The Three Kinds of Theism

If you're an atheist who's setting out to debate religious believers, there are three main categories of theism you can expect to meet. Although religious belief is one of the most diverse of human phenomena, with a limitless variety of gradations and exceptions, I think these three suffice to classify nearly all of the theists that a nonbeliever is likely to encounter. If you want to debate, it's important to keep this in mind, because your strategy for dealing with each group needs to be different.

First of all, we have the fundamentalists. This is the most familiar group and the one that atheists encounter the most: the believers who interpret most of their holy book literally, who believe in miracles and demons and all the other trappings of supernaturalism, and a god who is anthropomorphic, judgmental, and intimately concerned with how humans lead their daily lives. The most zealously evangelistic, and the theocrats who most want their belief to be supported by the government, all fall into this category. Because they're the loudest and the most organized, they also take a prominent role in political debates like access to abortion or teaching evolution in schools.

Second, we have the laypeople. These are the ordinary, mainstream believers who are by far the most numerous of the three groups. They usually attend church infrequently, viewing it as one obligation among others, and they participate in religious rituals mainly out of habit, or to maintain a sense of community. Their political beliefs span the spectrum. Members of this group can be frustratingly difficult for atheists to engage, because their views on the Bible (or whatever their church's sacred text is) tend not to be variable so much as vague. Most of them have never read the Bible and know very little about what it says; for the most part, they believe without thinking much about it, and if asked to give a reason for their belief, few would be able to answer the question quickly or with confidence. Their notion of God tends to be somewhat less anthropomorphic than the fundamentalists, and certainly less demanding, less wrathful: more like a kindly grandparent than a stern tyrant.

Last, we have the theologians. These people, numerically the smallest of the three groups, are the elite, highly educated believers who are usually found among the clergy, the professional pundit class, and other rarefied circles. They tend to consider themselves more "sophisticated" than the other two groups, whose beliefs they view as simplistic and overly concrete, whereas they themselves tend to believe in a highly abstract, impersonal idea of God.

When debating with a fundamentalist, it's essential to know your Bible. A fundamentalist's identity is intimately bound up with their holy book, and an attack on it is an attack on them. The contradictions, scientific errors, textual alterations, and moral atrocities in religious texts make them unworthy of belief by any rational person, and that's a point you should hammer on. Granted, there are well-rehearsed apologetics for most of these points, but the important thing is that you know them at all. As Dan Barker has said, they consider the Bible their weapon; atheists aren't supposed to be using it against them. If you're already familiar with it, you'll have defanged their first and most common line of argument and will be able to very effectively put them on the defensive. A fundamentalist can't let an attack on the Bible slide.

For the laypeople, your strategy should be: Drive a wedge between the believer and the Bible. As I said earlier, most lay believers know very little about the Bible - mainly just the parts that are taught in Sunday school. I know from personal experience that they often react with shock and revulsion when they learn about its many violent, racist, or sexist passages. Your goal should be to encourage this feeling, to point out you know that they are a good person, and why would they want to believe in a book that contains such terrible things?

In my experience, the layperson will often claim that the bloody parts of the Bible represent corruption by misguided humans, and that God's true message can be found in the better verses. The best way to respond to this is to ask, "So which verses in the Bible were written by God, and which were mistakenly added by people - and how do you tell the difference?" Point out that what they're really doing is using their own conscience and sense of morality, and if they're capable through conscience of telling good ideas apart from bad ones, then what do they need the Bible for in the first place - and why do they hold it in any special reverence? Lots of books contain both good and bad ideas, and many contain a much higher proportion of good ideas than the Bible.

For theologians, your strategy should be: Tie them to the Bible. Since most people in this group eschew literal, anthropomorphic interpretations of God, you should point out that the Bible teaches exactly such a view. It repeatedly speaks of God as getting angry, jealous, repentant, and possessing other human passions. It repeatedly speaks of God as intervening in the world and doing miracles - indeed, the essence of most major faiths, especially Christianity, is that they're based on miracles. It repeatedly speaks of God demanding worship and punishing people who displease him. All these things are anathema to the theologian's view, which carefully separates God from any point of contact with the world.

And since they'll likely protest that the literal view is not their view, you can point out that it underlies their perspective, whatever they may think. Ask them if they pray, if they attend church, if they go to confession or otherwise participate in ritual, if they still use the language and participate in all the outward trappings of conventional religious belief - which most of them do - even though those activities make little sense except in the paradigm of the jealous, worship-demanding, miracle-working god they claim not to believe in.

