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.