Sullivan’s Latest

The blogalogue between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on the subject of the reasonableness of religious faith continues. We pick up the action with Sullivan’s latest salvo. He is responding to the following question asked by Harris: “What would constitute “proof” for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken? (i.e., what would get you to fundamentally doubt the validity of faith in general and of Christianity in particular?)”

Let’s consider Sullivan’s reply in full:

I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God’s existence – of a force beyond everything and the source of everything – goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall “finding” this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith – at this level – as you are at my attachment to it. When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. 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.

Well, that’s clear enough. However, in writing these words Sullivan is conceding all of Harris’ major points. The point at issue in this debate is whether or not religious belief is reasonable, or something that can be defended rationally. Here is Sullivan effectively agreeing that it can not be so defended. If Sullivan is representative of most religious believers then the charges of people like Harris or Dawkins, that religious people are organizing their lives around irrational beliefs that have no evidence to commend them, are entirely correct.

Sullivan goes on like this for two additional paragraphs:

I simply grew up from my earliest childhood in complete acceptance of this reality. I have had two serious crises of faith – but neither came close to a loss of faith in God’s existence. The first crisis was the worst. Almost fourteen years ago, it occurred to me not that God didn’t exist – that never occurred to me – but that God might be evil. I wrote about this experience – I remember precisely where and when it happened – in my spiritual memoir/essay, “Love Undetectable.” I will not reiterate it here. The “proof” I contemplated for thinking God was evil was the cliched conundrum of human suffering. It was a particularly grim moment in the plague years, when the suffering of good people I loved a lot began to get to my faith. Yes, I know this paradox might (and should) have occurred to me earlier in life. But it’s also human to avoid these things most fully until those closest to you are struck down. So there I was, having my Job moment.

What proof, what argument, what evidence persuaded me that God was actually not evil but good? Nothing that will or should persuade you. The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that “none of this cares for us,” to use Larkin’s simple phrase: this sense pervaded me for a few minutes and then somehow, suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted. I can no more explain that – or provide a convincing argument that it was anything more than your own moment of calm in Galilee. But I can say that it represented for me a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.

Remarkable stuff. Evidence from the real world briefly intruded onto Sullivan’s faith. His faith preached a God of love, yet here were numerous, good, decent people being struck down by an exceptionally awful disease (the plague he is referring to is AIDS.) Indeed, one can understand Sullivan’s dilemma. The spectacle of watching God’s indifference to widespread suffering ought to make you question His essential goodness.

So how did he resolve this dilemma? Not by any argument that ought to persuade someone not already convinced of his faith. He merely stopped worrying about the problem, freely admitting even that it seems improbable that “the force behind all of this actually loved us.”

Again, let no one argue in this way and then turn around and claim that atheists are being unfair to religious people.

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.

Once again, a striking admission. Jesus is said to be the way, the truth and the life. But apparently his message can become garbled merely by passing through human cultural filters. The fact is that is a central tenet of Christianity that people who do not accept the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross are condemned to eternal damnation. Seems a bit unfair if a person can remain oblivious to Jesus’ message simply by being born in Thailand or Iraq.

Sullivan continues:

But I am a contingent human being in a contingent time and place and I heard Jesus. Do I believe that other religious traditions, even those that posit doctrines logically contrary to the doctrines of Jesus, have no access to divine truth? I don’t. If God exists, then God will be larger and greater than our human categories or interpretations. I feel sure that all the great religions – and many minor ones – have been groping toward the same God. I don’t need to tell you of the profound similarities in ethical and spiritual teaching among various faiths, as well as their differences. I believe what I specifically believe – but since the mystery of the divine is so much greater than our human understanding, I am not in the business of claiming exclusive truth, let alone condemning those with different views of the divine as heretics or infidels. We are all restless for the same God, for the intelligence and force greater than all of us, for that realm of being that the human mind senses but cannot achieve, longs for but cannot capture. But I’ve learned in that search that integral and indispensable to it is humility. And such humility requires relinquishing the impulse to force faith on others, to condemn those with different faiths, or to condescend to those who have sincerely concluded that there is no God at all. And when I read the Gospels recounting the sayings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth, I see a man so committed to that humility he was prepared to die under its weight.