August 3, 2009, 7:36 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink31 comments

Thoughtful Iconoclasts: A Response to Madeleine Bunting

I last mentioned Guardian columnist and Templeton Foundation fellow Madeleine Bunting in 2007, in "On Being Uncontroversial". She's recently written another column attacking atheism, alleging that the New Atheists are drowning out, in her words, "real debates" about religion and faith.

Personally, I don't see the basis of her complaint. I think we've been provoking some very good debates - about the proper role of religion in society, how much influence it should have, whether and to what extent its claims deserve respect, how to judge between the various religions' competing truth claims, and so on. This is a welcome change of pace, I would think, from the dreary repetitions of orthodoxy and the polite, embarrassed silence that's so often prevailed in public conversations about religion. But none of these are the kind of "real debates" Bunting is talking about.

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney.

In one sense, this is true; there are only so many ways to say "there is no evidence for God". But what Bunting appears to be arguing is that we've said all we have to say and should therefore stop talking. Needless to say, that isn't going to happen. As she is surely aware, religious faith is still causing evils in the world today: oppressing and persecuting women and homosexuals, providing the ideological underpinnings for terroristic violence and theocratic rule, and motivating attacks on toleration, science, and separation of church and state. Under these circumstances, it would be morally wrong for atheists not to speak out, and we intend to continue doing so until our message sinks in and the world turns toward enlightenment.

And if Bunting's critique is that atheists have run out of interesting things to say, that same critique applies with redoubled force to her own religion. Faiths like Roman Catholicism have spent millennia preaching from one book, endlessly rehashing the same tedious stories. Does this mean Christianity has hit an intellectual dead end? If not, then how much wronger is this claim in regards to atheism, which is not limited to one holy text or tradition but has the whole wide universe from which to draw its stories and moral lessons?

Just this week, AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists.

If I'm not mistaken, that would be the same A.N. Wilson who said that Darwin's Descent of Man is "an offence to the intelligence" and added that "the jury is out" about whether evolutionary theory is true. Whether he ever was an atheist or not, this shameful and disgraceful ignorance gives us good reason to doubt his credibility in other areas, and to suspect that his statements about his past position are driven by apologetic necessity. Bunting might as well quote Lee Strobel saying he only became an atheist because he wanted to do whatever he chose and live free of morality and accountability.

In the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, "I don't believe in God - though I wish I did, and I can't stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?"

Bunting here provides further evidence for the thesis which I advanced in "Respectable Infidels": that the only atheists considered "respectable" by apologists are those who concede the superiority of religion and wish they were believers. An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

Anyway, what exactly does Bunting think the New Atheists are doing wrong? We get a glimpse at her answer, what she calls the "key mistake", and it's truly bizarre:

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

...the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

With this passage, Bunting places herself firmly in the rarefied, academic fantasyland inhabited by so many of her fellow theologians. She alleges that it's crude and simple-minded to say that you have certain knowledge of what God is like, what he commands, and what we should do to fulfill our duty to him. In its place, she promotes an "apophatic" theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

If that's the tack she wants to take, fine. But the glaringly obvious rejoinder which she steadfastly refuses to mention is that this position is a minority report. There are billions of theists worldwide who do exactly what she decries, bluntly proclaiming their certainty in an anthropomorphic god whose wishes are known to all. They use this belief as a justification to tyrannize others, and they are loud, well-organized, and belligerent. That is the kind of faith that the New Atheists have risen against; that is the kind we oppose so vehemently because of the ongoing danger it presents to the liberty and well-being of humankind. Bunting's apophatic faith, which has been been so carefully excised of substance, is a tiny minority opinion and always has been.

This piece is a perfect example of the Courtier's Reply: religious apologists who decry atheists for not attacking the vague and allegedly more sophisticated creeds held by a handful of theologians, refusing to understand that we are responding to religious faith as it is actually held and practiced by the overwhelming majority of religious people today. Yet somehow, it's always the atheists who get blamed for attacking this crude and over-literal faith - never the believers who actually hold it and put it into practice.

Bunting demonstrates her failure to grasp this with her closing argument:

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored.... By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are "cruder, less tested, less instructive".

