Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism.


Most Americans oppose violence spurred by religious fundamentalism, but few agree on how to address it. In books like The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, author Sam Harris contends that religion itself--not its more extreme forms--is to blame. This week, Harris debates blogger and Conservative Soul author Andrew Sullivan in a no-holds-barred blogalogueTM. Return here to see Harris' next post--and check Andrew Sullivan's blog for his responses.

March 2007 Update: Jump to Part Two of the blogalogue to read Sam Harris' response

Sam Harris

Andrew Sullivan

From: Sam Harris  To: Andrew Sullivan 01/16/07, 5:20 PM

Hi Andrew--

First, I'd like to say that it is a pleasure to communicate with you in this forum. We've engaged one another indirectly on the internet, and on the radio, but I think this email exchange will give us our first opportunity for a proper discussion. Before I drive toward areas where I think you and I will disagree, I'd first like to acknowledge what appears to be the common ground between us.

I think you and I agree that there is a problem with religious fundamentalism. We might not agree about how to solve this problem, or about how fundamentalism relates to religion as a whole, but we both think that far too many people currently imagine that one of their books contains the perfect word of the Creator of the universe. You and I also agree that the world's major religions differ in ways that are nontrivial-and, therefore, that not all fundamentalists have the same fundamentals in hand. Not all religions teach precisely the same thing, and when they do teach the same thing, they don't necessarily teach it equally well.

We are both especially concerned about Islam at this moment--because so many Muslims appear to be "fundamentalists" and because some of the fundamentals of Islam pose special liabilities in a world overflowing with destructive technology. I think, for instance, that we would both rank the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad pretty high on our list of humanity's worst ideas.

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence-prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, "have faith in yourself." There's nothing wrong with that type of "faith."

Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

Assuming I've got that about right, I propose that in my next post, I launch into a brief diatribe about religious moderation, and then you can respond any way you see fit. If I have misconstrued any of your views above, please sort things out for me.

All the best,


From: Andrew Sullivan  To: Sam Harris 1/17/07, 11:36 AM

Dear Sam,

First off, same back at you. I found your book, "The End of Faith" to be an intellectual tonic, even when I strongly disagreed with it. It said things that needed to be said - not least because many people were already thinking them - and it said them without cant or bullshit. I was and am grateful for that. And I wrote the religious passages of my own book, "The Conservative Soul," with some of your arguments in mind.

We agree that Islamic fundamentalism is by far the gravest threat in this respect (because of its confort with violence); and that the core feature of what occurred on 9/11 was not cultural, political, or economic - but religious. We agree that a large part of the murder and mayhem in today's Iraq is also rooted in religious difference, specifically the ancient rift between Sunni and Shia. We also agree, I think, that the degeneration of American Christianity into the crudest forms of Biblical inerrantism, emotional hysteria and cultural paranoia is a lamentable development. But we differ, I think, on why we find these developments discouraging.

The reason I find fundamentalism so troubling - whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim - is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation). It is its inability to integrate doubt into faith, its resistance to human reason, its tendency to pride and exclusion, and its inability to accept mystery as the core reality of any religious life. You find it troubling, I think, purely because it upholds truths that cannot be proved empirically or even, in some respects, logically. In that sense, of course, I think you have no reason to dislike or oppose it any more than you would oppose my kind of faith. Your argument allows for no solid distinctions within faiths; my argument depends on such distinctions.

I'm struck, in other words, by the difference between Christianity as it can be and Christianity as it is expressed by fundamentalists. You are struck by the similarity between my doubt-filled, sacramental, faith-in-forgiveness and fundamentalism. We Christians are all as nutty as one another, I think you'd say. And my prettifying up religion as something not-so-crazy or unreasonable therefore may be more irritating to you than even the profundities of Rick Warren or Monsignor Escriva. At least, that's where I predict you will aim your next rhetorical fire. I'm braced.

Here's the nub, I think. You write:

I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not.

Agreed. As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth. So I am perfectly happy to believe in evolution, for example, as the most powerful theory yet devised explaining human history and pre-history. I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe - since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator. I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith - since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.

But just because that Truth may be beyond our human understanding does not mean it is therefore in a cosmic sense unreasonable. As John's Gospel proclaims, in the beginning was the Word - logos - and it is reasonable. At some point faith has to abandon reason for mystery - but that does not mean - and need never mean - abandoning reason altogether. They key is with Pascal: "l'usage et soumission de la raison." Or do you believe that Pascal, one of the great mathematicians of his time, was deluded into the faith he so passionately and simultaneously held?



Continued on page 2: The problem with religious moderates »

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