But now I am afraid we have gone off the rails completely. This is just poorly-reasoned gibberish.

It’s very nice that Sullivan has the humility not to condemn people who hold different views of the divine. The fact remains that the book he regards as the revealed word of God is perfectly happy to condemn such people for him. The Bible says that people who don’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice are condemned to Hell. Does Sullivan believe this? If he does not, then in what sense is he a Christian? If he does, then his ecumenism in dealing with people of different religious views is shown to be hollow.

The fact is that if there are routes to eternal life that do not go through Jesus, then his sacrifice on the Cross is shown to be a disgusting, unnecessary farce. Even more basic, either God took on human form, led a sinless life, was tortured and murdered, and then rose bodily from the grave three days later, or he did not. If Sullivan believes those are actual historical events then the religious views of non-Christians are errors and that is the end of it. Understandable errors perhaps, but errors of cosmic significance nonetheless.

And while Jesus may have been humble in certain respects, he was unambiguous on others. He was quite clear on the question of how to attain an eternity with God, for example. He certainly was not humble towards those who seek different routes to the divine.

Sullivan may believe that God defies all of our human categories, but, again, that idea is not Biblical. The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but his motives and actions are not meant to be utterly incomprehensible. After all, it is a central tenet of Christianity that we are to enter into a personal relationship with God. If God’s actions were really as category defying as Sullivan suggests, such a relationship would be impossible.

I should add that this unchosen belief in God’s existence – the “gift” of faith – does not prompt me to lose all doubt in my faith, or to abandon questioning. I have wrestled with all sorts of questions about any number of doctrines that the hierarchy of the church has insisted upon. As a gay man, I have been forced to do this perhaps more urgently than many others – which is one reason I regard my sexual orientation as a divine gift rather than as a “disorder”. For me, faith is a journey that begins with the gift of divine revelation but never rests thereafter. It is nourished by a faith community we call the church, and is sustained by the sacraments, prayer, doubt and the love of friends and family. It is informed by reason, but it cannot end in reason.

More gibberish, I’m afraid. There is nothing in Sullivan’s previous writing to suggest that faith is nourished by reason. In fact, he was quite specific that his faith has nothing to with reason. He might mean that his assessment of the worth of various church doctrines (by which he means the Catholic church) is informed by reason. But this is tantamount to an admission that he is simply not a Catholic.

The Catholic church, you see, does not extol the virtue of doubt. They are quite adamant that they are the sole legitimate interpreters of Scripture. No room for doubt there.

Sullivan concludes with this:

I understand that this form of faith would provoke Nietzsche’s contempt and James Dobson’s scorn. But there is a wide expanse between nihilism and fundamentalism. I fear your legitimate concerns (which I share) about the dangers of religious certainty in politics have blinded you to the fertility of this expanse. And I think you’re wrong that we religious moderates are mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance. I think, rather, we have an important role in talking with atheists about faith and talking with fundamentalists about the political dangers of religious fanaticism, and the pride that can turn faith into absolutism.

In fact, people of faith who are not fundamentalists may be the most important allies you’ve got. Why don’t you want us to help out?

It is telling that at the end of his essay about how his faith is not based on proof or evidence, but is merely something he believes for reasons that should not convince an atheist, he says that someone like Dobson (a fundamentalist) would regard his faith with scorn. He is right about this.

This is interesting because in an earlier essay in this series Sullivan accused fundamentalists of eschewing human reason. This is not correct. In fact, it is moderates who eschew reason, as Sullivan has made explicit in this series of essays. A fundamentalist would not respond to Harris’ questions the way Sullivan has.

How do fundamentalists respond to the point that diffeent religions have different holy books all of which claim to be the Truth? They say, indeed they do but the Bible is right and those other books are wrong. We know this not through blind faith but because we can apply the same standards that historians always use in assessing the worth of ancient documents to the Bible, the Koran and anything else. And applying these standards makes it clear that the Bible has a far, far better claim to historical validity than the holy books of other religions.

Likewise for God’s existence, or the reality of the resurrection. God’s existence is attested to in a myriad of ways, they claim. Ways that should be persuasive to any open-minded non-believer. Similarly for the resurrection. Faith is important, but it must be faith backed up by reason.

