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.
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.