As I mentioned, Sam Harris has already replied to Sullivan’s essay. Let’s consider some highlights:
Contrary to your allegation, I do not “disdain” religious moderates. I do, however, disdain bad ideas and bad arguments–which, I’m afraid, you have begun to manufacture in earnest. I’d like to point out that you have not rebutted any of the substantial challenges I made in my last post. Rather, you have gone on to make other points, most of which I find unsurprising and irrelevant to the case I have made against religious faith. 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. (Emphasis Added)
That bold-faced portion should serve as a useful corrective to my SciBling Josh Rosenau, who is fond of claiming that Harris thinks all religious faith is bad.
Skipping ahead a few sentences, Harris writes:
As I have argued elsewhere, the alleged usefulness of religion–the fact that it sometimes gets people to do very good things indeed–is not an argument for its truth. And, needless to say, the usefulness of religion can be disputed, as I have done in both my books. 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.
That is a perfect summary of my own view of the situation.
Here’s another part I liked:
There is no way around the fact that St. Paul, Pascal, the popes (any of them), and every other Christian worth the name have made a claim about the exclusive validity of Christianity. This claim is, at best, ludicrously provincial. The evidence adduced in support of Christian doctrine can be found in every other religion–saints performing miracles, resurrections from the dead, channeled books, psychic powers, devotional thrills, unconditional love, etc.–these claims are either equally compelling or equally bogus. Happily, for my purposes, “equally compelling” reduces to “equally bogus”–because these claims are mutually incompatible. If Christianity is right, all other religions are wrong. Christians are committed to the following (at least): Jesus was the messiah (so the Jews are wrong); he was divine and resurrected (so the Muslims are wrong-“Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger–they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them”: Qur’an, 4:157); there is only one God (so the Hindus are wrong). But, of course, the Christians have no better reason to think they’re right than the Jews, Muslims, or Hindus do.
Well said. Let’s do one more before calling it a day:
Needless to say, your attempt to pull theism up by its bootstraps (“since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator”) could be used to justify almost any metaphysical assertion. “The Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe” is also “definitionally” the Creator of the universe; this doesn’t mean that he exists, or that the universe had a Creator at all. Many other chains of pious reasoning could be cashed-out in the same way: “Satan is the Tempter; I find that I am tempted on a hourly basis to eat ice cream and have sex with my neighbor’s wife; ergo, Satan exists.” Or what if I suggested that what we know about the brain renders the idea of a human soul rather implausible, and one your brethren countered: “The immortal soul governs all the activity in a person’s brain; I have no fear about what neuroscience will tell me about the brain, because the soul is definitionally the brain’s operator.” Would this strike you as an argument for the existence of souls?
I recommend reading the entire exchange. So far it looks to me like it’s Harris in a rout. I should probably point out that one of the reasons I’ve been following this exchange so closely is that I generally hold Sullivan in high regard. Granted, he ran The New Republic into the ground and in the early days of the Iraq War wrote a lot of vile, offensive and just flat wrong stuff. But in the last two years or so he has done a lot to make up for that, and today I find his blog consistently worth reading. I feel like if anyone can provide a rational defense of moderate religious beliefs then he can. So far, though, I frankly think I could do a better job defending his point of view.