First of all, many atheists have devoted significant effort to explaining where we find meaning, purpose and goodness in a life free of superstition. Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth's sake: it was called Unweaving the Rainbow. If Bunting doesn't know this, maybe it's because she's so consumed with her own stereotypes of those awful New Atheists that she hasn't made the effort to find out what we really think. The debate she wants has been happening all along - she just hasn't been paying attention.

It's true that any replacement for religion will be "less tested". But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We've made the decision to attack religions precisely because we've concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

April 13, 2009, 9:56 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

Open Thread: Battle Royale Edition

This comment was left on a different post by a visitor calling himself Ty:

I cannot imagine how you could believe that there is no savior in this world. I am 14, and strongly believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. I'm almost offended that you could think there is no God. If you really believe that you have evidence that Christ is not the Savior of the world, I'd like to hear your claims. No offense to you or any other atheist, but I believe that they would be irrelevant compared to the strong evidence of every prophesy that Jesus fulfilled perfectly. Please submit some feedback.

He indicated to me in e-mail that he was willing to return and give fair consideration to any responses offered to this question. We'll see how that works out. Readers, have at it!

October 18, 2008, 11:48 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink254 comments

Ten Questions to Ask Your Pastor

The New York Times recently ran a depressing article about the obstacles faced by public school science teachers. I don't envy teachers their job, as important as it is: between surly and unruly students, cash-strapped school districts, incompetent administrators, and the regimented, monotonous teaching needed to drill classes for standardized testing, they have more than enough to deal with. But this outrage may surpass all the others: religious students who have been programmed by their parents and churches to reject evolution and any other branch of science that infringes on their sacred superstitions.

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

"I refuse to answer," Bryce wrote. "I don't believe in this."

The article mentions "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution", a tract written by the Moonie creationist Jonathan Wells, as one that some religious students are bringing to class. The National Center for Science Education has done a superb job answering these questions and unpacking the deceitful assumptions built into them (and the Talk.Origins Archive has a more in-depth response), so I won't spend my time on that. I have a different idea.

If the creationist churches are prepping teenagers with arguments against science, I think it's only fair that they get a taste of their own medicine. I think there should be a list of questions for Sunday-school students to ask their pastor - questions that cast light on the unsavory parts of Christian theology and raise the difficult, uncomfortable issues that most religious leaders prefer to avoid. Here are my suggestions for a list. I've done my best to raise issues that aren't often addressed by apologists, or to phrase questions in ways that aren't as susceptible to stock answers. If anyone has alternatives or additions, feel free to suggest them.

1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament's stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?

2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?

3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?

4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries?

5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?

6. If it was always God's plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn't he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of confusing and misleading generations of people by setting up a religion called Judaism which he knew in advance would prove to be inadequate?

7. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to hell, doesn't this show that God's plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?

8. Why didn't God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn't this the state that will exist in Heaven?)

9. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?

10. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn't God done this already?

September 6, 2008, 10:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink240 comments

Open Thread: A Christian Visitor

This is an open thread to address the comment below left by a Christian visitor. Replies are welcome; as always, let's have a civil discussion.

May 4, 2008, 2:10 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink42 comments

The Harris-Sullivan Debate: III

In the previous exchange from their debate, Andrew Sullivan has declared that his faith in God is not based on any evidence whatsoever, and no imaginable evidence could cause him to change his mind about it. Sam Harris reacts with bemusement, as well he might:

I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.

You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn't come to believe in God by taking any state of the world into account, no possible state of the world could put His existence in doubt.

As Harris notes, this is the point at which many people, believers and nonbelievers alike, would conclude the futility of further debate and change the subject. "You have your opinions and I have mine," the cant goes, "and we'll just have to agree to disagree."

It is true enough, there is nothing to be gained by stubbornly continuing to debate a person who has already made it clear that they will not be swayed by any argument. On the other hand, I would argue that this attitude, when applied on a larger scale, is the cause of most of the religious dissension and division in the world. By embracing the attitude that other people just have their own beliefs and we should steer clear of challenging them too vigorously, would-be ecumenists have unwittingly promoted a dangerous intellectual isolation between competing creeds. The problem, as I see it, is that many liberal theists have gone beyond the mere recognition of differences in belief to the illogical conclusion that differences in belief are a good thing.