And I have yet to meet a fundamentalist who would boast, as Sullivan has, that there is absolutely nothing that could persuade him that his faith is misplaced. Fundamentalists are quite clear, for example, that proof of the validity of evolution would do the trick.

The problem with fundamentalists is not that they eschew reason or that they hate science. It is that they have very poor judgment in assesing the worth of various lines of evidence, and they frequently remain deliberatly ignorant of relevant facts from science and history. It is the moderates, as represented by Sullivan, who are impossible to have a conversation with.

As for the rest, I’m afraid I agree with Harris that the main contribution of religious moderation is to enable religious extremism. Moderates are allies in certain respects. They generally don’t have a problem with teaching evolution and are okay with a separation of church and state. On those issues I am happy to have them as allies, just as I trust that my atheism does not stop them from viewing me as an ally on those issues.

But on other issues they are part of the problem. And there they must not be allowed to have things their own way.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    February 7, 2007

    Sullivan:

    The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that “none of this cares for us,” to use Larkin’s simple phrase: this sense pervaded me for a few minutes and then somehow, suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted.

    Verbal Kint:

    The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.

    Hmmm.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    February 7, 2007

    Also, compare this —

    The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.

    to this —

    I lay in a field of green grass for four hours going, “My God. . . I love everything.” The heavens parted; God looked down and rained gifts of forgiveness onto my being, healing me on every level, psychically, physically, emotionally. I realized our true nature is spirit not body, that we are eternal beings, and God’s love is unconditional and there’s nothing we can ever do to change that. It is only our illusion that we are separate from God or that we are alone. In fact, the reality is that we are one with God and He loves us.

    . . . which is Bill Hicks speaking about what happened when he ate five grams of dried psychedelic mushrooms.

  3. #3 Roy
    February 7, 2007

    He’s dodging the origin of his ‘faith’. All humans are born ‘without faith’ — natural-born atheists. He wants to pretend he was born as a fully formed adult.

    How old was he when he first heard the word ‘god’ and what did he think grownups were talking about?

    He wants to pretend his childhood never happened.

    Yeah, this is a guy who takes his pretending very seriously.

  4. #4 Pseudonym
    February 7, 2007

    The point at issue in this debate is whether or not religious belief is reasonable, or something that can be defended rationally. If Sullivan is representative of most religious believers then the charges of people like Harris or Dawkins, that religious people are organizing their lives around irrational beliefs that have no evidence to commend them, are entirely correct.

    The more I read this “debate”, the more annoyed that I am that it isn’t a debate at all.

    You don’t need “evidence” for a belief to be “reasonable” or “rational”; that’s only true of science. The almost universal belief (in the thinking world) that humans have a right to participate in their government, for example, has no scientifically valid evidence to support it. There are no possible scientifically valid experiments which could test it. And yet we agree that this belief is “reasonable” and “rational”.

    Sullivan clearly does not comprehend this basic point.

    Any chance of arranging a debate between Sam Harris and John Shelby Spong?

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    February 7, 2007

    Pseudonym, I don’t think that is a very good argument. Ideas around questions like “what kind of government should we have?” are moral questions that are by definition non-empirical (full disclosure: I am a moral non-cognitivist and anti-realist, so I don’t regard moral statements as “live” in the first place, but that’s a separate debate IMO). Whether there really such a being as “God” exists and such are questions of a very different nature. Whether God exists or not is, simply, an empirical question. It’s either true, or it’s false. A demand for evidence is not unreasonable on Harris’ part in the least.

  6. #6 Pseudonym
    February 7, 2007

    Tyler:

    “What kind of government should we have?” is a philosophical question, I agree with you there. We won’t get into the debate of how one might defend a position on that; we’ll just note that it can be done, despite the fact that philosophy isn’t materialistic and hence doesn’t follow the same rules that science does. My point is merely that there are things that we need to reason about that can’t be analysed in terms of “evidence” in the scientific sense.

    Whatever your moral philosophy is, and however you justify it, and however rigorously thought-out it is, the important thing is that you have one, and it’s not an unreasonable one. (I’m sure you don’t think of murder as a virtue, for example!)

