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.
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