Harris vs. Sullivan

Beliefnet is hosting a blogalogue between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Harris is defending the entirely sensible view that religious faith, especially in its monotheistic form, is a lot of twaddle, while Sullivan takes the view that reasonable religious faith is not an oxymoron. Here are a few excerpts. Harris first:

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term “faith” in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence–prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, “have faith in yourself.” There’s nothing wrong with that type of “faith.”

Given my view of faith, I think that religious “moderation” is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

Well said. (See the original for links).

That was from Harris’ opening post. Sullivan’s reply contained several choice nuggets, among which these two stood out:

The reason I find fundamentalism so troubling – whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim – is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation). It is its inability to integrate doubt into faith, its resistance to human reason, its tendency to pride and exclusion, and its inability to accept mystery as the core reality of any religious life. You find it troubling, I think, purely because it upholds truths that cannot be proved empirically or even, in some respects, logically. In that sense, of course, I think you have no reason to dislike or oppose it any more than you would oppose my kind of faith. Your argument allows for no solid distinctions within faiths; my argument depends on such distinctions.

This is standard rhetoric among religious moderates. It is mostly gobbledygook. I have no idea what it means to integrate doubt into faith, or to accept mystery as the core reality of religious life. Doubt is what you have when you lack faith, and mystery is what religious belief is supposed to dispell. One of the great benefits of religion, according to its adherents, is that it provides answers to the ultimate questions science can’t investigate. If religion does provide this benefit, then it seems odd to claim that mystery is at the core of religious belief. If religion does not provide this benefit, then what good is it?

Here’s the nub, I think. You write:

I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not.

Agreed. As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth. So I am perfectly happy to believe in evolution, for example, as the most powerful theory yet devised explaining human history and pre-history. I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe – since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator. I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith – since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.

This relates to a point I made yesterday in my reply to the Francis Collins’ interview. Early in his missive, Sullivan specifically criticizes fundamentalists for being resistant to human reason. But it is hard to imagine anything less reasonable than what Sullivan is proposing here. He simply takes for granted that God exists and created the universe, and refuses to revisit that assumption in the light of any bit of data or evidence that is thrown his way. That’s called blind faith, and it is not a view to be proud of. It is also not a view shared by fundamentalists, in my experience.

Most of my views regarding fundamentalism were shaped by my experiences in Kansas. I have written about this before. While I was there I spent many, many hours listening to the fundamentalist Christian radio station and prowling around Christian bookstores. Contrary to what Sullivan seems to think, they do not eschew human reason. One of their standard refrains was that Christianity requires faith backed up by reason. In fact, I found they were downright obsessed with defending their faith with actual arguments. Bad arguments, mind you, but they didn’t simply insulate their faith from all rational scrutiny. They didn’t pretend that there is no conflict between a Bible that says the world was created ex nihilo for man’s benefit by an act of God’s will, and a science that says that human beings are the end product of billions of years of evolution and were not an inevitable result of that process. Only moderates try to defend such things.

Anyway, Harris really gets going in his next post. It is so chock full of perfect, spot-on nuggets that I despair of choosing a few representative bits. Here are some I really liked:

Second, many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac–to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one’s neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God’s loving machinery of justice.

Exactly right, both in tone and substance. As much as I dislike religious fundamentalism, I do give them credit for holding a consistent, coherent worldview. Not so the moderates. I can understand a view that says the Bible is the holy and inerrant word of God, and that we must live in accord with its teachings even when such living is inconvenient. I can likewise understand a view that says the Bible is a purely human creation and therefore not deserving of any more respect than we give to any other historical document. What I can not understand is a view that says it’s perfectly acceptable to throw out bits of the Bible we find unacceptable, like the creation story in Genesis or the parts where it is bashing homosexuality, but that it is holy writ nonetheless.

There’s no question that moderates are easier to live with than fundamentalists. They are less likely to stand in the way of scientific investigation, and they have far less interest in legislating personal behavior. In that sense moderation is preferable to fundamentalism. But if the goal is to resolve religious questions in a way based on argument and evidence, the fundamentalists are preferable.

Harris makes similar points in his hext paragraph:

How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights–scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Yikes…”), mathematical (“pi doesn’t actually equal 3? All right, so what?”), and moral (“You mean, I shouldn’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves? They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, “written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost.” Needless to say, I believe you have given the Supreme Pontiff far too much credit as a champion of reason. The man believes that he is in possession of a magic book, entirely free from error.

Again exactly right. One final nugget:

Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

Sullivan is supposed to reply tomorrow. I’ll be curious to see what sort of defense he can muster.