    Now whether or not “God” is actually not a question at all, as far as I can tell. Since nobody can agree with exactly what is meant by “God”, the question is ill-posed. Dawkins knows this too: in his book, does not prove that “God” doesn’t exist, merely that the Christian God (as he understands it) almost certainly doesn’t exist. Disproving the existence of Zeus would require another chapter, and would probably not make for compelling reading.

    Harris addresses Letter to a Christian Nation to the conservative Christian Right in the USA, not to the majority of Christians worldwide. (Does Sullivan count as conservative Christian right? I’m afraid I don’t know much about him.) And he praises Eastern spirituality, like Jainism. The key thing here is that he never claims that “religion”, or even “Christianity”, is unreasonable. It’s merely that the God-claim is “uncontaminated by evidence”.

    And that’s Sullivan’s problem. He’s so caught up in his evidence-free certainty, that it’s impossible to have a rational debate on the virtue or otherwise of specific religions, such as modern liberal religions.

  7. #7 Bayardo
    February 7, 2007

    Apparently there are 2 sides to Andrew Sullivan: one is the devout Catholic & believer in God, & the other is the gay man who posted a photo of his very naked rear end in a now defunct Bareback website for all to see & requested offers. How does he reconcile the two?

  8. #8 Kevin
    February 7, 2007

    I’ve been taking the time on Sunday mornings to teach my 7 year old about religion, since we don’t go to church.

    I start out with the beginning of the universe 13.5 billion years ago, go on to our sun formation, figh, reptiles, dino, lemurs, apes, homonids, etc..

    then we talk about the origin of language, then writing, then I talk about the gods of the pagans, the greeks, egyptians romans, jews and then jesus and the christians.

    Then I read some of the bible and last time some of “Myths of the North American Indians.” I go through it all again next week, with varying details etc.

    Wonder what the hell is going to be his faith if any.

  9. #9 Andy
    February 8, 2007

    I’ve decided that I like fundamentalists better than moderates. At least, once they make the grossly inappropriate assumption of the bible’s infalibility, I can track their line of reasoning. This airy-fairy nonsense that the moderates belch while rationalizing makes me dizzy.

  10. #10 Greta Christina
    February 8, 2007

    Sullivan sez:

    “The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that ‘none of this cares for us’…”

    Interesting that he should equate an indifferent universe with an evil one. They’re really not the same thing at all. I don’t think the universe gives a damn about me. That hardly makes it evil.

  11. #11 Greta Christina
    February 8, 2007

    That being said…

    I probably shouldn’t be trying to write a tricky idea like this at eleven at night, but what the hey. There’s a thing atheists do sometimes that seems unfair to me. We criticize fundamentalists christians for being close-minded and believing every word of the bible, no matter how absurd, messed up, or internally contradictory. But then we criticize non-fundamentalist christians for *not* believing every word of the bible, for using their common sense and being inspired by the parts of it that make sense to them while rejecting the parts that are obviously bogus.

    Before you jump on me… I get it. I get that once you start questioning and rejecting parts of the bible, there’s really no reason to accept any of it.

    But I also know that there are good people in my life who have religious faith. And while I think they’re mistaken about their belief, I also think that I should be fair in my own assessment of it.

    P.S. While I don’t know about being a devout catholic, I know several christians with pretty darned interesting sex lives (way more interesting than posting naked pictures of your butt online). And since they’re not fundamentalists or dogmatic, they don’t see it as inconsistent with their faith.

  12. #12 386sx
    February 8, 2007

    Apparently there are 2 sides to Andrew Sullivan: one is the devout Catholic & believer in God, & the other is the gay man who posted a photo of his very naked rear end in a now defunct Bareback website for all to see & requested offers. How does he reconcile the two?

    That’s easy. Being a devout Catholic can mean whatever he wants it to mean, God can be whatever Sullivan wants, and the Bible can be what the heck ever. Pretty simple, really.

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007

    Greta Christina:

    Interesting that he should equate an indifferent universe with an evil one. They’re really not the same thing at all. I don’t think the universe gives a damn about me. That hardly makes it evil.

