Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

Continued from page 9

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?

Perhaps I'm missing something, but your claim about God really does not appear limited to your own experience. You are not saying-"Sam, I just don't know how I can convince you of this, but when I close my eyes and think of Jesus, I experience a feeling of utter peace. I'm calling this feeling 'God,' and I suspect that if more people felt this way, our world would be radically transformed." An assertion of this sort would give me no trouble at all. But you are saying quite a bit more than that. You are claiming to know that God exists out there. As such, you are making tacit claims about physics and cosmology and about the history of the world. What is more, these are claims that you have just pronounced unjustified, unjustifiable, and yet impervious to your own powers of doubt.

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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?

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