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Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

3. You have also made the false charge that I think religious people are "fools" or "idiots." Needless to say, I do not think Blaise Pascal was an idiot (nor do I think you are, for that matter). But I do consider certain ideas idiotic, and idiotic ideas can occasionally be found rattling around the brains of extraordinarily intelligent people. One of the horrors of religious dogmatism is that it can produce a Pascal--a brilliant man who was irretrievably self-deceived on matters of profound importance. As I wrote in The End of Faith:

It is true that Pascal had what was for him an astonishing contemplative experience on the night of Nov. 23, 1654-one that converted him entirely to Jesus Christ. I do not doubt the power of such experiences, but it seems to me self-evident that they are no more the exclusive property of devout Christians than are tears shed in joy. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, along with animists of every description have had these experiences throughout history. Pascal, being highly intelligent and greatly learned, should have known this; that he did not (or chose to disregard it) testifies to the stultifying effect of orthodoxy.
I stand by this claim. There is no way around the fact that St. Paul, Pascal, the popes (any of them), and every other Christian worth the name have made a claim about the exclusive validity of Christianity. This claim is, at best, ludicrously provincial. The evidence adduced in support of Christian doctrine can be found in every other religion--saints performing miracles, resurrections from the dead, channeled books, psychic powers, devotional thrills, unconditional love, etc.--these claims are either equally compelling or equally bogus. Happily, for my purposes, "equally compelling" reduces to "equally bogus"--because these claims are mutually incompatible. If Christianity is right, all other religions are wrong. Christians are committed to the following (at least): Jesus was the messiah (so the Jews are wrong); he was divine and resurrected (so the Muslims are wrong-"Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger--they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them": Qur'an, 4:157); there is only one God (so the Hindus are wrong). But, of course, the Christians have no better reason to think they're right than the Jews, Muslims, or Hindus do.

4. Your brandishing of Vatican II is just silly, and only bolsters my argument. Are you saying that for about 1960 years Christians (including all the popes) were mistaken about the true doctrine of Christianity? Would you have our readers believe that Vatican II represents some kind of epistemological breakthrough? In reality, Vatican II was just damage control. The Catholic Church has been struggling to make the best of a bad situation ever since Galileo-who, as you know, was forced to his knees under threat of torture and obliged to recant his understanding of the earth's motion and then placed under house arrest until the end of his life. He wasn't absolved of heresy until 1992 (a few decades after Vatican II), at which point the Church ascribed his genius to God, "who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." (This might be an appropriate place to vomit.) In any case, I didn't have to quote Leo XIII for lack of modern material. I could have quoted John Paul II, post-Vatican II. Here he is in all his sagacity:

This Revelation is definitive; one can only accept it or reject it. One can accept it, professing belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, the Son, of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, who is Lord and the Giver of life. Or one can reject all of this.
No doubt, if I wanted to take the time, I could find even less ecumenical statements coming from the current pope. The bottom line is that this pope, and all his predecessors (and you, apparently) believe that the Bible is a magic book: that it was not authored by human beings, however brilliant, but by some supernatural force. This is a claim for which there is not a scintilla of evidence and about which there are many good reasons to be skeptical. The Bible is, as you suggest, an "unsatisfying scriptural mess." But it is worse than that. No, I have not argued that the book is principally "about owning slaves," just that it gets the ethics of slavery wrong. The truth is that even with Jesus holding forth in defense of the poor and the meek and the persecuted, the Bible basically condones slavery. As I argued in Letter to a Christian Nation, the slaveholders of the South were on the winning side of a theological argument. They knew it. And they made a hell of a lot of noise about it. We got rid of slavery despite the moral inadequacy of the Bible, not because it is the greatest treatise on morality ever written.
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