    Yeah. Indifference is a long, long way from hatred. This seems almost to be another example of the “atheists hate God” complaint. I can’t hate what doesn’t exist (although I can be worried about what believing in the nonexistent does to other people), and the Universe can’t hate me, because the uncountably vast majority of it has no way even to be aware of me.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007

    You know, I’ve come to think that the “political spectrum” is a terrible way of organizing people. (See this essay by David Brin for some of the reasons.) We seem to be eager to divest ourselves of everything French except the left-right political axis. . . . On the same grounds, I have to wonder if the arrangement of views into a neat line, starting with Fundamentalism and ending with Dawkins, PZ Myers and me, is just not valid. We’re looking at one variable — roughly, the percentage of a certain book which one takes as valid — and trying to understand all behavior in terms of that one variable. But what about the point that our host just raised about the reasons we come to that belief and the ways we consider it legitimate to defend our views?

    Eh, maybe I’m talking nonsense.

  15. #15 God
    February 8, 2007

    And I say unto you, Anyone that believes in me is NOT using their God-given gift of intelligence, and has therefore hast turned their back on me and is going to hell for all eternity. Deal with it. (ahem, Pat Robertson, are you listening?)

    ps: BTW…the Bible?! Get real! That thing is like a Jack Chick track for nomads! I guess there really IS one born every minute.

    And yes, you CAN consider this the “Real Revealed Word”

    GOD (In All HIS/HER Glory)

  16. #16 Explicit Atheist
    February 8, 2007

    Psuedonym’s argument that evidence is irrelevant to god belief justification continued:

    ‘Now whether or not “God” is actually not a question at all, as far as I can tell. Since nobody can agree with exactly what is meant by “God”, the question is ill-posed. Dawkins knows this too: in his book, does not prove that “God” doesn’t exist, merely that the Christian God (as he understands it) almost certainly doesn’t exist. Disproving the existence of Zeus would require another chapter, and would probably not make for compelling reading.’

    This lack of definition for god is a problem for theism, not for atheism. Hiding behind ambiguity does not make god belief more defensible, it just highlights the lack of justification for god belief. Discussions of this god phantom are like trying to pin air to a desk. Reasonable people don’t find such a phantom worthy of serious consideration because it doesn’t leave any significant trace of its existence anyway.

    More of Psuedonym’s argument that evidence is irrelevant to god belief justification:

    ‘Harris addresses Letter to a Christian Nation to the conservative Christian Right in the USA, not to the majority of Christians worldwide. (Does Sullivan count as conservative Christian right? I’m afraid I don’t know much about him.) And he praises Eastern spirituality, like Jainism. The key thing here is that he never claims that “religion”, or even “Christianity”, is unreasonable. It’s merely that the God-claim is “uncontaminated by evidence”.’

    Surely Christianity, liberal or conservative, doesn’t fair very well without its god-claim. Some variations of eastern spirituality are not as dependent on a god-claim or other non-empirical claims. I don’t share Harris’s attraction to Eastern spirituality, but I think I understand the appeal of inwardly focused spiritual alternatives to religions that are excessively dependent on non-empirical fact claims.

  17. #17 Ginger Yellow
    February 8, 2007

    And such humility requires relinquishing the impulse to force faith on others, to condemn those with different faiths, or to condescend to those who have sincerely concluded that there is no God at all. And when I read the Gospels recounting the sayings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth, I see a man so committed to that humility he was prepared to die under its weight

    Hmmm. The moneychangers and the pharisees might have a different opinion.

  18. #18 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 8, 2007

    He was quite clear on the question of how to attain an eternity with God, for example

    I’m not so sure about that. Don’t salvation exclusively by faith and salvation exclusively by works both have support in the Gospels?

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

    Moderates are allies in certain respects. They generally don’t have a problem with teaching evolution and are okay with a separation of church and state.

    Yes, they’re OK with these things, but how vigorously will they stand up for them? Your mileage may vary considerably. Some moderates are not Creationists themselves but don’t have a problem if Creationism is taught in the schools; would accept separation of church and state, but would also accept public prayer in schools, etc. I applaud those who do stand up for reality-based values, but this does not negate the existence of those who don’t.

