Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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


Our debate appears to be heating up. You have now convicted me of "intolerance" reminiscent of "the worst aspects of fundamentalism." As I indicated in my last essay, I am quite familiar with this line of attack and find it depressing. Nevertheless, your specific charge is rather amazing, and I am eager to respond to it.

But first, a little housekeeping:

1. You spend the first two paragraphs of your last essay taking offense at something I did not say, culminating with, "spare me the thought that you know it [fundamentalism] better than I do." I did, in fact, attempt to spare you that thought when I wrote:

First, many moderates assume that religious "extremism" is rare and therefore not all that consequential. Happily, you are not in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates. As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential.
Indeed, this was one of several places where I sought to communicate that I do not view you as a run-of-the-mill religious moderate. I was extending an olive branch, of sorts, and you have gone and poked yourself in the eye with it. What's a well-intentioned atheist to do?

2. Contrary to your allegation, I do not "disdain" religious moderates. I do, however, disdain bad ideas and bad arguments--which, I'm afraid, you have begun to manufacture in earnest. I'd like to point out that you have not rebutted any of the substantial challenges I made in my last post. Rather, you have gone on to make other points, most of which I find unsurprising and irrelevant to the case I have made against religious faith. For instance, you claim that many fundamentalists are tolerant of dissent and capable of friendship with you despite their dogmatic views about sex. You also remind me that many devoutly religious people do good things on the basis of their religious beliefs. I do not doubt either of these propositions. You could catalogue such facts until the end of time, and they would not begin to suggest that God actually exists, or that the Bible is his Word, or that his Son came to earth in the person of Jesus to redeem our sins. I have no doubt that there are millions of nice Mormons who are likewise tolerant of dissent and perfectly cordial toward homosexuals. Does this, in your view, even slightly increase the probability that the Book of Mormon was delivered on golden plates to Joseph Smith Jr. (that very randy and unscrupulous dowser) by the angel Moroni? Do all the good Muslims in the world lend credence to the claim that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse? Do all the good pagans throughout history suggest that Mt. Olympus was ever teeming with invisible gods? As I have argued elsewhere, the alleged usefulness of religion--the fact that it sometimes gets people to do very good things indeed--is not an argument for its truth. And, needless to say, the usefulness of religion can be disputed, as I have done in both my books. As you may know, I've argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available; I have also argued that it rather often gets people to do very bad things that they would not otherwise do. On the subject of doing good, I ask you, which is more moral, helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think God wants you to do it? Personally, I'd much prefer that my children acquire the former sensibility. On the subject of doing bad: there are, at this very moment, perfectly ordinary Shia and Sunni Muslims drilling holes into each other's brains with power tools in the suburbs of Baghdad. What are the chances they would be doing this without the "benefit" of their incompatible religious identities?

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