Blogalogue: Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan, Part Two

In an ongoing debate, an atheist and a Christian confront questions of faith, logic, and mortality.


In books like The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, atheist author Sam Harris contends that religion and its claims to truth are to blame for many of the world's problems. Blogger and Conservative Soul author Andrew Sullivan argues that faith is a legitimate choice for intelligent people. For several weeks, Harris debated Sullivan in a no-holds-barred blogalogue. Read Harris' final posts here--and check Andrew Sullivan's blog for his responses.

Sam Harris

Andrew Sullivan

From: Sam Harris  To: Andrew Sullivan 03/20/07, 2:20 PM

Dear Andrew -

Many thanks for your latest essay. I've got too much to say, so permit me to jump right in:

You write that "we are evolutionarily programmed for faith." While this claim seems debatable, let's just accept it as a given. What can we conclude from this? We certainly can't conclude that any specific religious doctrine is true (or likely to be true). Nor can we say that religious faith is desirable in the 21st century, or even compatible with our long-term survival as a species. Here is your quotation from Justin Barrett, with a few, minor edits:

"[Viking] theology teaches that people were crafted by [Odin] to [rape and pillage]. Why wouldn't [Odin], then, design us in such a way as to find [raping and pillaging] quite natural?
We probably do have a genetic proclivity for raping and pillaging. Clearly, rape is an excellent strategy for getting one's genes into the next generation, and a wide variety of species engage in it (orangutans are notorious; they've even raped humans.) But who is going to argue for the moral legitimacy of rape based on the fact that it has paid evolutionary dividends?

The fact that we have a biological tendency to attribute agency to forces in nature does not suggest that it is wise (or moral) to nurture this disposition. And the fact that we find it difficult to conceive of our own nonexistence does not mean that we are likely to persist in some numinous form after death. If the history of science tells us anything, it tells us that we shouldn't rush to draw metaphysical conclusions from our failures of intuition. We now know a fair amount about how bad our intuitions can be--with respect to causality, probability, logical dependence, and a wide range of other parameters that determine our commonsense (and erroneous) view of the world. Spend a little time thinking about the Monty Hall problem, and once you understand it, witness how difficult it is to explain to someone who has never thought about it before. Even profoundly simple situations can confound us.

Even seeing what is plainly before our eyes can be difficult (or impossible). Consider the following visual illusion (Roger Shepard's "Turning the Tables"):

These tabletops are exactly the same size and shape. Once you have used a ruler or tracing paper to satisfy yourself that this is true, they will still look different to you, based upon the way your brain has been hard-wired to interpret spatial cues. It seems quite likely that every person who has ever lived would perceive these figures as being different in shape and size-a far higher percentage than believe in God. The fact is that our intuitions are not always a reliable guide to the truth; and in certain situations, they can be relied upon to be wrong. So why should we think that our inability/reluctance to conceive of our own nonexistence offers an indication of what happens after death?

And is it really so difficult to imagine one's own nonexistence? I think it might be easier than advertised. Presumably, you don't find it hard to accept that you didn't exist before you were born, so why is it so difficult to believe that you will cease to exist after you die? Think of all the times and places where you now aren't: The 14th century got along fine without you (well, not so fine). If you are in D.C. at this moment, you are utterly absent from every other city on earth. There are people walking the streets of Rome right now, carrying on without the benefit of your company. Is your absence from just one more point in time and space really so difficult to imagine? (This time and space argument doesn't originate with me. I believe I've borrowed it from Douglas Hofstadter.)

Or imagine dying in parts: what if you had a stroke that damaged your visual cortex-where would your faculty of sight be thereafter? If a priest said that your visual self had gone on to heaven before you, would you believe him? What if another stroke caused you to lose your ability to speak and to understand language-do you think that your eloquence must survive in some immaterial form? There is simply no question that brain damage can cause any of us to lose the specific faculties that constitute our conscious selves. Why is it so hard to imagine that we can lose all these faculties at once?

Or consider the analogy of sleep: each night you fall asleep and surrender your subjectivity to oblivion. You probably do this quite happily-indeed, you will be miserable if you fail to do it. Perhaps you believe that we all remain subtly conscious even while deeply asleep (this might be so), but if you're like me, you awaken each morning without any sense of having lived for most of the night. You already know, therefore, what it's like for your experience of the world to cease. Is a permanent cessation really so difficult to imagine?

Finally: how is your last essay anything but exhibit A in a criticism of religion as "the denial of death"?

