The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever


April 26, 2006 | 37 Comments

UPDATE: The interview may now be viewed at One Good Move (via Brian Flemming).

[NOTE: The interview reproduced below is much funnier if you can actually see and hear Colbert’s delivery. The show should be rebroadcast tonight at 8:30 p.m. [EST]; check the schedule for local listings].

Atheist “End of Faith” author Sam Harris played an engaging straight man to comedian Steven Colbert’s faux-Bill O’Reilly yesterday on the Colbert Report. Now, Colbert’s own atheism makes Madalyn Murray O’Hair look like a Jehovah’s Witness, but journalists who don’t quite get his act frequently take at face value his claim to be a “devout Catholic” — usually to make some point about his depth or intellectualism. Last night’s interview left no doubt about where he stands, although I don’t doubt that many will interpret his ability to mock his alleged faith as further evidence of the strength of his convictions:

Colbert: My guest tonight is the atheist author of the book “The End of Faith.” Tonight I’ll ask “If there is no Jesus, who carried me on that beach?” Please welcome Mr. Sam Harris!

Colbert: Mr. Harris, thank you for coming.

Harris: Nice to meet you, Steven.

Colbert: That’s faith right there [referring to audience’s applause for Colbert]. The End of Faith, huh? Evidence to the contrary, my friend.

Now, you do not believe in God, correct?

Harris: That’s true, that’s true . . .

Colbert: O.K., so . . .

Harris: . . . but I would point out that none of us believe in Poseidon. We’re all atheists with respect to Poseidon. And, uh . . .

Colbert: [Sneeringly]. He’s a . . . he’s Pagan God.

Harris: That’s true, that’s true, but we . . .

Colbert: It doesn’t make any sense, we’re not talking about a Pagan god, we’re talking about Jesus Christ, the only son of God.

Harris: But we all know exactly . . . we all know exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to Poseidon. Anyone worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, is a lunatic. And we all feel this deeply, and every Christian knows what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims.

Colbert: No no no . . . I know what it’s like to be a Christian in respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Okay, it’s not inherent, you know, in my belief that you’re crazy, it’s inherent in my belief that you’re wrong.

Harris: Right, right.

Colbert: Okay. That God could even exist, he could just be a false god, that my god will smite.

Harris: Right, right.

Colbert: I’m not saying Poseidon’s not there, for all I know he’s down with the big green beard at the bottom of the sea with his little trident, you know, finding Nemo, but . . . I’m saying my god’s a greater god, that’s all I’m saying. My God can kick your god’s ass.

Harris: Well, I don’t have a god . . .

Colbert: . . . or your lack of a god.

Harris: Yes. If you’re right, I’m in terrible straits.

Colbert: Yeah. Speaking of which, do you think when you die you will go to a lake of fire, a lake of frost, or will you merely be alone in the knowledge that you denied God, and are now denied His love?

Harris: Uh, it’s a difficult question. What I’m worried about is this life, really, and I think we all should be worried about this. Our world has been shattered by competing religious certainties. We have Christians against Muslims against Jews, we have literally, most of the people on this planet organized around the idea that God wrote one of their holy books.

Colbert: Right.

Harris: These books make incompatible claims about how we should live, and this is leading unnecessarily to violence. And because of the respect we accord religious faith, we’re not talking about it. And that’s really . . .

Colbert: No, I’ll talk about it, I’ll talk about it.

Harris: Well. . .

Colbert: We got to kick a little ass, is what I’ll say about it. I mean, he didn’t write all three books, he wrote one book.

Harris: You know . . . 83%, we’re living in a country where 83% of the people agree with you. They think Jesus literally rose from the dead.

Colbert: We’ll get it to 100.

Harris: But, well, we might well.

Colbert: We will. We’ll get it there. It’s a Christian nation, sir, founded by Christians . . .

Harris: It’s a scary situation . . .

Colbert: In God we trust. Do you trust in God?

Harris: I trust in conversation. And the problem I find . . .

Colbert: Do you spend money? Do you spend money, Sir?

Harris: I do.

