Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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


Continued from page 2

From: Sam Harris  To: Andrew Sullivan 01/23/07, 9:20 AM


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?

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.

You and I both know that it would take us five minutes to produce a book that offers a more coherent and compassionate morality than the Bible does. Did I say five minutes? Five seconds--just tear out Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, and 2 Samuel from the Old Testament, and 2 Thessalonians and Revelation from the New Testament. The book would be mightily improved. Would it then be the most profound book we have on morality (or cosmology, biology, psychology, etc.)? Not by a long shot. But it would be a much better book than it is at present.

5. Contrary to your assertion, I have not made any claims about there being a "nothingness at the end of our mortal lives." The truth is, I don't know what happens after death. Is it dogmatic for me to doubt that you and the pope do? What reason have you given me to believe that you know that "something" happens after death, or that your something is more probable than the Muslim something, the Hindu something, or the Buddhist something? The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us. But this doesn't entitle religious people to imagine that all their crazy ideas about miraculous books, virgin births, and saviors ushering in the end of the world are remotely plausible.

6. I'd like to address some of the assertions you made in your first post. You wrote:

Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth 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.
This is more than a little wooly and clearly question-begging. You are making the positive assertion that the universe had a Creator. Doing so, you are attempting to make a substantial contribution to the science of cosmology. When the real cosmologists come back from their next conference and say things like, "spacetime may be a closed manifold and, therefore, may have no beginning or end" this would be one of many possible descriptions of the universe which would close the door on a creation event and, therefore, on a Creator. There are many ways that science could conflict with the "truth" upon which your faith now rests.

Needless to say, your attempt to pull theism up by its bootstraps ("since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator") could be used to justify almost any metaphysical assertion. "The Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe" is also "definitionally" the Creator of the universe; this doesn't mean that he exists, or that the universe had a Creator at all. Many other chains of pious reasoning could be cashed-out in the same way: "Satan is the Tempter; I find that I am tempted on a hourly basis to eat ice cream and have sex with my neighbor's wife; ergo, Satan exists." Or what if I suggested that what we know about the brain renders the idea of a human soul rather implausible, and one your brethren countered: "The immortal soul governs all the activity in a person's brain; I have no fear about what neuroscience will tell me about the brain, because the soul is definitionally the brain's operator." Would this strike you as an argument for the existence of souls? Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, just as there are gaps in our understanding of the cosmos into which the faithful eagerly insert God, but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit. You can insert almost anything "definitionally" into those gaps. The Muslims have inserted Allah, and the Qur'an is His perfect word. The Hindus have inserted Gods of every color and flavor. Why don't these efforts persuade you?

Now let me briefly address your primary charge of "intolerance." The sentences that you appear to have found most troubling are these:

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 if I told you that I am certain that I have an even number of cells in my body? What are the chances that I am in a position to have actually counted my cells (there are on the order of 100 trillion) and counted them correctly? Would it be unfair (or worse, "intolerant") of you to dismiss my assertion as either a product of self-deception or outright dishonesty? Note that this claim has a 50% chance of being true (unlike claims about virgin births and resurrections), and yet it is patently ridiculous. Some claims to knowledge-even about facts that have a high order of probability--immediately brand their claimants as intellectually dishonest. Please forgive me for saying that it is extraordinarily obvious that neither you, nor the pope, nor any other Christian is in a position to know that Jesus was actually born of a virgin or that he will one day return to earth wielding magic powers.

As far as the Qur'an being the perfect word of the Creator of the universe, the Qur'an itself makes it especially easy to dismiss this idea. The book claims to be so perfect, it could not have possibly be written by a human being, (10:37), and readers are challenged to just try to write a surah equal to any in the text (2:23). Anyone who has actually read the Qur'an (and any other work of significant literature) would agree that this would be remarkably easy to do. The Qur'an declares that if it was not the perfect word of Allah, its critics would find some mistakes in it (4:82). Its critics have found mistakes in it. What's a reasonable person to conclude?

It is not my intention to go on at tiresome length, but your last post has opened so many doors to the winds of unreason that I can't resist running from room to room trying to settle things down. You seem to have taken particular offense at my imputing self-deception and/or dishonesty to the faithful. I make no apologies for this. One of the greatest problems with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn't actually know this. The truth is that, while Mommy may be rigorously honest on any other subject, in this instance she doesn't want to distinguish between what she really knows (i.e. what she has good reasons to believe) and 1) what she wants to be true, or 2) what will keep her children from grieving too much in Granny's absence. She is lying--either to herself or to her children--but we've all agreed not to talk about it. Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves.

You can call me "intolerant" all you want, but that won't make unreasonable claims to knowledge sound any more reasonable; it won't differentiate your claims to religious knowledge from the claims of others which you consider illegitimate; and it won't constitute an adequate response to anything I have written or am likely to write.




