Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

The place you are seeking - this "contingency-free" place where no specifics exist but pure truth and a clean glass - is something we people of faith call heaven. Your search for it is a religious search, even if you are unaware of it. We religious people have known about heaven for ever; but only the truly foolish among us have ever mistaken it for earth, or human life. And when those truly foolish people have attempted to replicate this heaven on earth, they have been responsible for the worst atrocities religion has produced, which is why I fear similar darkness from the world-view you are, with impeccable intentions, enthusiastically proposing. But the glass you and I drink from, Sam, is never clean; it has been drunk from since before our human history; it has passed from lip to lip through vistas of history and pre-history. It has been filled and emptied and filled again, its contents traced in stories and myths and parables and histories and DNA. It is contingent in the way that everything human is contingent.

Can I imagine a world without such human contingency? Yes, I can. I can imagine all sorts of things - flying spaghetti monsters, to use one vivid term now beloved of today's atheists. I can imagine Lucy in the sky with diamonds. I can imagine all the people living life in peace.

But it is important to note that such a world has never, ever existed, and never, ever will. No human society has ever functioned without the large faith that underpins all the little faiths: religion. No society has ever existed without the mature human acceptance of what we do not know and what is greater than we are. No civilization has ever been atheist at its core. No polity has ever been constructed in the absence of faith, or in the absence of a tradition of faith that makes belief in the present possible at all. Earth to Sam: Does this not tell you something? Or is it plausible that human beings tomorrow will become something that in all of human history and pre-history they have never, ever been?

You write: "whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now." Yes--absolutely yes. But now is always and everywhere a function of all that we have ever been. The key contribution of religion is to grapple with that fact at a far deeper level than science, to see human life as an intersection, in Eliot's words, of the timeless with time. Religion at its deepest is the attempt to reconcile this profound human predicament: that we exist in bodies but dream beyond them, that we are caught between the irrational instinct of beasts but endowed with the serene hope of angels. This paradox of humanity--which you would erase into a clean slate--is what religion responds to and has always responded to. The genius of the religious life lived to its fullest lies, in Oakeshott's words,

"in the poetic quality, humble or magnificent, of the images, the rites, the observances, and the offerings (the wisp of wheat on the wayside calvary) in which it recalls to us that 'eternity is in love with the productions of time' and invites us to live 'so far as is possible' as an immortal."

This is drinking from the unclean glass and drinking deeply.

In that context, let me unpack the contingency of my own faith. In my last letter, I wrote of how I experience faith as a gift, something I didn't actually choose. This unchoice can be understood as simply a function of the contingent accident of my birth and upbringing, as you point out and I readily concede. But I do not consider its contingency a mark against it - since there is nothing on earth that is not contingent. For eternal truth to be apprehended by the human soul, it must enter a contingent world, and be refracted and distorted by such an entrance. Contingency is as integral to any human being's faith as eternity. This is a logical necessity for faith to exist at all.

My story is the story of every person of faith--a mix of contingency and eternity. I have tried to explain the eternity, and I understand if it simply baffles the faithless. So let me explain the more comprehensible contingency, and why it actually supports my faith, rather than undermines it. The contingency comes from my family, of course. But it also comes from where I was born and grew up--England. The Catholicism I imbibed was a minority faith in a majority Protestant or agnostic culture. And I can track its origins through history--through my Irish ancestors who held onto it despite cruel persecution, back to the time when England itself was pervaded by the religious faith I still hold. In high school and university, I was able to study the history of that faith--the astonishing cultural wealth and spiritual depth of the Catholic church that kept the memory of Jesus alive for millennia. I was then able to move to a different continent and country and walk into a church that was itself part of that universal inheritance. There is no free place on earth where I cannot find a home. And I know who made that possible. Without that long lineage of faithful preservation, without that dreaded institution, the Church, I would have no cup from which to drink. They passed it, these souls, from person to person, from generation to generation, in one of the most astonishingly persistent endeavors in human history.

The more I discovered about that long endeavor, the more amazed I was by it. Yes, you will cite the terrible parts of its history, parts I have not shied from myself. But you have missed so much more. The more I questioned and asked, the more history and theology I engaged in, the more I used reason to inquire into faith, the more remarkable the achievement of Christianity appeared to me. My reason strengthened and informed my faith. I felt blessed to have been given this gift, amazed at my good fortune. The thought of throwing it away for a "clean glass" that is itself an illusion seems absurd to me.