Colbert: It says “In God We Trust.” If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t spend money. I’d go back to a barter system, I believe that you’re living a lie.

Harris: Well, if there’s a God I’m spending money on the wrong things, I’m afraid.

Colbert: You’re book is called “The End of Faith.” Um, what do you mean by the end of faith? Is faith ending, or do you believe it should end?

Harris: I think it should end. I think either you have good reasons for what you believe, or you don’t. If you have good reasons, those beliefs are part of the worldview of science and rationality generally. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Mohammed went to heaven on a winged horse, that would be part of our rational worldview. And it’s only when people lose their purchase on evidence and argument, when they have bad reasons, that they talk about faith. And I think . . .

Colbert: Well, I’ve got historical evidence. The Bible tells me Jesus was born of a virgin.

Harris: Yeah, but . . .

Colbert: I mean, there’s your witness right there, the Bible.

Harris: Unfortunately, the Qu’ran says that anyone who thinks that is going to spend eternity in hell.

Colbert: But we’re not talking about the Qu’ran, we’re talking about the Bible, okay? The Bible is without flaw. It is inerrant. And we know this, because the Bible says it is without flaw.

Harris: Yeah.

Colbert: Okay, so, you’re talking about rationality and reason, what part of my logical chain . . . what part of my loop don’t you want to get on? I’m a gerbil on the wheel, my loop has no end. You can’t . . . or is that too complicated for you?

Harris: It’s true. There are . . . 44% of Americans think that Jesus is going to come down out of the clouds as a superhero and rectify every problem that we create on Earth, in the next 50 years. And this affects social policy. I mean, this affects the kinds of wars we wage, or don’t wage, this affects the kind of medical research we’re willing to fund or not fund, and this should be terrifying, because clearly, there’s no good reason to believe this. Even Biblical reasons not to believe this. And so we’re building a civilization of ignorance here.

Colbert: No, there’s something in the book of Revelations says, the book of the Revelations says . . .

Harris: That’s true . . .

Colbert: You know, the dragon, the whore of Babylon, it’s complicated, but somewhere in there, it says Jesus flies down with a cape on. But . . .

Harris: If you take Jesus in half his moods, you get that.

Colbert: But why don’t you, you can have rational, people can be rational and believe in God at the same time. I mean, you know, even, you know some cosmologists will say, there are ultimate questions we can’t answer, like why is there something instead of nothing?

Harris: Right.

Colbert: Okay, well that force, whatever caused something from nothing, you may call God, correct?

Harris: Yeah, but what, you’re redefining God out of existence. The God that most people believe in . . .

Colbert: I just defined God into existence, though.

Harris: That God is not getting people killed. The God that’s getting people killed is the God who thinks that martyrdom is a legitimate metaphysical principle, that death in the right circumstance get you to paradise with 72 virgins and all the rest. The god that’s getting people killed is the god who says that condom use is sinful, and therefore we have Catholics preaching the sinfulness of condom use in sub-Saharan Africa where literally three to four million people every year die of AIDS. I mean, this is genocidal stupidity. And yet we can’t call a spade a spade here because of the respect we accord religious dogma. And that’s what I’m arguing.

Colbert: I’ll tell you, there’s one way to settle this. I’ll see you in the afterlife. All right?

Harris: I hope not, we’ll be in the wrong place.

Colbert: Sam Harris . . . the book is “The End of Faith.”

Those interested in what true religious conviction looks like should read my panel interview with Harris about meditation here.


37 Responses to “Devout”

  1. Dave
    April 26th, 2006 @ 9:40 am

    Oh, I am SO sorry I missed this. Steven Colbert and Sam Harris in the same room at the same time. It boggles . . . .

    Now THERE’S a Democratic slate for 2008.

  2. John
    April 26th, 2006 @ 10:52 am

    I have read The end of faith and it really has changed the way i think about religion and my time on earth

  3. Realityhack
    April 26th, 2006 @ 11:25 am

    RA your meditation link is bad.

    Love where he admits to using circular logic without finding it strange in the least.