  20. #20 Pseudonym
    February 8, 2007

    Explicit Atheist, we actually agree on most of what you said. Particularly:

    This lack of definition for god is a problem for theism, not for atheism.

    Absolutely! To be clear, all I am claiming is that religion doesn’t have to be gotten rid of. But it does have to get with the programme if it is to survive in the modern world.

    Here’s an example of what I mean.

    Surely Christianity, liberal or conservative, doesn’t fair very well without its god-claim.

    This is John Shelby Spong:

    Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

    Apart from the imperative in the last sentence, there’s little in there that an atheist would disagree with.

    Some variations of eastern spirituality are not as dependent on a god-claim or other non-empirical claims. I don’t share Harris’s attraction to Eastern spirituality, but I think I understand the appeal of inwardly focused spiritual alternatives to religions that are excessively dependent on non-empirical fact claims.

    I agree. But I go further: Christianity, and other religions too, could reform themselves in a similar way, and in a sense, this reformation has already started. All the signs are there. In some places (mostly the US), there’s even a counter-reformation in the guise of evangelical, conservative, right-wing-political Christianity.

    The “wishy washiness” may be exasperating right now, but I suspect you’re just seeing a transition phase. I guess we’ll see.

  21. #21 JGS
    February 8, 2007

    I think you are wrong. Christianity in the USA, even in the right wing has already reformed. Mostly religion is just a superficial thing to the vast majority. They are much more into politics of the right, but to say it’s much to do with Christianity would be a stretch.

  22. #22 Russell Blackford
    February 8, 2007

    I for one – as a moral sceptic in the mode of John Mackie, Richard Garner, Richard Joyce, etc., etc. – am certainly going to deny that there is any objective sense in which “people have a right to participate in their government”. There may be such a right within some legal system, or even within some moral system – there’s nothing spooky about legal rights or about rights that are recognised within a society’s positive morality. But the idea that there “just is such and such a right”, somehow built into the framework of reality, is as spooky and implausible as the idea that there is an all-powerful supernatural being floating around sustaining our existence.

    Lots of people, including lots of atheists, seem to believe in these spooky “rights”, and so on, for exactly the same reason that Sullivan believes in God: they were brought up in an environment where they internalised the idea, and it is now so ingrained into them that they treat it as axiomatic, and make the rest of their worldview conform to it. They never doubt. Never.

    That does not mean that there is no such thing as good behaviour or bad behaviour, or good or bad systems of government. There is such thing, just as a good knife (in many contexts) will be sharp and durable, a good friend will be loyal, etc. We do have standards of godoness and badness, and they are not entirely arbitrary, because they are based on human interests (such as our interest in being able to cut our meat, our interest in all the needs that friendship fulfils, our interest in having stable societies but not being tyrannised by arbitrary government power, etc.). However, while our standards of goodness and badness are not arbitrary they are always relative to the framework of what we actually want or need. To the extent that what “we” ultimately want may be contestable, since there is no monolithic “we” … well, so are standards of goodness and badness. Fortunately (from my framework), most of us actually do want to reduce the suffering in the world, for example, and are more likely to dispute the means of achieving this rather than to contest the goal itself, as Nietzsche did.

    I’m not saying we should jettison all morality, but we can always subject its claims to sceptical scrutiny. We should, indeed, jettison the idea that moral rights, duties, and so on somehow exist “out there”, independent of the human need to establish standards of behaviour that conduce to our interests. At any given time, the prevailing norms about rights, and so on, may have some kind of non-arbitrary grounding, but we should not (if we want to be intellectually honest) think they are objective and absolutely binding, or simply “exist”, in the way that is popularly imagined. They exist – in the sense that they do – to meet our needs, and they are always open to rational revision.

    The above is what I understand to be a way to think about such things as rights within the scientific worldview, and it does indeed require evidence to support arguments for the retention (or, indeed, the abolition or modification) of particular rights and so on. We can analyse what evidence we have about particular desires, interests, etc., and what evidence we have about what standards would conduce to them.

    Of course, we can’t do this exercise all the way down every time we make any decision with a moral component. Sometimes we do need to act on standards of morality that we have internalised, just to save time and energy. But in principle they are always open to the kind of rational, evidence-based scrutiny that I’ve described.

