're only good at what you train. And in order to train something regularly and not get constantly injured (or worse), you need to have rules.

Chael Sonnen, an MMA fighter who will fight for the UFC light heavyweight belt, makes a great observation in this interview. His observation is, in MMA, figure out what techniques were illegal in your opponents main discipline, and do those: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33BrIxAu7-M

(Yes, Sonnen does a lot of trash talking before his fights, and is full of hyperbole. Don't let that fool you. His analysis of MMA is some of the best I've heard.)

If you wear it, I can choke you with it. Also, don't confuse the sport with the art - the old vale tudo fights allowed everything but eye gouging and biting, but even those would not make much of a difference to a skilled practitioner.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WkmgQQhVSw http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxZKZsqWdFw

One of the Krav Maga fighters went to a Bas Rutten talk and was commenting to his buddy "that choke wouldn't work on me, I'd stick my finger in his eye". Bas heard it and said "come on up and try your defense on me". The guy says "ok". Bas continues "because when you try to stick your finger in my eye, I'm going to break your neck.". The guy sat back down and didn't interrupt anymore.

Even if I could take a bite out of his arm or stick my thumb in his eye, he would probably still kick the shit out of me.

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