  4. Aurelius
    April 26th, 2006 @ 11:30 am

    Good humor. Colbert has gotten a lot better over time. His first few weeks required an act of faith to sit through.

  5. tarkovsky
    April 26th, 2006 @ 12:28 pm

    Thanks for posting that. Wonderful stuff! I don’t care about Harris’ meditation nincompoop but the more his book gets exposure the better.

  6. jahrta
    April 26th, 2006 @ 1:00 pm

    Might have been nice to have heard about this in advance, don’t you think?

  7. George Hotelling
    April 26th, 2006 @ 1:22 pm

    Do you have a source on Colbert being a freethinker? I remember hearing him say he was a practicing Catholic in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air (I think it was the Jan 24 episode but it might have been his second interview on the show). Also, his producer Ben Karlin was just on the show and said that Colbert was a Catholic and one of the few people that had a sense of humor about his religion, which is why he could create This Week in God.

    While he usually plays a character that is a parody of Bill O’Reilly, I think Colbert’s religion is his own, not his character’s.

  8. Mookie
    April 26th, 2006 @ 1:26 pm

    Sam Harris was great in TGWWT. I enjoyed his interview the most out of all the others. The five part series on here with him was really cool, too. He’s the kind of atheist that can connect to and admire the universe instead of writing such things off as religious or supernatural. Far from being a fine line, it is what makes living really fantastic.

  9. The Raving Atheist
    April 26th, 2006 @ 1:42 pm

    Do you have a source on Colbert being a freethinker?
    I remember hearing him say he was a practicing Catholic

    My source is everything he’s ever said about religion, on the Colbert Report or the Daily Show. It’s as, if not more, atheistic than anything you’ll see on South Park. Part of his atheist schtick is to claim to be a “devout Catholic” in every interview.

  10. Jason
    April 26th, 2006 @ 3:43 pm

    I’m gonna tentaviely agree with George. I’m not convinced that Stephen Colbert is an atheist. I kinda think that he’s a very liberal Catholic, who has no problem poking fun at his own religion. I’ve watched the Daily Show and the Colbert report alot, and I see where you’re coming from, but I think at the end of the day, he still considers himself a Catholic.

  11. EK
    April 26th, 2006 @ 4:45 pm

    Using that logic, Colbert would seem to be a devout conservative republican.

  12. Jason Malloy
    April 26th, 2006 @ 5:59 pm

    No, because in interviews he gets out of character. Why would he slam Bush, Bill O’Reilly, etc. in interviews, but then lie about identifying as (a very liberal) Catholic?

    Maybe it’s like how 50% of self-identified Jews are atheists – -some people don’t subscribe to the religion, but still consider the social membership important.

  13. Jason Malloy
    April 26th, 2006 @ 6:06 pm

    Michael Moore does the same thing, btw, always stressing that he’s a Catholic, but never clarifying what that means. If you pressed him to say how many Catholic positions he accepts it would no doubt be low, or even none. Probably just some pap about how Jesus was a Socialist and how that makes him the “real” Catholic.

  14. Mister Swill
    April 26th, 2006 @ 6:50 pm

    Being a Catholic in the United States in 2006 is a lot like being a Jew: It’s much more about identity, community, and culture than it is about religion or spirituality. At least for what seems to be the majority.

    Dan Savage summed this up pretty well in an interview a while back: “I’m culturally Catholic. I was raised Catholic… I feel Catholic. I have a Catholic world view, and for sure my kinks were shaped by all that blood and guilt and gore that the Catholics subject their children to in their formative years. But I don’t believe in God or Jesus or Mary or the rest of it. When it comes to belief, I’m an atheist. When it comes to culture, Catholic…” Perhaps the same is true of Colbert?

    I really enjoy the Colbert Report, but man, do I miss his “This Week in God” segments. My absolute favorite bit was when he trash-talked the ancient Aztec god Quetzalcoatal to see if he was “all that.”

  15. Liz
    April 26th, 2006 @ 8:38 pm

    Colbert is a Catholic. He’s talked about it on NPR, I’ve read it in other interviews, and I heard from someone on Daily Kos who lives in his town that he even teaches Sunday school.