    This is a frightening way to think about morality if you are a religionist, since religionists love the sense of certainty of “knowing” God’s commands. But those of us who are scientifically-minded atheists should relish the idea that it’s all much more complex and open to investigation, and that our standards are always, at least in theory, provisional.

  23. #23 Sastra
    February 8, 2007

    In asking “What would constitute proof for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken?” Sam Harris is essentially asking “Might you be wrong? And, if so, would you want to change?”

    Sullivan’s answer was no. No, he cannot imagine he is wrong. Not possible. He knows that many other intelligent, thoughtful people are honestly mistaken. But thinking he is wrong is the same as thinking God is wrong. Not to be entertained.

    This is the “moderate,” liberal, non-dogmatic position on God. Why? Because THIS theist believes God doesn’t care too much if other people are wrong.

    Luck of the draw.

  24. #24 misha
    February 8, 2007

    Sam’s latest reply is up. It’s a stinger.

    http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904.html

    I don’t think Andrew is up to continuing this dialogue.

  25. #25 Blake Stacey
    February 9, 2007

    Certainly, if we were sentient photosynthetic jellyfish, our concept of morality might be very different. The notion of “government” might be completely nonsensical, since we would live all our lives in a post-scarcity environment — until an asteroid whacks our planet and blots out the Sun, the light upon which we feed is bountiful.

    I’m willing to entertain the notion that some basic moral precepts are inherent in our being, by the mere virtue of being born human. Such basic imprintings might better be characterized as behavior traits. A different species might have a different set of hard-wired behaviors which its sages then rationalize and rarify into moral codes. Perhaps they deem the act of blocking sunlight or preventing the free release of spores fundamentally immoral, and their analogue of humanists must then patiently explain on national TV why you don’t need to believe in the Great Sky Jellyfish in order to know that spores must float freely on the ocean currents.

  26. #26 JasonY
    February 9, 2007

    Sam Harris just posted his latest entry. It may be his best yet.

  27. #27 Blake Stacey
    February 9, 2007

    Harris’s most recent entry is well worth thinking over.

    Finally, let me make it clear that I do not consider religious moderates to be “mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance.” They are worse. My biggest criticism of religious moderation—and of your last essay—is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. As I wrote in The End of Faith, whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. It makes no sense at all to have one’s spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient events, however miraculous. What if, tomorrow, a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists and biblical scholars demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Gospels were ancient forgeries and that Jesus never existed? Would this steal the ground out from under your spiritual life? It would be a shame if it would. And if it wouldn’t, in what sense is your spirituality really predicated upon the historical Jesus?

    As a confirmed science-fiction fan, I have to ask, “What about truths which we can’t discover until tomorrow?” Could there be spiritual value in space exploration or artificial intelligence which we simply lack the experience to imagine?

  28. #28 Jon S
    February 9, 2007

    As far as the article goes, if there was indisputable proof that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then I would doubt my faith; or if there was indisputable proof that we evolved from some common organism, or that the universe and world were billions of years old. So far I have listened to those who believe in such things, but none of the evidence I’ve read has been convincing. From what I observe, what separates our beliefs is a worldview, not science or evidence. And I mean specifically a worldview where the God of the Bible is exactly who he claims to be, and fulfills every promise he has ever made.

    I can relate to much of what Sullivan wrote. I can’t think of a moment when I didn’t believe in God, and I don’t think anything could change that because I feel certain that I’ve found the truth.

    I disagree that Sullivan has conceded Harris’ major points regarding the reasonableness of religious belief and that it can be defended rationally. He’s given his own testimony regarding his personal relationship with God, just as every Christian should be able to do. If a believer has a personal relationship with the living God, then our religious belief is rational (at least from our perspective). And that would certainly be true if Christ is who he claimed to be. Or do you suppose Jesus was not the Christ, is not God, and perhaps is not even real. From that perspective the cross may seem foolish, but to a believer, a personal relationship with God is very real, which is not a concession of any sort.

    As far as questioning God’s goodness and accusing him of indifference to widespread suffering, from a Christian perspective we know there’s suffering because of sin, and we know there is a cure in redemption and salvation. Christ himself suffered and died, so he knows what it means to suffer; therefore it’s unreasonable to accuse him of being indifferent to widespread suffering.