That statement needs some clarification. Diversity among human beliefs is an artifact of our inability to directly and infallibly perceive the truth. And since there's no reliable way to tell who is in error - it might be any of us - it's a wise idea to maintain a reservoir of differing opinions and not be too dogmatic about promoting any particular belief. Tolerance and intellectual diversity are essential hedges against error, given our manifest fallibility. But it does not follow that diversity of belief is an intrinsic good. There is only one world, and there must be one true description of it. So while we accept the existence of conflicting beliefs, and we are right to do so, we should at the same time be actively working to weed out error and reach agreement through the truth-seeking method of rational debate. The fact is that different groups of people hold different beliefs about the world, and not all of these beliefs can be correct. It does no one any favors for us to agree not to try to find out who it is. Even worse is the declaration that one's own beliefs are immune to evidence-based challenge.

Harris closes the letter by inviting Sullivan to rely on the more dependable method of reason, and in response, Sullivan commits a classic fallacy used by liberal and conservative theists alike:

Science rests as well on some basic elements of faith.... These little puddle-jumps of faith are the foundation for your reason. I think they are justified. But that reason is really, au fond, a belief, an act of faith, an acknowledgment that, as humans, we have no "contingency-free" place from where to start at all and no "contingency-free" place on earth to end up at.

No, no, a thousand times no. Science, like every human endeavor, can deliver only provisional and not absolute truth about the world we live in, and can be sidetracked by human fallibility and ego. But this categorically does not mean that science is no better than any other way of knowing invented or alleged by humans, nor does it mean that its conclusions are no more certain than any religious assertion based on faith. Despite its faults, science is still by far the most and indeed the only reliable way of knowing we have ever discovered. The exponential growth of scientific knowledge, compared to the eternal stagnation of religion, should alone lay this silly trope to rest. Harris dismantles it with razor-keen wit:

...the fact that Hume's worries make sense, the fact that Wittgenstein can say things like "our spade is turned," does not place every spurious claim to knowledge on an equal footing with science. The discomfort induced in mathematics by Godel does not make the doctrine of Mormonism even slightly more plausible. There is still a difference between jumping a puddle and walking on water.

Sullivan closes his letter, the last so far, with a description of what he finds so inspiring about Christianity.

The Catholicism I imbibed was a minority faith in a majority Protestant or agnostic culture. And I can track its origins through history--through my Irish ancestors who held onto it despite cruel persecution, back to the time when England itself was pervaded by the religious faith I still hold. In high school and university, I was able to study the history of that faith--the astonishing cultural wealth and spiritual depth of the Catholic church that kept the memory of Jesus alive for millennia... They passed it, these souls, from person to person, from generation to generation, in one of the most astonishingly persistent endeavors in human history.

...Even today, as I type these words, I look on my desk and see the sign I bring with me everywhere: his cross. When I go to dinner later, a small cross will come with me, in my wallet. In my study at home, a fourteenth century wooden carving of Jesus stares down at me from the wall. He is alive in me and millions of others after all this time, sustaining, nurturing, inspiring not just me but countless more. Even if you do not believe in him in the way I do, surely you must acknowledge that something very special has been going on here, something truly remarkable, something beyond the norm of much else in human history.

Sullivan gives eloquent voice to the human need for belonging, the need to feel as if we belong to something larger than ourselves, and the way that Catholicism fulfills that need for him. However, this intricate web of unfolding history is not the exclusive provenance of Christianity. Sullivan, I am sure, knows that every faith that exists in the world today can trace its history back through a similar chain of tireless devotion, martyrdom, and endurance through persecution. Islamic scholars, too, can marvel at the vast ocean of history that lies behind their creeds. Buddhists, too, can be awed by the way their founder's dharma has been passed from mind to mind over the long march of centuries. Mormons can admire the faith and hope that kept their forebears unbowed in the face of unrelenting persecution. Even atheists can, and do, remember the astonishing courage, conviction, and strength of character of famous historical nonbelievers who dared to speak truth to a bitterly hostile world.

In fact, all of history - every person, every event, indeed every living thing - owes its existence to an astonishing and glorious web of intertwining contingency. No one link in this web is more or less important than any other. The history of Christianity that Sullivan so rapturously describes is, in truth, just a vanishingly small section of a far vaster and more amazing weave of causality and chance. It is the story of how we, as a species, first emerged out of the dawn on the red plains of Africa; how we moved out and swept across the world in successive waves of migration, surviving ice ages, crossing hostile oceans, and multiplying into the new vistas that opened up before us. It is the story of how civilization first took fragile root, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Europe, in the Americas; of how we learned to chip stone, to mold clay, to spin cloth, and to forge metal, each new discovery building on the last. And, yes, it is the story of the supernatural beliefs we told each other, huddled around the glow of our campfires at night, and of how our folk religions and shamans grew into cathedrals, priests, popes, and kings.

