Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

Continued from page 1

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,

Sam


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?

Cheers,

Andrew



From: Sam Harris  To: Andrew Sullivan 01/17/07, 9:20 PM

Hi Andrew--

I think we basically understand one another, and yet we disagree on many points of importance-so we're off to a good start. You are right to say that my view of faith doesn't really allow for "solid distinctions within faiths," while yours "depends on such distinctions." This summarizes our disagreement very well. I recognize, of course, that there are many important differences between religious moderation (your "Christianity as it can be") and religious fundamentalism. And I agree that these differences have something to do with doubt and the progress of reason on the one hand and a hostility to both doubt and reason on the other. But, as you expect, I don't view the boundary between moderation and fundamentalism as "solid," or even principled, and I hold a very different view of many of the topics you raised-Pascal included. (I do think Nietzsche had it right when he wrote, "The most pitiful example: the corruption of Pascal, who believed in the corruption of his reason through original sin when it had in fact been corrupted only by his Christianity.")

First, on my frustration with religious moderates, to which you alluded: It is true that your colleagues in the religious middle have taught me to appreciate the candor and the one-note coherence of religious fanatics. I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken "extremists" to be representative of these "great" faiths, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, "simplistic," "dogmatic," or even "fundamentalist." As a frequent target of such profundities, I can attest that they generally come moistened to a sickening pablum by great sighs of condescension. Present company excluded.

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But there are several problems with such a defense of moderate religion. 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. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense-extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration-but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don't tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave. They have, as you say, "integrated doubt" into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith-and for good reason. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis his heartfelt religious beliefs. Moderate doubt-which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects-often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy. Such blindness is now particularly unhelpful, given the hideous collision with Islamic certainty that is unfolding all around us.

Second, many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn't. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac-to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God's loving machinery of justice.

How does one "integrate doubt" into one's faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights-scientific ("You mean the world isn't 6000 years old? Yikes"), mathematical ("pi doesn't actually equal 3? All right, so what?"), and moral ("You mean, I shouldn't beat my slaves? I can't even keep slaves? Hmm"). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves? They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, "written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost." Needless to say, I believe you have given the Supreme Pontiff far too much credit as a champion of reason. The man believes that he is in possession of a magic book, entirely free from error. Here is the Vatican's position (from the Vatican website), in the words of Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus (his 1893 encyclical on the Study of Holy Scripture):

[I]t is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it-this system cannot be tolerated. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. These are the words of the last: "The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council (Trent) and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author." "

"This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church"-of course it does change a little from time to time. Being bogus to a remarkable degree, it has to. The fact that the current pope freely uses terms like "reason" and "truth" does not at all guarantee that he is on good terms with the former, or would recognize the latter if it bit him. Starting with the (utterly unjustified) premise that one of your books is an infallible guide to reality is not a particularly promising approach to inquiry-be it physical, ethical, or spiritual.

Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation and dodging an outbreak of plague that was laying waste to the pious men and women of England. When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton's achievement. But no one doubts that Newton's work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal-and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur'an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton's work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this "inerrant" text-scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually-in this email exchange.

Consider the possibility of improving the Ten Commandments. This would appear to be setting the bar rather high, as these are the only passages in the Bible that the Creator of the universe felt the need to physically write himself. But take a look good look at commandment #2. No graven images? Doesn't this seem like something less than the-second-most-important-point-upon-which-to- admonish-all-future-generations-of-human-beings? Remember those Muslims who recently rioted by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons? Many people wondered just what got them so riled up. Well, here it is. Was all that pious mayhem nothing more than egregious, medieval stupidity? Yes, come to think of it, it was nothing more than egregious, medieval stupidity. Almost any precept we'd put in place of this prohibition against graven images would augment the wisdom of the Bible (Don't pretend to know things you don't know? Don't mistreat children? Avoid trans fats?). Could we live with all the resulting problems due to proliferating graven images? We'd manage-somehow.

Of course, people of faith are right to insist that there is more to life than being reasonable-which is to say there is much more to life than merely understanding the world and getting one's beliefs about it to cohere. But we can have ethical and spiritual lives without lying to ourselves and to others and without pretending to be certain about things we are clearly not certain about. Anyone who thinks he knows for sure that Jesus was born of virgin or that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe is lying. Either he is lying to himself, or to everyone else. In neither case should such false certainties be celebrated.

Religious moderates-by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews-tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don't fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

I've gone on at such length, and I still haven't addressed your claim that "God is truth" or your apparent attempt to ram through some hybrid of the ontological and cosmological arguments ("since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe"). But I'm not sure what you mean by "God," or what exactly you believe about reality that requires the framework of Christianity. Feel free to spell it out in your next email, if you care to.

Best,

Sam

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