Why would I want to forget all of that precious inheritance--the humility of Mary, the foolishness of Peter, the genius of Paul, the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the haunting music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the ecstasies of Teresa, the rigor of Ignatius, the whole astonishing, ravishing panoply of ancient Christianity that suddenly arrived at my door, in a banal little town in an ordinary family in the grim nights of the 1970s in England?

You want to be contingency-free? Maybe you need a richer slice of contingency. There is more wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and truth in my tradition than can be dreamt of in your rationalism. In answer to your question, "why not leave all this behind?" my answer is simply: why on earth would I? Why would any sane person abandon such an astonishingly rich inheritance that civilizes, informs, educates, inspires and then also saves? If faith were to desert me, I may be forced to leave. But even then, the wealth of that human inheritance would inform me and make my life worth living. I would cling to and celebrate this cultural inheritance, even if the faith that made it possible has waned for me.

Why would a human being not look at the unclean glass he is born with and ask: what is this that I have been given? Who passed this down to me? Why? Who died to give this to me? Who suffered? Who spent their lives transcribing texts to keep the memory of this man alive? Who built these churches and composed these chants and wrote these books for me to engage long after they have all disappeared from the earth? How does this amazing cultural, intellectual, spiritual inheritance connect with that inchoate sense of the divine that still permeates my soul? Could it be that what I sense in my soul is what Augustine sensed? What Dominic sensed? What John actually saw and loved and rested his head against?

I know this may sound alien to you. So let me put this in a context that might appeal to you, as a rational, empirical person. How do you explain Christianity's enduring power? Is it all a terrible, ugly blight on the human mind that must be thrown out in favor of "truly honest, fearless inquiry"? But wouldn't "truly honest, fearless inquiry" into religious faith begin by asking how Christianity came to exist at all?

Consider the evidence. I do not believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth as God Incarnate. We have no evidence of a flying spaghetti monster. But we have solid evidence of Jesus' existence. We have a handful of independent historical artifacts that attest that a minor Jewish rabbi in first century Israel was executed by the Roman authorities. We have many Gospels that date from the period after his death testifying to the power of his message. Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way - and not just remembered but worshiped over two millennia later in the most advanced civilization the world has ever known. Does this not intrigue you? Have you never asked in the spirit of "truly honest, fearless inquiry": How on earth did this happen?

As a simple piece of historical inquiry, it's an astonishingly unlikely turn of events. Within a short period of time, not only was an obscure, failed Jewish rabbi remembered, his teachings became the official religion of the empire that had executed him. In the ensuing centuries, his life and teachings inspired many of the greatest minds, souls and talents humankind has ever produced. The collapse of the empire that elevated him did not lead to the disappearance of Christianity. It led to its eventual re-emergence as a vibrant, beautiful, rich experience for millions. Only Muhammad and the Buddha rival the story of this man - a fact that leads me to ask questions of both (particularly Buddhism), but which prompts you to condemn and anathematize all religious claims of any kind.

Even today, as I type these words, I look on my desk and see the sign I bring with me everywhere: his cross. When I go to dinner later, a small cross will come with me, in my wallet. In my study at home, a fourteenth century wooden carving of Jesus stares down at me from the wall. He is alive in me and millions of others after all this time, sustaining, nurturing, inspiring not just me but countless more. Even if you do not believe in him in the way I do, surely you must acknowledge that something very special has been going on here, something truly remarkable, something beyond the norm of much else in human history.

I have a rational, empirical explanation for this. It is that those who saw Jesus saw something so astonishing, so utterly unlike anything that had ever occurred before, that they became on fire with this new truth. They saw God. It was a contingent expression of God - how could it not be if humans were to witness it? But it was also an eternal expression, so that today some will still say: I know this Jesus as well as anyone ever knew him. And Jesus grasped this paradox of contingent-eternity that is the core mystery of the Incarnation. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

What is your explanation? How do you account for why one person out of the billions who have ever lived had this impact? How probable is it that all these countless followers were all deluding themselves completely? And if Jesus wasn't nothing, what was he in your eyes? What secret did he hold that so many others haven't?

That is an empirical question. And it merits an empirical answer.


From: Sam Harris To: Andrew Sullivan 2/20/07, 12:34 PM

Andrew -

Hmm...I'm afraid you chased a few red herrings in your last essay. I did not, for instance, beckon you to a world of my delusions, perfectly free of contingency. Nor did I claim that science is the gateway to such a world. I merely asked you to imagine what it would be like if our discourse about ethics and spirituality were as uncontaminated by cultural prejudice as the discourse of science already is. You appear to have misread me. Consequently, much of your last essay targeted terrain that I have never thought to occupy. I did hear some bomb-blasts in the distance. They were magnificent.