  16. Liz
    April 26th, 2006 @ 8:55 pm

    Here’s the link to the Daily Kos comment, even though I know it doesn’t really prove anything.

  17. The Raving Atheist
    April 26th, 2006 @ 8:58 pm

    Colbert believes that Christ was born of a virgin, that he was martyred and rose from the dead, that believing in the crucifixion story cleanses one of sin and results in eternal life if you consume bread and wine that turns into Jesus’ body and blood? Not a chance.

  18. Jason Malloy
    April 26th, 2006 @ 9:40 pm

    He teaches Sunday School!??

    RA, you may be right, but that doesn’t make him an atheist. As usual Colbert flips back and forth between Colbert and O’Reilly, and this is not an O’Reilly question (In fact this sounds like the kind of argument I often hear from religious Democrats, not Republicans):

    Colbert: But why don’t you, you can have rational, people can be rational and believe in God at the same time. I mean, you know, even, you know some cosmologists will say, there are ultimate questions we can’t answer, like why is there something instead of nothing?

    Harris: Right.

    Colbert: Okay, well that force, whatever caused something from nothing, you may call God, correct?

  19. The Raving Atheist
    April 26th, 2006 @ 9:57 pm

    Perhaps an atheist-leaning agnostic, then. But no “devout Catholic” would trash the Church’s most basic dogmas with the frequency, and in the manner, Colbert does. I know there are devout Catholics who make little jokes about the dogmas from time to time, but Colbert is outright contemptuous. He deliberately uses the “devout Catholic” line in interviews with journalists because he gets a kick out of seeing it in print, and knows that no one will ever “question his religion” because it’s considered rude.

  20. Jason Malloy
    April 26th, 2006 @ 10:13 pm

    RA, I think there are just US cultures you don’t understand. I mean it confuses me too, but I don’t deny liberal religious strains exist just because I fancy them irrational. This is not the O’Reilly schtick:

    TONY: You created The Daily Show religious-satire segment, “This Week in God.” How do you square your Catholicism with comedy?

    SC: I love my Church, and I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth.

    It sure sounds like he means it to me!

  21. Jason Malloy
    April 26th, 2006 @ 11:12 pm

    I mean I’ve heard of being committed to a bit, but this is ridiculous:

    “Colbert lives in my town and he goes to church with a bunch of my friends. It’s a very, very, very blue town — and my friends are pretty darn blue — so I imagine the church is like the “social justice” focused Catholic churches I grew up in (I’m Episcopalian now). Anyhoo, Colbert is actually one of the Sunday school teachers there.”

    I think the Clintons go there too; you can always hear Bill snoozing in the back. No, wait, they probably go to a fake protestant church.

  22. The Raving Atheist
    April 26th, 2006 @ 11:24 pm

    What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ.

    But he satirizes the Word, blood and body rather than the misuse of religion. And he makes it clear that he considers it as idiotic as the dogma and fairy tales of any other religion. Members of “liberal religious strains” generally preach some sort of tolerance and respect for other faiths, rather than mock them. The strains who are not composed of cynical atheists just using religion as an opium to further their own political ends.

  23. Jason Malloy
    April 27th, 2006 @ 12:22 am

    Members of “liberal religious strains” generally preach some sort of tolerance and respect for other faiths, rather than mock them

    But at the end of the day there it is. Larry David mocks Judaism and religion just like an atheist, but at the end of the day there he is at the bar mitzvahs, there he is at the synagogues. Colbert mocks religion and Christianity just like an atheist, but at the end of the day there he is, going to church and teaching Sunday school. So whatever. Who knows how much they actually believe. It’s possible he believes every word of it, or none of it. Maybe comedians are better at compartmentalizing – it’s their job to mock everything. Maybe that’s how some religious liberals balance ideas they don’t like, with a birth community they do. Maybe they believe viscerally but not intellectually. Maybe they believe in one context but not the other.

