Harris Replies to Sullivan

Sam Harris has replied to the Andrew Sullivan essay I discussed in Wednesday’s post. Let’s consider some highlights:

I am, of course, unconvinced by your response. But this can hardly disappoint you, as it was not intended to convince me. You simply wrote to inform me that you have never doubted God’s existence, cannot account for how you came to believe in Him, and are well aware that these facts will not (and should not) persuade me of the legitimacy of your religious beliefs. I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.

You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn’t come to believe in God by taking any state of the world into account, no possible state of the world could put His existence in doubt. This is the very soul of dogmatism. But to call it such in this context will seem callous, as you have emphasized how your faith has survived–and perhaps helped you to survive–many harrowing experiences. Such testimonials about the strength and utility of faith mark off territory that most atheists have learned never to trespass. This reminds me of the wonderful quotation from Mencken: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

I made this point myself. Sullivan’s defense is tantamount to an admission that he is unable to provide a rational justification for his beliefs. His clarity on this central point is to be admired, but he has effectively thrown the game to Harris.

As stated, your notion of God doesn’t have much in the way of specific content (apart from love). Beyond that, you have sought refuge in a towering mystery–and have boosted yourself there with the claim that any Being sublime enough to have created our universe must be so far beyond our ken as to perpetually elude our powers of description. This last assertion seems plausible, as far as it goes. But, of course, it isn’t an argument for the existence of God, much less a good one. In any case, your vaporous conception of a deity allows you to say that your religious beliefs do not conflict with those of others. God as a loving cipher allows for multiple, and even contradictory, doctrines to achieve parity. Faith in the absence of specifics makes a man humble.

All this, frankly, seems a little evasive. Given your attachment to Christianity and your admiration for the pope (who, as you know, makes far more restrictive–and, therefore, arrogant–claims about God), I suspect there is a raft of religious propositions that you actually do accept as true–though perhaps you are less certain of them than you are of God. I refer now to the specific beliefs that would make you a Christian and a Catholic, as opposed to a generic theist. Do you believe in the resurrection and the virgin birth? Is the divinity of the historical Jesus a fact that is “truer than any proof… any substance… any object”? If these are not the sort of things a person can just know without any justification, why can’t they be known in this way? If a man like James Dobson is wrong to be certain, without justification, that Jesus will one day return to earth, why is your assertion about the existence of a loving God any different? What would you say to a person who once doubted the story of Noah, but whose doubt “suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted”? Is such a change of mood sufficient to establish the flood myth as an historical fact?

Again, an important point. Sullivan identiifies himself as a Christian, and indeed even a Roman Catholic. That commits him to certain specific statements both about how the world is and about particular historical events. Belief in such things is not something that ought to come about in moments of epiphany, or defended on the basis of faith.

Harris continues:

You also appear to see some strange, epistemological significance in the fact that you cannot remember when or how you acquired your faith. Surely the roots of many of your beliefs are similarly obscure. I don’t happen to remember when or how I came to believe that Pluto is a planet. Should I say that this belief “chose me”? What if, upon hearing that astronomers have changed their opinion about Pluto, I announced that “I have no ability to stop believing…. I know of no ‘proof’ that could dissuade me of [Pluto's planethood], since no ‘proof’ ever persuaded me of it.” I’m sure you will balk at this analogy, but I’m guessing that your parents told you about God from the moment you appeared in this world. This is generally how people are put in a position to say things like faith “chose me.” The English language chose both of us. That doesn’t mean that we cannot reflect critically on it or recognize that the fact that we both speak it (we might say it is the “air we breathe”) is an utterly non-mysterious consequence of our upbringings. Indeed, you do admit the role that such contingency plays in matters of faith. As you say, if you had been raised Buddhist, you’d almost certainly be a Buddhist. But you refrain from drawing any important conclusions from this. If you had been raised by atheists, might you even be an atheist?

Time to stop the fight. Harris wins by TKO.

This might be the place to ask: So what if Sullivan can not defend his religious beliefs on a rational basis? They obviously bring him great comfort, and judging from his writing on this subject he seems uninclined to breach the separation of church and state (though he is opposed to stem-cell research, a position so daft it can only be defended in the throes of religious mania),

My answer is that to the extent that religious people are genuinely willing to make their faith a private affair I have no quarrel with them at all. The problem is that religious belief so rarely remains private. Our society is littered with the fruits of religious lunacy, from squabbles over science education, prohibitions against potentailly life-saving medical research, laws against private consensual sexual practices, pervasive bigotry towards atheists, and on and on. Somehow the ostensibly private religious beliefs of others leach out into the public policy reservoir from which all of must drink.

I am often lectured about how the theological moderates like Sullivan, the ones who do not want to inflict their religious belifs on others, actually represent the mainstream of American religious life. The results of elections for the last two decades do not bear that out. Theological moderation, which here can be defined as the idea that religious faith is terribly important in the lives of individuals but is not something in which the government should take any part, has been the official position of the Democratic Party for quite some time now. Yet religious voters have abandoned them in droves. There is the common perception that they are insincere when they extol the virtues of religious faith. But what have they done to earn this charge? Only this: they have frequently opposed intrusions of religious faith into government policy. That such actions are commonly regarded as hostile towards religion tells us something important about the nature of faith.