It is all part of our history, and there is indeed a beauty in this grandeur. It is all worth knowing and worth marveling at. What it is not is reason to believe that any one set of irrational ideas is true. If anything, the sheer vastness of the causal web should give Sullivan, or any thinking religious person, reason to hesitate before plucking one tiny thread out of this grand weave and declaring that it and it alone is the key to it all and the one that governs all the others. Our religions are far too small for that.

March 5, 2007, 8:53 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink1 comment

The Harris-Sullivan Debate: II

As the debate continues, Sam Harris responds to Andrew Sullivan's contention that many of the fundamentalists he knows are compassionate, caring people who do many selfless good deeds for others:

For instance, you claim that many fundamentalists are tolerant of dissent and capable of friendship with you despite their dogmatic views about sex. You also remind me that many devoutly religious people do good things on the basis of their religious beliefs. I do not doubt either of these propositions. You could catalogue such facts until the end of time, and they would not begin to suggest that God actually exists, or that the Bible is his Word, or that his Son came to earth in the person of Jesus to redeem our sins.

I believe a well-articulated and properly understood atheism should consist of two claims: first, that religious beliefs are not true; second, that on balance they have done more harm than good. The first claim explains why we are atheists, the second explains why we speak out about it. Though I've never advocated belief in convenient falsehoods just because they are comforting, I'll be the first to say that if religion had only ever been a force for good in this world, I probably wouldn't have gone to the trouble of creating this website.

But we should be careful not to confuse these claims, or let theists confuse them for us. More importantly, we must take care not to suggest that religion is false because it is harmful. These are separate claims and should be defended separately.

Harris goes on to offer an incisive remark on Sullivan's defense of religious morality:

As you may know, I've argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available; I have also argued that it rather often gets people to do very bad things that they would not otherwise do.

This is exactly right, and this is a point we should be making more often. The problem with religious morality, even when it causes people to treat others well, is that religious morality is grounded in an idea - obeying the supposed will of God - that is orthogonal to human concerns. We should not be caring for the poor and the sick because it is what God wants; we should be caring for them because it is the right thing to do, and because these others are human beings who need our compassion. A morality not grounded in human concerns can still produce good results, when what the believer is taught to be God's will lines up with what their fellow humans need; but it can also produce dreadful results when the alleged will of God does not align with human desires and needs, as my letter of advice to a Christian illustrates. And, as this story shows, these two seemingly contradictory behaviors can paradoxically exist within a single person. An atheist morality of compassion would produce good results consistently, not just by happenstance.

Andrew Sullivan says:

My response rests on an understanding of truth that is not exhausted by empiricism or materialism. I do not believe, in short, that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be 'proven' by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer.

Sadly, he does not elaborate on what non-empirical - in other words, non-evidence-based - method he has in mind. (He does claim, incorrectly, that historical investigation is not an empirical method of truth-seeking because it's not based on repeatable experiments, a common apologist mistake.) Most religious believers don't, in my experience, which makes claims like these an exercise in vacuous special pleading. The usual assertion is that there are some beliefs that should be exempted from the tiresome necessity of evidence because, well, just because.

Sullivan goes on to address one of Harris' arguments:

...the content of various, competing revelations renders them dangerous. They are dangerous because they logically contradict each other. And since their claims are the most profound that we can imagine, human beings will often be compelled to fight for them. For if these profound matters are not worth fighting for, what is?

Sullivan has grasped the central problem here and summed it up with aplomb. He goes on to admit that this is a "central problem" for religion and "will always be so". However, his proposed solution is entirely inadequate:

We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never grasp, something we can never know - because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T...

The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it.

This solution is glib and superficial. As Sullivan is certainly aware, because he says he has dealt with them many times, there are a huge number of religious believers who do not share his commendable humility. There are a huge number of theists who feel that they do have surety, that they do know God's will (because, they hasten to add, God has told them what it is), and even worse, that God wants them to be the agents of his will, imposing it on others who do not agree. What does Sullivan propose when his "non-empirical" methods of truth-seeking lead, as they inevitably will, to people adopting this theocratic viewpoint? What do we do then?