Comments

  1. #1 Scott
    January 18, 2007

    You say, “Doubt is what you have when you lack faith”. Coming (most recently) from an Episcopal background, I would have to disagree. This may be quite true of a Fundamentalist faith, but not of all faiths. I think “doubt” in this context starts with the assumption (or willingness to believe) that there is a God, but then says that beyond that assumption (or belief), we can’t be certain of anything we may claim to know about God. Such a doubting faith would call into question *any* claim to fact in the Bible, up to and including the physical resurection. “Doubt” would be doubt in our selves, and “doubt” in the veracity of our beliefs. A doubting faith is one that is willing to accept the faiths (or lack of faith) of others, because we might indeed be wrong.

    I strongly suspect that a doubting faith is very similar to the deistic positions in which I understand that many of America’s founding fathers believed. It’s where the Constitutional toleration of religious faiths came from.

    FWIW.

  2. #2 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Scott,

    The whole concept of “doubting faith” seems to me an oxymoron. Where does the faith end and the doubt begin? How do you decide where to draw that line? If you’re going to doubt anything beyond “There is a God,” why not doubt that there is a God, too? If faith means belief for which there is insufficient evidence (which is how Harris defines it and how I would define it), where does the doubt come in?

  3. #3 Geocreationist
    January 18, 2007

    >I have no idea what it means to integrate doubt into faith, or to accept mystery as the core reality of religious life.
    When God rained manna from Heaven, He had the Hebrews gather one omer per person in their family. But, you had to bring it to measure it, to make sure you gathered the right amount. Those who measured it, it always measured exactly. Those who didn’t, inevitably gathered too much (causing worms) or too little (causing hunger).

    The faith was the act of measuring, “knowing” (contrary to common sense) that it would measure right. You just needed to try gathering the right amount. The doubt and mystery are from not knowing how much you actually gathered.

    >He simply takes for granted that God exists and created the universe, and refuses to revisit that assumption in the light of any bit of data or evidence that is thrown his way.
    I am unfamiliar with Sullivan, but if He has a relationship with God, then questioning God’s existence would make as much as sense as questioning ones own.

    >They didn’t pretend that there is no conflict between a Bible that says the world was created ex nihilo for man’s benefit by an act of God’s will, and a science that says that human beings are the end product of billions of years of evolution and were not an inevitable result of that process.
    I agree that would be a conflict. However, interpreting Genesis 1 in terms of mainstream science actually provides a more literal interpretation than YEC. It was a step of faith for me to conclude that must be true… it was finally backed up by reason when discoveries about zircon crystals, combined with understanding of the KT impact and the evolutionary tree confirmed it.

    >There’s no question that moderates are easier to live with than fundamentalists. They are less likely to stand in the way of scientific investigation, and they have far less interest in legislating personal behavior. In that sense moderation is preferable to fundamentalism.

    It’s too bad that the fundamentalists you refer to are actually blind to how the scriptures would have them handle these issues. If they could see that YEC is not a literal intepretation of Genesis 1, that would remove the obstacles to scientific progress. As for legislation, the bottom line is that whatever the law of the land, all authority derives from God, and must be respected, even when you disagree.

    As for legislating personal behavior though, both sides do it. Are you against Christian legislators outlawing murder and discrimination? I doubt it. Such laws protect us all. Are laws preventing parents from knowing about their daughter’s abortion not behavioral? Of course they are. Even though the intent is to protect the daughter, my point is that you are outlawing the father’s ability to make certain medical decisions about his minor child… yet Christians are disqualified from objecting because of their reason for objection is religious.

    Perhaps this contradiction in our law doesn’t represent how you would have things, but as a society we’re starting to say that anyone but Christians can legislate according to their values. We either need to move all behavior beyond the reach of law (which completely unravels the rule of law, since all law deals with behavior) or we need to clarify when a religious value is allowed to be reflected in law and when it’s not. Murder’s against the law, homosexuality’s not. Fine… but let’s drop the false argument that isn’t about legislating morality, and just acknowledge that the American people are tired of being ruled by Christian values… if indeed that’s true.

  4. #4 tomh
    January 18, 2007

    Scott wrote:
    I strongly suspect that a doubting faith is very similar to the deistic positions in which I understand that many of America’s founding fathers believed. It’s where the Constitutional toleration of religious faiths came from.

    The toleration of religious faiths by the Founders came not from doubt but from mistrust. They knew, from long experience, that any religion that was given preference, as in a state established religion, would soon misuse and abuse that position. The most influential founders, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin, along with many others, all shared this deep distrust of each and every religion. Doubt, as you describe it, had nothing to do with it.

  5. #5 Scott
    January 19, 2007

    TomH:
    I’m no expert on the founding fathers, or on religion. I understand your point about the distrust of religion, but my understanding was that they distrusted the human leaders of established religions, not a distrust of faith itself. At least Jefferson appeared to have deep relgious convictions. I’m thinking of the “Jefferson Bible”, where (IIRC) he removed all of the “factual” claims, leaving the stories and moral lessons.

