My SciBling Josh Rosenau had a different reaction to the exchange between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Sadly, he gets most of the important points wrong.
As for “the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence…,” I’d merely note that this ought to lead us to a state of profound agnosticism. There can be no natural evidence for God (philosophy of science and theology generally agree on this point), and neither could there be natural evidence against the supernatural. Insisting that others acknowledge the fundamental importance of one’s own answer to questions only answerable through revelation seems unwise, whatever your answer.
I was not aware that philosophy of science and theology had concluded that there can be no natural evidence for God, but if they have then so much the worse for those subjects.
The claim is easily refuted. It is trivial to imagine discoveries we could make in nature that would persuade most people that a higher power exists. Here’s one that would impress me. Suppose that instead of a universal genetic code possessed by all living organisms we discovered instead multiple genetic codes. More than this, the patterns of which organisms possessed which codes fit some reasonable notion of created kinds (so that dogs possessed one code, cats possessed another, fish possessed a third, humans a fourth and so on). Such a discovery would (a) defeat every theory of evolution of which I am aware and (b) provide an eerie consonance with the Biblical account of creation.
Mind you, we’re not talking about proof in the sense of logical certainty. We’re talking about evidence. Does Josh really want to claim that the discovery I described would not count as evidence for creationism?
Likewise, it seems reasonable to talk about natural evidence against the supernatural. There are cases where absence of evidence really is evidence of absence, and this is one of them. If supernatural events routinely occurred we would expect reliable documentation of them in the form of eyewitness testimony, or traces left after the fact, or some other form of evidence accessible to science. That there is no such evidence (none that has ever survived careful scrutiny at any rate) strongly suggests that the supernatural events do not occur.
Again, we’re not talking about proof. We’re talking about the most reasonable conclusions to draw from the evidence at hand.
We do well, then, to heed the words of Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing on relations between Jews and Christians, but I think more widely applicable:
…the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.
Wow. That’s really bad.
Not the last part, mind you. I’m all in favor of people living in peace and harmony (assuming that in that final sentence he meant “…our common interests lie not in the realm of faith). But those first few sentences are just wrong.
There is nothing incomprehensible in the fact claims made by the various major religious traditions. Christian or Islamic doctrine, for example, can be comprehended by anyone willing to invest some time and effort. It is the substance of these doctrines that Harris is criticizing, not some paradoxically inexpressible cravings particular religious people are said to have.
Next, the idea that people are members of different faith communities because of experiences comprehensible only to them doesn’t seem right. My religious friends don’t seem to have any trouble explaining themselves to me, and I feel I have a very good grasp indeed of why they believe what they believe. I disagree with them, but I understand them nonetheless. This idea that only a Jew can understand what it means to be a Jew and only a Christian can understand what it means to be a Christian seems like a good recipe for making it impossible for different faiths to talk with one another. The idea that people can cast aside their mutually incompatible and rationally indefensible religious beliefs when they enter the public sphere is rather naive.
The Rabbi concludes by saying that different religous faiths should meet not on the theological level, but rather on the mundane humane level. Well, who disagrees? Certainly not Harris. It’s not atheists who think that theological considerations should have any impact on the day-to-day actions of human beings. Actually, it is only religious extremists who want the common ground on which people meet to be influenced by theology. Indeed, Harris’ main objection to religious belief is that it frequently, almost inevitably, leads to conflict among people. It’s rather rich for Josh to cite the Rabbi’s passage as if it puts Harris in his place.
What people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins fail to address to my satisfaction is that it is worth arguing over unknowable questions about theology, when the issues that either divide us or unite us are usually about our behavior towards one another, not our beliefs.
It is worth arguing about because belief often leads to behavior. Since this has been a major theme of Harris’ writing, it is unclear to me how Josh missed it.
Once again, it is not atheists who are trying to enforce anything on anybody. If religious believers were willing to sequester their beliefs within their own faith communities and leave them out of the public sphere altogether then Dawkins and Harris would not have written their books. It is precisely because so many religious believers do not leave their faith at home that it is important to determine if their claims have any merit.
Skipping ahead a few paragraphs, we come to this:
The distinction between belief and behavior is useful in modern discourse also. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” and elsewhere that “religion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.” This idea is foundational to this country and to other modern liberal democracies. It applies equally well to issues of political philosophy and the general principle of free speech. How an individual speaks or thinks is no account for anyone else, so long as no other is forced to listen to the speech or to adhere to the same thoughts. And if they are so forced, it is the force which is in error, not the thought.
But what if the thought leads to the force? And what if certain thoughts lead to unjustified uses of force far more often than other, more reasonable thoughts do?
This facile distinction between belief and behavior really has to stop. If you believe that your child’s eternal soul will be placed in jeopardy if he learns about evolution in his biology class, how can you not do everything in your power to prevent it? If you believe that it is God’s will that you slaughter infidels and that you will be rewarded in heaven for doing so, how can this not affect your behavior?
And it’s pretty appalling for Jefferson, the father of American democracy, to be caught saying something quite as foolish as what he is quoted as saying here. People’s crazy beliefs often lead them to vote in crazy ways. If enough people are persuaded to go along with the crazy beliefs, then the rest of us will have to live with public officials who believe them as well. Let the Rabbi preach his message of comity and good will to the Christian theocrats who do so well in red state elections and see how far he gets.
I find this all very frustrating. People like Harris point to specific, irrational fact claims made by certain religious traditions, establishes the harm that comes to society when large numbers of people believe those claims, and encourages people to think a bit more critically about religious beliefs. He is so militant about the subject that you know what he does? He writes books about it. He speaks publicly about it. And he tries to persuade people with nothing more formidable than rational argumentation.
For his trouble he is criticized for being extreme and intolerant. He is branded a fundamentalist. He is lectured for taking clearly stated and widely-held religious beliefs seriously, when everyone knows that real religion is all nuance and metaphor and paradoxically inexpressible cravings. He is told to shut up lest some ignoramus on the local school board hear what he is saying. He is told that he is the one sowing social discord, unlike all those religious folks who are perfectly happy to live together in peace and not engage each other on theological matters.
Well, let them bray. The fact remains that Harris is right and his critics are wrong.