Andrew Sullivan, after all, is not the problem. He does not want a theocracy. But there are millions of believers who do, fervently so, and are fighting to bring that outcome about. Sam Harris is right to point that out, and to argue that religion is a very dangerous thing because of it. Sullivan's response that he isn't one of those bad guys does not undermine the validity of this point, and though he gravely frowns over the matter and pronounces it a serious problem, he proposes no feasible way to deal with it.

There is only one workable solution to this problem, in fact, and that is that we need a method of truth-seeking that relies on evidence which we can all examine for ourselves. That is the only way we will ever be able to reach consensus. Relying on subjective claims of internal revelation and other "non-empirical" methods of belief-formation mean that when those methods lead to violent and tyrannical actions grounded in the actor's belief in God, there is nothing for religious moderates to do except to protest that they believe something different - which is precisely what Sullivan does, and which is Harris' point. What we need to do is to teach the supremacy of evidence and reason over faith, and teach people to think skeptically, critically and rationally. That, in the long run, is the only possible way to end religious bloodshed and jihad.

The fourth section contains, I think, one of the most revealing exchanges in the entire debate. Sam Harris ends his letter with an extremely important question, and Sullivan's response is startling in its candor:

Let me close by asking you a simple question: What would constitute "proof" for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken?

I have no ability to stop believing. Crises in my life - death of loved ones, diagnosis with a fatal illness, emotional loss - have never shaken this faith. In fact, they have all strengthened it. I know of no "proof" that could dissuade me of this, since no "proof" ever persuaded me of it.

...You will ask: how do I know this was Jesus? Could it not be that it was a force beyond one, specific Jewish rabbi who lived two millennia ago and was executed by the Roman authorities? Yes, and no. I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life - and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus' birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.

So, according to Sullivan's own words, he is a believer because of a subjective, emotional experience he had, which he cannot explain and which did not come upon him in response to any evidence. He admits that he interpreted it as a confirmation of Christianity, rather than some other religion, only because that was the religion he was brought up with. And yet, this faith built on nothing is so persuasive in his eyes that he would refuse to reconsider it in response to any evidence.

I thank him for putting it so plainly, because I think something very similar is at the heart of most religious belief. A person experiences something that has a powerful emotional impact on them, they interpret it in the context of whichever religion is dominant in their society, and they decide through faith that they could not possibly be mistaken about the cause of this experience or what it signifies. Those three steps - emotion, tradition, faith - probably explain nine-tenths or more of all religious belief, notwithstanding the unconvincing after-the-fact apologetics offered by a minority of the faithful.

It should be obvious that this is an utterly insufficient basis for believing anything, much less anything of such extreme importance. Sullivan almost seems embarrassed by it himself, as he phrases his position not in terms of choice but compulsion, claiming that he is unable to believe differently. Even if that is the case, and I think he gives himself too little credit, it does not follow that he should want to continue believing in this way. After all, we all know the experience of having higher-order desires that contradict our lower-order desires - like the smoker who wants a cigarette, but also wants not to want cigarettes. Even if Sullivan cannot stop believing, he could still decry (higher-order) the emotional addiction to religion that has left him in that state. That he does not do so suggests that his problem is one of will, not ability.

Coming up: Thoughts on part 5 and 6 of the Harris-Sullivan debate.

March 3, 2007, 11:13 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink16 comments

The Harris-Sullivan Debate: I

Since last month, Beliefnet has been hosting a debate between Sam Harris, atheist author and neuroscientist, and Andrew Sullivan, the conservative commentator and devout Catholic.

This is a wonderful debate, and I strongly encourage my visitors to read it for themselves. Both participants are highly educated, articulate and persuasive, and both do an admirable job of advocating for their respective positions, with excellent points traded on both sides and a refreshing lack of animosity. Harris is his usual lively, spirited, take-no-prisoners self, and he puts forth an inspired presentation, full of incisive and immensely entertaining quips. Sullivan, meanwhile, makes the case for theism as effectively as I have ever seen anyone make it. He is not a fundamentalist, but that works to his advantage, since he is able to present a case shorn of the usual absurdities and contorted rationalizations used to justify the most extreme and literal forms of religion, and truly gets down to the basics of why people believe.

A great advantage of the internet is that, unlike newspapers and magazines, it has no practical limit on space. That has allowed this debate to truly flourish and take on depth and thoughtfulness, as opposed to space- and time-limited debates which usually fall into the rote repetition of talking points. I emphasize my recommendation that readers check out the whole thing for themselves, but I'd like to provide some additional commentary on both debaters' remarks.