    Anyway, he repeats that he is a Catholic in a non-ironic way, and behaves in many ways that are inconsistent with him not meaning it. So your suggestion that he’s just putting one over on interviewers for a hip laugh, is extremely illogical.

  24. HappyNat
    April 27th, 2006 @ 9:25 am

    This quote from SC,”I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic.” Makes it seem pretty clear he is poking fun at the Catholic Church. From my experience the CC doesn’t take kindly to being questioned. I think SC is taking everyone for a ride.

  25. Jason Malloy
    April 27th, 2006 @ 11:48 am

    Oh my fucking god, the Will to Believe on this matter rivals any religious belief. What he was saying was that his parents were liberal Catholics who taught him it was ok to be skeptical about religion, what the fuck is so hard or unbelievable about that?

    Jesus. The man is a Catholic, case closed. (until actual evidence to the contrary can be presented instead of all this weak bullshit).

  26. Danny Haszard
    April 27th, 2006 @ 12:42 pm

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are wolves in sheep’s clothing.–Danny Haszard

  27. HappyNat
    April 27th, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

    Jason M, methinks you need to get back on your meds. Do you really care this much what religion Colbert is or is not? If only you put this much effort in your search for god, maybe you wouldn’t be a lost soul spreading your filth/foul on the internet.

  28. Jason Malloy
    April 28th, 2006 @ 12:42 am

    It is annoying when people persist in arguing things that demonstratably contradict available evidence, that is all. Perhaps people who deign to tell me to stop “spreading filth” should first apply such critical standards to their own cyber-leavings.

  29. atheologist
    April 28th, 2006 @ 2:04 pm

    To get back on the topic of the post; For anyone that missed Sam Harris on the Colbert Report, it can be seen on the Comedy Central website. And no Steven is not an atheist, but if he keeps this up he may become one.

  30. Kelsey
    April 28th, 2006 @ 3:54 pm

    You’re getting hung up on the fact that a religious person would actually have a sense of humor about their religion, when in fact that happens all the time. You just don’t see it on TV… and since when is TV an accurate depiction of real life? If you claim Colbert doesn’t have the sense of humor to make fun of himself then I have no idea what show you’re watching. Considering that you’re an Atheist, it seems like you can’t understand how someone who is progressive might believe in God. I think this segement of the interview says a lot:

    Colbert: But why don’t you, you can have rational, people can be rational and believe in God at the same time. I mean, you know, even, you know some cosmologists will say, there are ultimate questions we can’t answer, like why is there something instead of nothing?

    Harris: Right.

    Colbert: Okay, well that force, whatever caused something from nothing, you may call God, correct?

    Does that sound like something “Stephen Colbert the conservative” would say? I think this segement is the real Stephen peeking through.

  31. Thorngod
    April 28th, 2006 @ 4:08 pm

    It doesn’t really matter to me one way or the other, but considering the apparent uncertainty of practically everyone posting here, perhaps Colbert has a bifurcated mentality and is both a believer and a non-believer. Psychologists have shown that some human subjects can prefer lemon pie over cherry, cherry pie over chocolate, and chocolate over lemon. And frankly, most Christians I personally know seem to fall into the bifurcated category. -Thorngod

  32. SeldomScene
    April 29th, 2006 @ 5:35 pm

    i’ve always wondered if even the religious types really believed in thier own nonsense. I mean, it’s so obviously ridiculous, how could they? as was pointed out above, so many atheists steadfastly consider themselves jews or catholics…. religion is just plain important to a lot of people. not to me, maybe not to ra, but to a lot of people, including a lot of agnostics and atheists.

    dunno why, but i’m guessing their loving it has nothing to do with their believing it or not….

  33. Brian Macker
    May 1st, 2006 @ 8:53 pm

    Yeah, I remember that Sam Harris fellow. I vaguely remembered him being reasonable but coming to some wrong conclusions. So I reread the articles on meditation. I found this statement of his objectionable but was unable to comment on before:
    “The point I make in my book is that, while we know that mental functions (like the ability to read) can be fully explained in terms of information processing, we don’t know this about consciousness. For all we know, consciousness may be a more fundamental property of the universe than are neural circuits. Many people have tried to invoke some of the spookiness found in quantum mechanics in support of such an idea. I’ve
    never been a fan of such efforts, however. Nevertheless, there is no result in neuroscience that rules out dualism, panpsychism, or any other theory that denies the reduction of consciousness to states of the brain. To my mind, neuroscience has demonstrated the supervenience of mind upon the brain, but the status of consciousness remains a mystery.”