From: Andrew Sullivan  To: Sam Harris 1/25/07, 3:54 AM

Dear Sam,

Thank you very much for your latest post. It was clarifying for me - and forced me to think hard about how to respond. I even communicated with my Imaginary Friend about it. You raise a blizzard of points, but there is one above all that needs to be addressed, because it cuts to the chase, and shows, I think, that we are closer than might appear.

Your fundamental point is the following, it seems to me. I can say that the revelation I have embraced is true, but because it cannot be proven by the robust standards of scientific empiricism, I cannot prove it to be true to your satisfaction. If I cannot prove Christiannation it to be true, in empirical fashion, then my faith must be excluded from rational discourse. In fact, if I understand you right, it must not only be excluded, it must be stigmatized. It must be ridiculed. It must end. Even if religion were to mean that everyone loved one another for ever (which, I readily concede, it obviously doesn't), that still would not be relevent for judging its truth. And the truth of a religious claim is the most fundamental thing about it. If I cannot prove this, I should shut up. As you rightly say, with self-fulfilling precision:

"You can call me 'intolerant' all you want, but that won't make unreasonable claims to knowledge sound any more reasonable; it won't differentiate your claims to religious knowledge from the claims of others which you consider illegitimate; and it won't constitute an adequate response to anything I have written or am likely to write."
I agree with all of that, except the last phrase. I believe I can offer an adequate response. It may not be adequate to you; but it is adequate to me, and to many, many others - in fact, to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived. My response rests on an understanding of truth that is not exhausted by empiricism or materialism. I do not believe, in short, that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be 'proven' by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer. What I found insightful about your book was your openness to this possibility. You repeat that openness in your recent posting:
"While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us."
So you allow for a space where the logic of science and of materialism does not lead us toward truth, but may even mislead us about it, and lead us away from it. This is a big concession, and it undermines the certainty of your entire case. Such an argument must rest on a notion of ultimate truth that is deeper than science, beyond science. It must rest on a notion that allows for the rational legitimacy of my faith.

It might even include an appreciation of other modes of rational discourse that are not empirical in origin or form. Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true - and could never be proven true - by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian - and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.

My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode. The reason why you are not like some other, glibber atheists is that you recognize this. I might say that God has already been in touch with you on the matter.

But that is not the sum of your argument. You argue further that even if you concede the possibility of a legitimate form of religious truth-seeking, the content of various, competing revelations renders them dangerous. They are dangerous because they logically contradict each other. And since their claims are the most profound that we can imagine, human beings will often be compelled to fight for them. For if these profound matters are not worth fighting for, what is?

I agree that this is a central problem for religion in the world. It has always been so. it will always be so. This is not a new problem. It is arguably the oldest human debate. Whether one reads Pascal or Spinoza, Locke or Montaigne, Hobbes or Leo Strauss, the religious question always prompts a political question. I think the problem is eased - if never fully solved - by a critical move that I unpack in my book, "The Conservative Soul." That move is rooted in skepticism. Hobbes put it best, as he often did:

"For the nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is; and therefore the attributes we give him, are not to tell one another, what he is, nor to signify our opinion of his nature, but our desire to honor him with such names as we conceive most honourable amongst ourselves."
In my book, excerpted in Time Magazine here, I put it this way:
If God really is God, then God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding. Not entirely. We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never grasp, something we can never know - because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T. There will always be something that eludes us. If there weren't, it would not be God.
I don't think you're far away from this. That's why you've gone on retreats, explored Buddhism, experimented with psilocybin, as I have. You see: we are closer than you might think. But you differ with me on how this translates into life. You ask legitimately: how can I, convinced of this truth, resist imposing it on others? The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it. That's why I am such a dogged defender of pluralism and secularism - because I believe secularism alone does justice to the profundity of the claims of religion. The attempt to force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my faith defeats the point of my faith - which is that it is both freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus.

And that brings me to the asymmetry of our positions. We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate, ludicrous, a form of lying, and irrational. Yes, you are being intolerant. More, actually. The entire point of your book is intolerance. Where I respect your position, you refuse to respect mine.

Or maybe, now that I've unpacked it, you respect my position a little more. Let me know,

God bless,


From: Sam Harris To: Andrew Sullivan 01/26/07, 10:20 AM

Dear Andrew--

Many thanks for your last essay. As will probably come as no surprise, you have not yet converted me to Catholicism. Still, you have put forward many points that deserve a serious response. I'll be away from my email for the next few days, so I won't be back at you until next week. For the moment, let me simply reiterate my appreciation for your willingness to engage in this debate. Many people appear to be finding it very useful. And I've found it a genuine pleasure to correspond with you.

All the best,


Continued on page 4: Andrew Sullivan's 'Job moment' »

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