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

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.

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.




From: Andrew Sullivan  To: Sam Harris 1/21/07, 4:33 PM


You raise so many points that I hope you'll forgive me for focusing for a moment on just a couple. I want to address the main point of your latest post: your disdain for religious "moderates" (including, I assume, me). You say first of all that religious 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." We allegedly under-estimate the real power of religious fundamentalism.

I plead emphatically not-guilty. In many ways, we religious "moderates", because we are embedded in communities, churches, mosques and synagogues that may be prey to fundamentalist rigidity, know this phenomenon much better than you, an atheist outsider, ever could. We have read the scriptures not searching for gotchas, but for truth. Some of us have battled the fundamentalist version of this truth for much of our lives. Some of us have come out of fundamentalism ourselves. In my book, I describe my own fundamentalist periods in the past. As a gay Catholic, I know what the cold draft of fundamentalism is like; I've felt its dogmatism and dismissal and denial close at hand. So spare me the thought that you know it better than I do.

I'm also aware that it might not be as simple as you claim it is.

I have met fundamentalists whose convictions are extreme but whose spiritual humility nonetheless leads them to great tolerance for dissent and doubt among others and great compassion for the needy. I have met those who are utterly uncompromising on the issue of sexual morality and yet have never shown me anything but interest, empathy and friendship. I have seen fundamentalists do amazing work for the poor and forgotten - driven entirely by their fundamentalist fervor. Try and think of how many souls and bodies the Salvation Army has saved, for example, how many sick people have been treated by doctors and volunteers motivated solely by religious conviction, how many homeless people have been taken in and loved by those seized by the fundamentalist delusion.

I disagree with many of fundamentalism's theological assumptions; when fundamentalism enters politics, I will resist it mightily as an enemy of political and social freedom; when it distorts what I believe to be the central message of Jesus - love and forgiveness - I will criticize and expose it. But when I see it in the eyes and face of a believer, and when she glows with the power of her faith, and when that faith translates into love, I am unafraid and uncritical. I know I cannot know others' hearts; I cannot know their souls. I know further that the mystery of the divine will always elude me; and that beneath what might appear as a bigot may be a soul merely seized by misunderstanding or fear or even compassion. My sense of the fallibility of human reason and the ineffability of God's will leads me not to dismiss these "extremists" as fools or idiots, but to wonder what they have known that I may not know, even as I worry about their potential for evil as well as good (a potential we all have, including you and me).

I also disagree that religious moderates simply have less faith. You write:

"Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously."

Blogger, please. In many ways, the source of much of today's religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express. For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.

This is a real faith, a modern faith, a mature faith that cannot be dismissed as glibly as you'd like. Going back to Pope Leo XIII struck me as a very weak move. Have you heard of the Second Vatican Council? Are you aware of the development of doctrine, the evolution of theories of ecclesiastical authority that aren't reducible to some comic-book depiction of nineteenth century papal diktats? You say others cherry-pick the Scriptures, but you have done some of the more egregious cherry-picking in describing the priorities of Christianity. No, Sam, the Gospels really aren't, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi. They are stories about and by a man who preached the love of the force behind the entire universe, and the need to reflect that love in everything we do. Yes, there are contradictions, internal clashes, vagueness, politics, cultural anachronisms, and any number of flaws in a divinely inspired human endeavor. But there is also a voice that can clearly be heard through and above these things: a voice as personal to me as it was to those who heard it in human form.

I also find in your last email a form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism. Take these sentences:

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.

What you are doing here by the use of the word "lying" is imputing to the believer an insincerity you cannot know for sure. When we speak of things beyond our understanding - and you must concede that such things can logically exist - we are all in the same boat. Your assertion of nothingness at the end of our mortal lives is no more and no less verifiable than my assertion of somethingness. And yet I do not accuse you of lying - to yourself or to others. I respect your existential choice to face death alone, as a purely material event, leading nowhere but physical decomposition. Part of me even respects the stoic heroism of such a stance. Why can you not respect my conviction that you are, in fact, wrong? Why am I a liar in this - either to myself or to others - and you, in contrast, an avatar of honesty? Isn't this exactly the sort of moral preening you decry in others?

God bless,

Continued on page 3: Sam Harris: 'What's a well-intentioned atheist to do?' »

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