I'd now like to return to the question of whether a given religious doctrine-like the doctrine of the Resurrection-is true (or likely to be). As I've pointed out before, the truth or falsity of a proposition is one thing; the psychological/social effect of believing it is quite another. It seems to me that most religious people ignore this distinction. In fact, there is a powerful incentive to do so, because to focus on the plausibility of a doctrine, without being beguiled by its consolations, forces a person to confront just how dubious most religious propositions are. The long-range interest of maintaining one's faith (and reaping its consolations) generally overwhelms every present temptation to honestly evaluate whether or not a specific article of faith is likely to be true.

I'd like you to focus, however, on a few competing doctrines in terms of their plausibility:

(1) There is no God.
(2) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.
(3) Christianity is the one true religion, and Catholics have the truest version of it.
You seem to be basically committed to (3). Needless to say, I've put my money on (1). But let's say that we knew, with absolute certainty that I'm wrong and that either (2) or (3) is true. How much money would you be willing to wager on the divinity of Jesus? Would you bet your life on it? You might say that you already have bet your life, but that isn't precisely true. You have invested a lot of time, energy, and emotion in being a Catholic. But given the benefits you say you get from your faith, this seems less like an investment and more like a withdrawal of funds. Forget about the consolations of your faith for a moment and ask yourself how sure you are that (2) is wrong and (3) is right.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and attempt to read your mind: I suspect that if the truth of proposition (2) were revealed to you in a glorious epiphany, you would be both powerfully consoled (who wouldn't?) and not at all surprised to learn that the doctrine of Christianity was basically wrong. If a revelation of (2) wouldn't utterly surprise you, how can you claim to be so sure that Jesus was the son of God?

While you admit to being "a little evasive" about the details of your Christianity, I think this has been less of an issue than your not addressing many of the points I've raised which are (in my view) quite damaging to the case you have made for faith. Of course, a certain amount of slippage is inevitable in any exchange like this, and I have surely compounded the problem by going on at such length. But in re-reading our exchange, I've come to feel that you have generally pirouetted around my main points, often as a result of a misunderstanding. Here are a few of the issues that I don't think you've addressed adequately:

Moderation v. fundamentalism: There appears to be no principled separation between religious moderation and religious fundamentalism other than a facility for (and an inclination to) doubt. But how much doubt is too much? Why not doubt the whole shebang, as I do? The pope seems to believe many things which you doubt. Do you have reason to believe that the pope is mistaken about the true doctrine of Christianity, or do you just not like the social consequences of some of his beliefs? Can you justify the intermediate position you've taken with respect to Catholicism in terms of truth and falsity (rather than consolation and its lack)? And if you disagree that the truth of an idea can be neatly separated from its consolations, what does the phrase "wishful thinking" mean to you?

The inadequacies of the Bible: What is the intellectual justification for considering the Bible to be the inspired word of God, given how much bad stuff (like slavery) is in there, and how much good stuff (like all of science) isn't? Do you really think that no mere mortals could have written Mark, Matthew, John and Luke? Not even the combined talent of a first-century Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy? It seems to me that this textual claim really lies at the core of the matter: either the Bible is a book like any other great work of literature, or it's a magic book. Once one accepts it to be a magic book, I agree that a wide range of religious implications follow; but if one doesn't accept this claim, it seems to me that the basis for being a Christian (as a opposed to anything else) evaporates. Would it really surprise you if God told you that the Bible was a product of fallible, human minds? And if this wouldn't truly astound you (in the way that finding out that George Washington never existed presumably would), how can you claim to be so certain of the doctrine of Christianity?

Ontological fancy footwork: All that business about God being "definitionally" the creator of the universe, outside of space and time, etc. just doesn't wash. The "marzipan at the center of the sun" is definitionally at the center of the sun. Does this mean there is marzipan at the center of the sun?

The contingency of your own faith: As you said, if you'd been raised a Buddhist, you'd probably be a Buddhist. And yet, you also believe that Christianity is really true. This seems to entail that, by sheer accident of birth, you were raised and culturally conditioned to believe the one true faith. Do you really believe this? Doesn't it seem more likely that you just happen to subscribe to the religion into which you were born (as most people do) because of social pressure, emotional consolation, attachment to tradition, etc.?