You are, of course, right to point out that science is beholden to the limits of human cognition (though it has begun to escape some of these limits with the aid of computers). Our cognitive horizons are clearly bounded by our neurophysiology, and our neurophysiology is a consequence of our evolution on this earth-which, as you know, is teeming with slithering contingencies as far as the eye can see. The point that I was trying to make is that science is not nearly as beleaguered by contingency as religion is. And this is what is so right with science and so wrong with religion. Needless to say, the discourse of science already exists, and it already functions by norms that are quite alien to religion. If applied in religion, these norms would leave very few traditional doctrines still standing. But contrary to your fears on the matter, this would not make religious music, art, or architecture any less beautiful.

This brings me to a related topic of confusion: there is nothing "purely rational" about the world I am advocating. Your comments seem to invoke a stark opposition between reason and emotion that I do not believe exists (and which now seems quite implausible at the level of the brain). The feeling we call "doubt" can be considered an emotion, and this is this feeling that prompts me to object to much of what you have written over the course of our debate. Could I find your reasoning doubtful without feeling doubt? I don't know. But it has long been clear that people with neurological injuries that impede certain aspects of emotional processing fail at a variety of reasoning tasks. More to the point, perhaps, I do not think there is anything unreasonable about love, or about valuing love, or indeed, about valuing it above most (perhaps even all) things. While love is not reducible to reason, it is not in conflict with it either. So I think it is time we retire facile oppositions between cold rationality and juicy aesthetics, between truth and beauty, between reason and emotion, etc.

Regarding the fate of our children: needless to say, we have already picked guardians to educate them; we call them "teachers." What happens at Harvard or Yale when a student raises his hand in history class and announces, "My daddy says that London and Constantinople are the same city"? One must presume that the next words he hears will be, "Sorry, but your daddy is wrong." Parents are not the eternal gatekeepers of epistemology, and if they do successfully mislead their children about matters of fact, their children pay the price. Any aspiring doctor who has it on his mother's authority that the pancreas is located in the head will have a tough time getting through medical school.

Your excursus into philosophical skepticism was also unnecessary-the "puddle-jumps of faith" that lie at the foundation of our reason are not a problem for atheism. This is not the sort of faith I've been criticizing. The fact that the underpinnings of our knowledge are in some sense inscrutable (and may remain so), the fact that Hume's worries make sense, the fact that Wittgenstein can say things like "our spade is turned," does not place every spurious claim to knowledge on an equal footing with science. The discomfort induced in mathematics by Godel does not make the doctrine of Mormonism even slightly more plausible. There is still a difference between jumping a puddle and walking on water.

You end your last essay by arguing for the veracity (or at least plausibility) of Christianity on the basis of its cultural success. I suspect you must know that this was a hard turn into a blind alley. You even acknowledge the existence of other very successful religions, and this spells doom. Consider the case of Islam. Here is a religion that explicitly repudiates the core claims of Christianity (Muhammad assures us that anyone who thinks Jesus was divine will spend eternity in hell, Qur'an 5:71-75; 19:30-38). Islam has nearly as many subscribers as Christianity does and is now spreading faster than any religion on earth. What should I make of this, if I am to follow your reasoning? Am I to believe that Muhammad really flew to heaven on a winged steed? That the Qur'an is the perfect word of God? On your account, these claims have stood the test of time. But that is not the point. The point is, they do not withstand the test of dispassionate scrutiny. And yet, in many respects, Muhammad's career as a prophet was more impressive than Jesus' was. At the very least, he escaped crucifixion. Of course, Christians have managed to make even the crucifixion of their Savior into a success story. It would seem that faith can rationalize anything.