In his first letter, Sullivan expresses his belief that reason and faith are compatible when both are properly understood. He says that his position allows for distinctions between fundamentalism and a more moderate faith, while Harris' position permits no such distinction:

I'm struck, in other words, by the difference between Christianity as it can be and Christianity as it is expressed by fundamentalists. You are struck by the similarity between my doubt-filled, sacramental, faith-in-forgiveness and fundamentalism.

Harris, in reply, sums up Sullivan's position so eloquently that no one could accuse him of understating it:

I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken "extremists" to be representative of these "great" faiths, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, "simplistic," "dogmatic," or even "fundamentalist."

But the problem, as Harris ably points out, is that the liberals and moderates who find such nuance and complexity in their faith are not the ones running the show. The simplistic fundamentalist views which Sullivan decries are widespread and hugely influential, both in Christianity and in Islam, as well as other major world religions. Regardless of the exegetical soundness of the fundamentalists' strategy, they are still convincing millions of people to follow them, with potentially disastrous repercussions for humanity in general. In a sense, the religious moderates are living in an ivory tower, and this can erroneously lead them to conclude that fundamentalism is not a threat:

Moderate doubt — which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects — often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy.

Harris also makes a brilliant observation that I think cuts to the heart of the debate, namely that the nuance and complexity that Sullivan discerns consists mostly of interpreting scripture less literally and taking its claims less seriously:

The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don't tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave. They have, as you say, "integrated doubt" into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith — and for good reason.

It scarcely needs pointing out that the Bible and other holy books are rife with the moral anachronisms of the time in which they were written, endorsing such evil acts as slavery, intolerance, holy war and persecution of nonbelievers. The religious extremism which Sullivan denounces is not an inexplicable perversion of true faith; quite simply, it is the result of reading scripture for what it says, and not letting one's own conscience or the discoveries of modern science override the words of the text. As Harris says, no matter the pious talk of some modern believers, scripture will remain a "perpetual engine of extremism", because "the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate".

Sullivan protests this point, asserting that he and his allies actually take scripture "more seriously than the fundamentalists":

Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express. For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection.

Sullivan stresses this wishful point, but I don't think he can downplay the significance of Harris' observation. He says that the gospels "really aren't, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi" (why only the gospels - why not the whole Bible?) - and yet, he does not and cannot deny that scripture does contain teachings on matters like this, as well as others that are far worse. His sole defense is that this isn't what the Bible is "really about" and so he's free to disregard these verses that clash with conscience or the findings of science, because they are incidental to its main message, "the love of the force behind the entire universe, and the need to reflect that love in everything we do".

First of all, I fail to see the basis for Sullivan's certainty that love is the Bible's central message, the one next to which everything else it says is incidental. Even if we set aside the holy war and vindictiveness that fills the entire Old Testament, culminating with God's becoming so angry at his chosen people that he burns down their capital city and holy temple and sends them into slavery in a distant land, the message of the New Testament is hardly one of unalloyed love and compassion either. If anything, its main message is that those who do not possess the correct faith can expect to suffer a grim and frightening fate in the afterlife; and this fate, Jesus says, will come upon the majority of humanity, while only a relative few will escape it. Even if one interprets the verses about never-quenched fires and undying worms only metaphorically, that scarcely mitigates the horror any good person would feel at such a theology. But perhaps Sullivan also disregards verses like these, because they too are not what the Bible is "really about".

And there lies the crux of the matter (no pun intended). Who decides what the Bible is really about? Set aside all the obvious scientific inaccuracies, all the stories that have obviously become mythologized. Set that all aside, and you're still left with two large and conflicting sets of verses. One contains some moving messages about love, forgiveness, and compassion. The other contains some horrifying messages about wrath, hate, and damnation. Which do we follow? Which do we choose? And why?

If these be the choices, Sullivan has made the right one. I do not fault him for that. What he cannot then do is proclaim that his is the only way to read the Bible, that he takes the text more seriously than the fundamentalists or understands it better than they do. He should at least acknowledge, as Harris presses him to acknowledge, that scripture is very much an "engine of extremism". If he admitted that there were other readings of the Bible, just as legitimate as his own, that had some deeply troubling moral implications, that would represent real progress.

Coming up: Thoughts on parts 3 and 4 of the Harris-Sullivan debate.

February 25, 2007, 10:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink19 comments

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