That is why the views of people like Sullivan must be vigorously opposed. They are not personal beliefs with no effect on nonconsenting third parties. Rather, they are corrosive ideas that by their very nature do not remain confined within private communities of willing participants.

Comments

  1. #1 Abbie
    February 9, 2007

    Ah, that’s just become painful. It’s been a fascinating dialog. I’m interested in seeing the conclusion… if any.

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 9, 2007

    Somehow the ostensibly private religious beliefs of others leach out into the public policy reservoir from which all of must drink.

    That’s why I have a Brita filter.

  3. #3 Fred
    February 9, 2007

    I don’t even think it’s a TKO, I think it’s an actual full-on knockout, and the referee can take his time counting.

    The only comment I have is that I wouldn’t go so far as to say that religion is the only reason that people have abandoned the Dems. That would be really exaggerating. I don’t even think it’s even part of the reason. I know a lot of new, recent, and long-time Republicans and not one of them is religious. These are people in their late 20′s to early 40′s. I’m not saying that there are NO people in the entire US who dropped the Dems for religious reasons, but I don’t think it was even close to a majority.

  4. #4 Russell Blackford
    February 9, 2007

    Sullivan opposes stem cell research? I didn’t know that.

    That seems like a good example of someone who otherwise appears rational and moderate ending up taking an irrational position on a real-world matter. (I assume here that there’s causal connection between his religious views and his bioethical views, which seems pretty plausible until I hear otherwise.)

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    February 9, 2007

    Sullivan opposes stem cell research? I didn’t know that.

    AFAIK, Sullivan is only opposed to public funding for ESCR. Like a lot of libertarian leaning conservatives he apparently sees that as an appropriate compromise with social conservatives on the issue (though it still doesn’t please the far-out religious right nutjobs who want it banned outright).

  6. #6 Explicit Atheist
    February 10, 2007

    Regarding Fred’s comments that religion is not “even part of the reason” that people have “abandoned the Dems”. There are statistical analysis of correlations between various demographic catagories and political partisan identity. Not surprisingly, an individual who is religiously conservative will align themselves with a political party that is similarly conservative and vice versa. What has happenned in the U.S. is that the religious right has become an important constituency of the Republican party and this has “religionized” the underlying motivation for some public policy and also made religion more politically partisan.

    Regarding Tyler DiPetro’s observation: Could compromise with social conservatives on some of their issues such as their opposition to stem cell research be rationally defensible? Yes, if the outcome of such compromise would be “better” than not compromising where better is defined in secular terms. Are religious liberals going to be quicker or more likely to support a compromise without a truely “better” benefit over the alternative of no compromise? Probably, because they don’t have a strong rationalist argument against conservative religious claims. The conservative religious policy claims have equal standing with the competing liberal religious policy claims from a liberal religious perspective because they both respect reliance on parochial religious based justification. That arguably confers a respect, and therefore an advantage, to conservative religionist policy preferences that they may not merit.

  7. #7 Pseudonym
    February 10, 2007

    While I mostly aree with Jason, I thought that this was a bit over-the-top:

    Theological moderation, which here can be defined as the idea that religious faith is terribly important in the lives of individuals but is not something in which the government should take any part, has been the official position of the Democratic Party for quite some time now. Yet religious voters have abandoned them in droves.

    This strongly implies that one reason why people don’t vote for the Democratic Party is theological moderation. This assertion is not supported by any evidence and, indeed, there is some evidence against it.

    The documentary The Power of Nightmares makes the case that prior to the rise of neo-conservatism, leaders of the religious right told their followers not to vote. Don’t get involved with the evil secular US government which is doomed to fall.

    That changed when neo-conservatives started convincing them that they were on their side. (This is also, incidentally, when the Republican party basically ceased to be in favour of small government.) Religious immoderates were mobilised, and now we’re in the situation that we’re in.

    There are more religious moderates in the US than there are religious immoderates, but the immoderates, being more authoritarian, are better able to mobilise their members to vote.

    Sullivan’s personal beliefs are another issue, of course. I don’t know very much about him, but judging by his Wikipedia page, he doesn’t seem like he’s a good representative of anything, let alone moderate theology.

  8. #8 Zelc
    February 14, 2007
  9. #9 Paul Botts
    February 19, 2007

    “I am often lectured about how the theological moderates like Sullivan, the ones who do not want to inflict their religious beliefs on others, actually represent the mainstream of American religious life. The results of elections for the last two decades do not bear that out.”

    Actually the election results over the past two decades do bear that out: no one running for President has gotten the votes of even 30% of those eligible to vote for a generation now. No off-year Congressional majority has been chosen by at least 30% of Americans for more than four decades now. While it was at one time true that America’s social mainstream was reflected in its elections, that time has long since passed.

  10. #10 Paul Botts
    February 19, 2007

    Someone commented above: “I know a lot of new, recent, and long-time Republicans and not one of them is religious. These are people in their late 20′s to early 40′s.”

    This observation is consistent with a number of broad-based surveys all finding that the percentage of Americans who are non-religious is rapidly increasing. For example:
    http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2.htm
    http://www.jewishresearch.org/v2/2004/pressReleases/9_21_04PR.html
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week908/analysis1.html

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