In any case, the extra-Biblical evidence of Jesus' life is not as compelling as you seem to suggest. As you know, there is no contemporaneous description of the ministry of Jesus in the Bible or anywhere else. And even if the historical record offered multiple, first-hand accounts of his miracles, this would not constitute sufficient support for the basic claims of Christianity. First-hand reports of miracles are a dime a dozen, even in the 21st century. Many spiritual seekers in India testify to miracles performed by their gurus on a daily basis. These miracles are every bit as outlandish as the miracles attributed to Jesus. I have met literally hundreds of western educated men and women who are convinced that their favorite yogi has magic powers. I remain open to evidence of such powers (and my openness has exposed me to a fair amount of abuse in the atheist community). But as far as I can tell, all of these stories are promulgated by people who desperately want to believe them; all (to my knowledge) lack the kind of corroborating evidence one should require to actually believe that Nature's laws have been abrogated in this way; and most people who report these events demonstrate an utter disinclination to look for non-miraculous explanations. In any case, stories about mystics (and charlatans) walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future, etc., are being told now. Indeed, all of these powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by an uncountable number of eyewitnesses-and the man claims to have been born of a virgin to boot! He has literally millions of followers, many of them educated westerners. You can watch some of his "miracles" on YouTube, performed before credulous throngs of spiritually hungry souls. Prepare to be underwhelmed. And yet, you are suggesting that tales of similar events emerging from the pre-scientific religious milieu of the 1st century Roman Empire (decades after their supposed occurrence) are especially credible.

The endurance of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not much of a mystery--and it is certainly not so mysterious as to lend credence to ancient miracles. No doubt there are many factors that have contributed to Christianity's success. The problem of sunk-cost is surely one: just look at how much attentional, emotional, and financial resources people have invested in this religion. No one is eager to realize he has been wasting his time. Realizing that the core claims of Christianity are illegitimate would be tantamount to a Christian admitting, "I have been wrong all these years." It is no surprise that people keep their shoulder to the door, bracing against such epiphanies. I have received thousands of letters and emails from people describing just how painful it was for them to finally admit that they were duped by Christianity, and that they duped their children in turn. I have heard from many ministers who have ceased to be ministers, and even Christians. More commonly, I hear from people who are terrified to articulate their growing skepticism about the doctrine of Christianity for fear of being shunned by friends and family. I do not doubt how much psychological and social pressure religious people are under. I don't think you should doubt it either.

Another factor is the very experience of belonging that you wrote about so eloquently-the fact that you can go anywhere on earth and find a home. (Frankly, I'd rather be assured of going anywhere on earth and finding a reasonable human being, but to each his own.) I do not doubt the attraction of having such communal infrastructure, and I admit that there is no secular equivalent (at the moment). But it is important to point out that this perk of religious affiliation says nothing about the truth of any specific religious doctrine. When the Scientologist says, "We have offices in 175 cities," this does nothing to redeem his claims upon my credulity. Scientologists can build as many offices as they like, enjoy as much fellowship as they like, and smile as widely as they are able-none of this will render the writings of L. Ron Hubbard profound. None of this will lend intellectual credibility to a belief system that can be best summarized in a episode of South Park.

Are you really surprised by the endurance of religion? What ideology is likely to be more durable than one that conforms, at every turn, to our powers of wishful thinking? Hope is easy; knowledge is hard. Science is the one domain in which we human beings make a truly heroic effort to counter our innate biases and wishful thinking. Science is the one endeavor in which we have developed a refined methodology for separating what a person hopes is true from what he has good reason to believe. The methodology isn't perfect, and the history of science is riddled with abject failures of scientific objectivity. But that is just the point-these have been failures of science, discovered and corrected by-what, religion? No, by good science.

I do not deny that there is something at the core of the religious experience that is worth understanding. I do not even deny that there is something there worthy of our devotion. But devotion to it does not entail false claims to knowledge, nor does it require that we indulge our cultural/familial/emotional biases in an unscientific way. The glass can get very clean--not sterile perhaps, not entirely without structure, not contingency-free, but cleaner than many people are ready to allow. One need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to experience the "ecstasies of Teresa" (or those of Rumi, for that matter). And those of us with the benefit of a 21st century education can be more parsimonious in drawing conclusions about the cosmos on the basis of such ecstasy. Indeed, I think we must be, lest our attachment to the language of our ancestors keep their ignorance alive in our own time.



From: Andrew Sullivan To: Sam Harris 3/14/07, 3:12 PM

Dear Sam,

First off, sorry for the dropped ball. Two reasons: mounds of other work and, if I were being completely honest, a bit of a block. I don't want to go around in circles, so I spent some time re-reading our entire exchange and trying to figure out what the core questions are that I haven't adequately addressed. I also found myself a little embarrassed in retrospect by the forthrightness of my claims to faith. I feel an unworthy apologist for Christianity in many ways. I'm not a trained theologian nor a priest nor even someone who thinks of himself as a good Christian. The pope believes I live in mortal sin because I love and live with another man. But I remain a believer in Jesus and in the Gospels and in the church, and I agreed to start this, so I'd better continue. So here goes.

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