    My ill informed impression is that he and others of his time came to an individual faith. If one imagines each individual with their individual faith, yet one accepts that others have their own faith, I would conclude that one also accepts that others’ faiths might be different than one’s own. If one accepts that, one certainly would have to accept that someone else’s faith might be more “correct” than one’s own. Thus one would be led to the conclusion that their faith, sincerely held, might in fact be wrong in some way. This suggests to me a “doubting faith”, though I could well be wrong.

    Jason,
    Yup, a “doubting faith” sure could be an oxymoron. (As an oxymoron, I think of it as similar to what I’ve often termed “pessimistic optimism”: expect the worst, but hope for the best.) Yes, faith crosses that line, takes that first step and says there probably is a God, and so distinguishes itself from atheism. Where does the doubt come in? The doubt is in our ability to understand what that means, or implies. The doubt is in, maybe the faith in a God is incorrect. The doubt is in doubting what can be concluded about that God. Did that God write the Bible? Probably not. Did that God do X? How can one know? That’s the “doubt”.

    You started talking about what defines a “moderate theist,” and what they might believe. I’m trying to provide a minimum definition of a “moderate theist.” If you’re saying that a “doubting faith” isn’t atheism, yup, you’re right. If you’re saying that a “doubting faith” doesn’t describe a “moderate theist”, then you need to provide your own definition. Such folks do exist, and yes, they are much harder to classify and satirize than a strict fundamentalist. They’re a lot less fun to make fun of. :-)

  6. #6 tomh
    January 19, 2007

    Scott wrote:
    I’m no expert on the founding fathers, or on religion.

    Fortunately, ignorance can be cured, as they say. The best treatment of the Founding Fathers and their relationship to religion is The Moral Minority by Brooke Allen. A short, easy read, it will clear your cloudy thinking on the subject.

  7. #7 MG
    January 19, 2007

    “As much as I dislike religious fundamentalism, I do give them credit for holding a consistent, coherent worldview.”

    I couldn’t agree more. If I were to be religious, I think it would be preferable to be a zealot. The whole, “I will believe all of these crazy things, but not these things because let’s face it, they are a bit TOO crazy” seems to fall a bit flat. I often hear Christians mock Mormons for their “crazy” beliefs. You go Mormons, cause if your gonna go, go all out!

  8. #8 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 19, 2007

    You say, “Doubt is what you have when you lack faith”. Coming (most recently) from an Episcopal background, I would have to disagree. This may be quite true of a Fundamentalist faith, but not of all faiths…

    I can see that the wide variety of definitions of “faith” is once again going to rear up to confuse a discussion.

  9. #9 MG
    January 19, 2007

    Foolish, Arbitrary, Ignorant, Thoughtless, Hubris

    Not exactly a definition (not any kind actually), but its the first thing that came to mind. And yes, its Friday so 4th grade poetry is about all I can manage.

  10. #10 Jason
    January 19, 2007

    Harris and I gave our definition of faith (short version: belief unsupported by evidence). If Scott is using the word in a significantly different sense, he needs to explain what he means by it. The problem of relating doubt to faith, it seems to me, is that if a belief is held as a matter of faith there’s no basis for doubting it at all. That’s why there’s no principled difference between the faith of a religious moderate and the faith of a religious fundamentalist. In the realm of science and reason, the degree of confidence one has in one’s beliefs is (or, at least, should be) a matter of evidence. But what moderates beliefs held as a matter of faith? Why is believing through faith that God wants you to hijack passenger jets and fly them into buildings any less justified than believing through faith that God exists at all?

  11. #11 Jonathan Lubin
    January 20, 2007

    Jason, I can’t hold it against you that you, having spent formative years of your life in Kansas, equate religion with the Southern Baptist Convention. But I spent the corresponding years of my life in New England, and I hope you won’t hold it against me that I equate religion with the Religious Society of Friends and the Unitarian Universalist Association. You of course have the advantage over me that there are more Baptists in this country than Quakers. Nonetheless, I object to folks’ using “religion”, “faith”, “belief&rdquo, and “creed” as synonyms. With my NE experience, I see religion as action and a certain kind of motivation for that action. Quakers have no Creed, but you often know one within a few minutes of meeting one: an acute sense of social responsibility and a willingness to translate that into action. Has nothing whatever to do with Science Versus Scripture.

  12. #12 Ginger Yellow
    January 22, 2007

    As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth.

    Woah. That’s some sophisticated ontological argument shit right there. I must be right because otherwise truth wouldnt’ be true!

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    January 22, 2007

    As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth.

    Very good. And how does the Pope know in advance what science will discover?

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