    I don’t see the big difference between language processing and consciousness processing that he does. We don’t fully understand either. The connection that we make to the brain for these processes is not due to the fact we understand either. The connection is direct. We lose the ability to process language with damage to the brain. The damage to the foot, liver, or heart does not have this effect. We don’t need to understand language processing at all to get this connection. Likewise we lose consciousness with damage to the brain.

    I know from first hand experience that consciousness is connected with the brain, and not some ethereal realm. I have had several traumatic experiences that caused me to loose consciousness. These experiences were not injuries to my foot, but involved strikes to the head.

    We all have had the experience of falling asleep and it is quite clear that consciousness is not a continuous state. Thus we are well aware of the fact that it can be turned off. This turning off is highly correlated with particular brain states.

    So what I see is a clear correlation between consciousness and the brain operating in a certain way. One can think of consciousness as the brain machinery in the on state. We can also observe the brain in the off state such as when sleeping, in a coma, or knocked out. Why the heck we should expect consciousness to operate when the machine has been completely destroyed is beyond me. Consciousness doesn’t operate with a sharp blow to the head so why should it survive a bullet to the brainpan?

    I am also surprised that certain scientists think consciousness is tied to language. Apparently no of them have pets. It is quite clear that my dog goes through cycles of consciousness and unconsciousness called awake and asleep. This is obviously more fundamental that language.

    I thought it was also settled that more primitive animals do not have as advanced mechanisms for processing “the self”. I thought this was understood to be on a gradient. This is stuff I learned thirty years ago. Why would getting yourself to a state where you shut off this “self generator” be considered a good thing? Isn’t that getting conscious state to be more like a “snake state of being” than a human one? What is the value in that?

    I also don’t see the value in calling this sense of self an “illusion”. One can close ones eyes and you will no longer see. That however does not indicate that vision is an illusion. It is giving you information about the world. The sense of self does give you important information also. Does a meditating monk in this state of “selflessness” look at his image in the mirror the way a anole lizard does and fails to recognize his own reflection? What would be the value of that? Recognizing the self has some very valuable side effects like not attacking your rival in the mirror.

    This all doesn’t mean that achieving altered mental states isn’t interesting, or doesn’t shed light on human capabilities and nature. I just don’t see the implications that Sam Harris does. I think we can rule out dualism, panpsychism and such as valid theories of the mind and consciousness based on the evidence we have so far.

  34. David
    May 3rd, 2006 @ 3:35 am

    He quoted the Creed once on the show. He didn’t miss a beat and did it at an amazing pace. I have no doubt whatsoever that he is a Catholic. He was raised Catholic. He has 10 siblings for goodness sakes. He’s quite smart and softballed some questions/comments for Harris.

    … Harris, I think, stumbled a bit even with the softball interview. He should have mopped the floor against Colbert’s strawman arguments.

  35. David
    May 3rd, 2006 @ 3:44 am

    As a quick secondary comment, George Hotelling’s question was if RA had a source for Colbert being a “freethinker.” Colbert is clearly a freethinker. He says as much in the cited interviews. RA is however out of line, I believe, on claiming Colbert as an atheist.

    Not all atheists are freethinkers.
    Not all freethinkers are atheists.

  36. hermesten
    May 3rd, 2006 @ 9:56 am

    He could be a Bible Beating Catholic, or even a Fundie, and I’d still respect the guy after the way he put down Bush and our media whores at the White House Whores dinner.

  37. Tony B
    May 5th, 2006 @ 11:41 am

    Colbert is so very rarely out of character even in interviews. I dunno if he’s catholic or atheist, but it does seem apparent that he enjoys the confusion his character and self instill in people.

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