The troublesome example of other religions: Don't you think Mormons and Muslims have similar stories to tell about feeling consoled in the presence of death, hearing voices, etc.? Can't both Mormons and Muslims use the same argument you have used about the cultural success of their faiths to vindicate their own truth claims? How is it that you reject their claims, and how is it that in rejecting them you don't find your own religious beliefs coming under pressure?

The argument from cultural success: Apart from the fact that the argument from cultural success would vindicate any religion that has millions of subscribers, it's also just plain false. The success of Christianity (or any faith) is not an argument for its truth. While dialogue and consensus (and, therefore, cultural success) play a role in our knowledge gathering, we don't do epistemology by plebiscite. The majority of people really can be wrong-as are the majority of American Christians about the age of the universe and about the evolution of life on this planet.

Ancient miracles are less compelling than modern miracles (and modern miracles don't compel you): Christianity is predicated on the reliability of the gospel account of the miracles of Jesus. And yet, there are modern books cataloguing the miracles of Hindu adepts, written by educated Westerners. Why not grant these testimonials even more credence than the gospel? I would bet that you are not even inclined to read this literature, much less organize your life around it. Then why not view the gospel with the same skepticism?

These are just a few of the areas in which I think your defense of faith breaks down. I summarize them here, not as a demand that you answer each question sequentially, but to give you and our readers a sense of where I am left unconvinced by what you have written thus far.

Thanks again for your willingness to discuss these things at such length.

All the best,

From: Andrew Sullivan  To: Sam Harris 04/5/07, 11:57 PM

Dear Sam,

My apologies again for the late response to your last post. Work squats on my life. Let me tackle your first points first. I argued that because we may be programmed by evolution for faith, faith may be intrinsic to being human and therefore something we should engage rather than deny. You make the solid point that we are also programmed by evolution for rape. Does that make rape defensible? Of course not, even though, as you point out, rape is a very effective and very natural way to disseminate DNA. But my response would not be to say that the evolutionary impulse to inseminate should be resisted entirely. I'd argue that the sex drive should be channeled respectfully toward others, i.e. moderated. So rape cedes to consensual DNA dissemination. Similarly, the drive for faith needs to be channeled respectfully toward others, i.e. moderated. Fundamentalism cedes to toleration. Hence my insistence on maintaining the humility appropriate for such immense claims about the meaning of everything; and hence my support for a faith that is live-and-let-believe in its social manifestation. I think my project in this respect is far more feasible than yours. By attempting to abolish rather than moderate faith, I fear you deliver an intrinsic human impulse into the hands of those who most abuse it--the fundamentalists of all stripes.

You then ask why I should find it is so hard to imagine my non-existence? Your good points have made me realize more fully why I feel the way I do. The reason I find it so hard to imagine, I realize, is that I believe that God loves me--which is, helpfully, relevant to your subsequent argument. You posit the following options, and ask me to choose:

(1) There is no God.
(2) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.
(3) Christianity is the one true religion, and Catholics have the truest version of it.
You want me to say (3) and I will, but I hope to do so in a way that explains my faith a little better. There are, I think, many other options for human beings with respect to faith. Here's my version of the options:
(1) There is no God.
(2) There are many gods.
(3) There is a God and it is evil.
(4) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.
(5) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was a man more suffused with divinity than any other human being who has ever lived. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes, except that a person know God and accept God's love freely and expresses that love toward everyone he or she encounters. Jesus uniquely showed us how to accept God's love and how to be worthy of it. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace. But Jesus was the proof that such love exists, and that it is divine and eternal, and that it cares for us.
(6) None of us knows anything about these things.
I guess I've tipped my hand by endorsing (5) but acknowledging the wisdom of (6). The reason I cannot conceive of my non-existence is because I have accepted, freely and sanely, the love of Jesus, and I have felt it, heard it, known it. He would never let me go. And by never, I mean eternally. And so I could never not exist and neither could any of the people I have known and loved.

For me, the radical truth of my faith is therefore not that God exists, but that God is love (a far, far less likely proposition). On its face, this is a preposterous claim, and in my defense, I have never really argued in this dialogue that you should not find it preposterous. It can be reasoned about, but its truth itself is not reasonable or reachable through reason alone. But I believe it to be true--not as a fable or as a comfort or as a culture. As truth. And one reason I am grateful for this discussion is that you take this truth claim seriously on its own terms.