    Perhaps it seems a bit unfair if a person can remain oblivious to Jesus’ message simply by being born in Thailand or Iraq. But you’re neglecting the power of the Holy Spirit, which isn’t restricted by culture or barriers. People born in other cultures and only exposed to other religions can and do become saved due to the work of the Holy Spirit, without any Christian influence at all.

    And as far as Jesus not being humble towards those who seek different routes to the divine, I’m not sure what is meant by this. Jesus is divine, and, therefore, is the one who sets the rules, not man. Man must submit to God; God doesn’t submit to man or let them choose whichever route they want.

  29. #29 B Martin
    February 10, 2007

    Wow. As a sceptical but religious moderate I’m excited to be in the most-loathed category. We’re usually seen as pretty harmless.

    Mr. Harris’s disparagement of liberal religion looks a little silly though as he pushes his own buddhist religious beliefs quite a bit, at least in his book.

  30. #30 Greg Byshenk
    February 11, 2007

    Greta Christina wrote:

    There’s a thing atheists do sometimes that seems unfair to me. We
    criticize fundamentalists christians for being close-minded and believing every
    word of the bible, no matter how absurd, messed up, or internally contradictory.
    But then we criticize non-fundamentalist christians for *not* believing every
    word of the bible, for using their common sense and being inspired by the parts
    of it that make sense to them while rejecting the parts that are obviously
    bogus.

    I think you summary of the criticism is incorrect.

    Fundamentalists are (rightly) criticised for “believing every word of the
    bible,”, because there is no reason to believe that “every word of the bible”
    is true, and many reasons for believing that it is not. That said, the
    fundamentalist position is coherent — at least once you accept the initial
    (and pretty plainly false) premise. If the bible is the revealed word of god,
    then “the bible says so” is a good reason for believing something.

    But moderates are not (at least so far as I have seen) criticised
    for “rejecting the parts that are obviously bogus”, but instead for rejecting
    the parts that they think are bogus, while continuing to assert that the
    bible is the revealed word of (and all-knowing) god.
    The problem with the
    fundamentalists’ position is that its basic premise is demonstrably false.
    The problem with the moderates’ position is that it is fundamentally
    incoherent
    .

    Or, as someone else noted, fundamentalists seem to reason poorly, while
    moderates seem to reject reason outright, at least when dealing with
    ‘god’ — and still more perversely, while claiming to be reasoning. I have
    occasionally attempted to have conversations with seemingly intelligent,
    reasonable, “moderate” religionists and invariably the same sort of dance
    occurs that once sees in the Harris/Sullivan dialogue. The believers are
    plainly unable to justify their beliefs, but are unwilling to admit to
    themselves that they have no justification. Sullivan at one point writes
    “Nothing that will or should persuade you”, but what is more important is
    that he has presented nothing that should persuade anyone — including
    Sullivan himself
    .

  31. #31 david rickel
    February 12, 2007

    Mustapha Mond wrote that the Gospels supported both salvation by faith and salvation by works. I think that they also support a third option–salvation by fiat–God alone knows who will be saved, and nothing a person says or does or believes can change their status.

    http://sol.sci.uop.edu/~jfalward/SalvationContradictions.htm gives some references; the paths seem to be either (1) Believe and be baptised, (2) obey the commandments (the first set apparently, the ones on the tablets that Moses broke, not the second set, the ones that were carried around in the Ark) and give away all your money, or (3) be born saved. (1) and (2) specify different sets of people, but there should be some overlap.

  32. #32 Carl
    July 18, 2007

    You state that it is a central tenet of Christianity that one must believe or be damned. This is a true description of many Christians, but is rather at odds with what the Bible says on the subject. The Bible says that only some are called. The rest are not allowed to believe (at least not until after the Resurrection).

    This error in Biblical interpretation has led to some horrible consequences, from attempts to use the violent capabilities of the State to enforce Christian standards of behavior on the one hand, to attempts to water down Christian standards on the other.

    See A Narrow Path at http://www.holisticpolitics.org for the relevant citations.