Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

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.

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