What did Jesus do? The first and immense thing is that he existed at all. Here's how I put it in my book:

"This, it seems to me, is the true mystery of the incarnation, the notion that in Jesus, God became man. I believe this in the only way I can: that one man represents, for all time, God's decision to truly be with us. The reason I call myself a Christian is not because I manage to subscribe, at any given moment, to all the truths that the hierarchy of my church insists I believe in, let alone because I am a good person or a "good Catholic." I call myself a Christian because I believe that, in a way I cannot fully understand, the force behind everything decided to prove itself benign by becoming us, and being with us. And as soon as people grasped what had happened, what was happening, the world changed forever. The Gospels - all of them, including some that were rejected by the early Church - are mere sketches of a life actually lived, and an experience that can never be reduced to words or texts or doctrines...
In this nonfundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important then theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle. It is the great lie of our time that all religious faith has to be fundamentalist to be valid. There is another way. For Christians, that other way is about a man, Jesus, whose individuality and humanity cannot be abstracted. And it is about a commemoration of that man, as he asked us to commemorate him--in a meal, a breaking of bread, a Seder-made-new, the mass, as Catholics have come to understand it. This is my faith, if I were forced to describe it."
This is what Jesus told people: to treat God as an intimate father, to pray simply, to believe against so much evidence that good does indeed prevail against evil, to know that God is not indifferent to us, and to re-enact his last meal for ever as a way to remind ourselves of his love and experience his real presence. And this is what Jesus lived: a life full of love and friendship and self-giving, even to the point of non-violent submission to violence, as proof of God's love. I do not need the proof of miracles to believe this. The universe itself is a miracle to me. If there are aspects of it that science has not yet grasped but that believers have somehow glimpsed, then I am content to allow for the possibility of miracles. But I have not witnessed any but the normal ones: the miracle of the blossoms outside my window at this time of year or the miracle that someone else actually loves me unconditionally, or the miracle of a newborn child. This is miracle enough for me. Or in the saying attributed to John Donne:
"There is nothing that God has established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once."
The resurrection? Yes. But I see it as no more and no less remarkable than the incarnation--and it is, in many ways, the only possible consequence of the incarnation. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles provide contradictory accounts of what the resurrection actually was. Jesus appeared in the guise of others, as a vision, as a fully physical entity, and in other ways that defy science and logic. I don't know how to understand it except as a mystery. But I do believe in the empty tomb as much as I believe in the cramped manger. They go together--marks of an appearance in human history as mysterious as the divine must always be to human minds.

To your specific challenges, I think I addressed the moderation vs. fundamentalism argument at the beginning of this missive.

Is the Bible uniquely the word of God? Yes--but it was also first spoken and then written by human beings. I don't believe in its inerrancy or its literal truth. But I believe in the deepest truths of the Gospels, and the truth of the life and death of the man they describe. Has God spoken to us in other ways? Of course. But for me, the words of Jesus speak of God's love more truly than anything else I have ever come across. I'm still looking.

Contingency? An eternal truth has to enter human discourse at one time or another. It will become necessarily contingent as soon as it touches the human and becomes part of history. There is no other way. So faith's contingency is neither an argument for or against it.

Other religions. I'm curious. And I find in many of them many of the themes of Jesus: the unimportance of wordliness, the oneness of God, the equal dignity of human beings, the impulse to charity. But I do find Christ's witness the final truth, which must mean that others fall short. But I do not see this as a reason to hate or condemn or even deny the alternatives, where they also see this deeper truth. Everything is true as long as it isn't taken to be anything more than it is. And I am in no position to judge the sincere choices of others in matters inherently beyond our knowledge.

Cultural success? I agree that such success doesn't actually prove anything about a faith. But it is a sign that a truth has endured the test of time and is more than a sudden spasm of fashion. That the life of Jesus has altered human history in ways rarely equaled is indisputable. That's not dispositive, but it is something.

Perhaps, then, Sam, we have talked as much as we fruitfully can. I have to say I am deeply grateful for the opportunity. Those of us who say we have faith are not often challenged as forcefully as you have done for me in your book and in this dialogue. It may frustrate you to know that I have actually found this exchange to be supportive of my own belief. Being forced to defend my faith in public, when usually it lies in the inarticulate folds of private experience, has been a difficult but useful exercize. I'm afraid I haven't persuaded anyone--or maybe led a few to your side of the equation. But in these matters of ultimate meaning, being persuasive is not as important as being right, is it? Thanks for helping me get closer to that ideal. But my doubt, which is a part of my faith, still gets in the way.



Continued on page 2: Sam Harris concludes: 'If God loves the world, he has a terribly noncommittal way of showing it.' »

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