Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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


Continued from page 3

From: Sam Harris To: Andrew Sullivan 01/29/07, 9:20 PM

Dear Andrew-

Many thanks for your last essay. Before I address your central argument, I'd like to point out that you continue to misunderstand me in small ways that make me seem (even) more boorish than I am. I did not, for instance, claim that you could not possibly offer an adequate response to my arguments, only that repeatedly calling me "intolerant" would not constitute such a response. Indeed, if I thought there were nothing you could say to convince me of the legitimacy of your point of view, I could scarcely be having this debate in good faith. I remain open to evidence and argument on this and all other fronts. In fact, I could easily imagine a scenario that would persuade me of the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the utter sanctity of the blessed Virgin. Granted, this communication would have to be of the crass "signs and wonders" variety, for I am a very doubting Thomas, but there is no question that my mind could be fundamentally changed, even in this email exchange. If, for instance, your "Imaginary Friend" gave you some highly specific information that you could not have obtained by any other means, I would take this as powerful evidence in favor of your point of view. To increase my vulnerability to this line of attack, I have just written a 30-digit number on a scrap of paper and hidden it in my office. If God tells you (or any of our readers) what this number is, I will be appropriately astounded and will publicize the results of this experiment to the limit of my abilities. It is, of course, true that your success would be open to a variety of interpretations-perhaps such a miracle says nothing about the existence of God but demonstrates that clairvoyance is an actual power of the human mind and that you possess it in spades. Or perhaps it proves that Satan exists, and he is similarly endowed. Of course, we should expect some skeptical readers to accuse us both of fraud. Let us cross these bridges if we ever come to them. The point, of course, is that if God exists, it would be trivially easy for Him to blow my mind. (Hint to the Creator: I'm thinking of an even number, and it's not 927459757074561008328610835528).

This brings me to a point upon which atheists like myself are always harping: most people consent to have their minds blown on far lesser terms, with far more ambiguous stimuli, and keep reason in chains while the "will to believe" triumphs in a very unfair fight. Atheists like myself are generally asked to contemplate "miracles" of the following sort: some fellow was a big drinker (like our president), prayed to Jesus, and now lives a life of blissful sobriety. It is left to professional skeptics to wonder how an intelligent person can believe that mere recovery from alcoholism confirms the doctrine of Christianity. Hindus get sober, and atheists do as well. These facts alone nullify any religious interpretation of the data.

Testimony on the basis of "spiritual" experience tends to be equally ambiguous. Here is something I recently wrote for the Newsweek/Washington Post blog "On Faith" I quote it here, because I think it bears on this question of what counts as evidence for specific religious ideas:

I recently spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered in the noonday sun, taking photographs.
As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self-an "I" or a "me"-vanished. Everything was as it had been-the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water-but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
The experience lasted just a few moments, but returned many times as I gazed out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly interpret this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God, or felt the descent of the Holy Spirit. But I am not a Christian. If I were a Hindu, I might talk about "Brahman," the eternal Self, of which all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. But I am not a Hindu. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the "dharmakaya of emptiness" in which all apparent things manifest. But I am not a Buddhist.
As someone who is simply making his best effort to be a rational human being, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. The truth is, I experience what I would call the "selflessness of consciousness" rather often, wherever I happen to meditate-be it in a Buddhist monastery, a Hindu temple, or while having my teeth cleaned. Consequently, the fact that I also had this experience at a Christian holy site does not lend an ounce of credibility to the doctrine of Christianity.
You are, of course, right to say that there are many different contexts in which a statement about the world can be deemed "true" (or likely to be true) and not all of these are empirical or scientific, narrowly defined. Some are even fictional. It is, for instance, true to say that "Hamlet was the prince of Denmark." But admitting the role of context does not render all truth-claims equally legitimate. As you point out, history is not an exact science, but it isn't exactly in conflict with science either. Permit me to quote from another of my essays, as it addresses precisely this point:
It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: Either people have good reasons for what they believe, or they do not. When they have good reasons, their beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world. We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" sciences here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines, like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks credibility. Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely on "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque-that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.
Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to Heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower.
So, while I admit that there are many different contexts in which our beliefs may be justified, and many different modes of justification, there is still an important difference between justified and unjustified belief. My previous remarks-about not knowing what happens after death, about the gaps in science, about the potential validity of contemplative experience, etc.-do nothing to change this picture. And it is the manifest failure of most religious people to observe the distinction between justified and unjustified belief (generally calling their non-observance "faith") that leaves me convinced that they are generally misled in their search for truth.

It is the willingness of scientists to say "I don't know"-to really integrate doubt into their view of the world-that constitutes their privileged position with respect to truth. As you know, there are an uncountable number of questions upon which religion once offered a faith-based answer, which have now been ceded to the care of science. Indeed, the process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture is relentless, unidirectional, and highly predictable. Some smart person begins to doubt received opinion-about the causes of illness, the movement of celestial bodies, the nature of sensory perception, etc.-he or she then observes the world more closely (often making shrewd use of technology and/or mathematics) and makes predictions that can be verified by others. What we see, time and again, is a general unwillingness for religious people to seriously interact with this discourse (and even an eagerness to subjugate or murder its perpetrators) whenever it challenges doctrines to which they are emotionally attached. Eventually, however, the power that comes with actually understanding the world becomes too seductive to ignore, and even the clerics give in. In this way, real knowledge, being truly universal, erodes the basis for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their holy books might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religion (or it should), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science (and rational discourse generally) delivers this understanding and offers a very frank appraisal of its current limitations; Religion fails on both counts.

I also disagree that religious faith can be as well-behaved as you suggest. You claim that religious beliefs are "freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus." What does it mean to say that a belief is "freely chosen"? If our beliefs purport to represent any state of the world (physical, historical, contemplative, or even fictional), we do not "choose" them. They tend to be forced upon us by compelling chains of evidence and argument. Did you freely choose to believe that Jesus was crucified rather than guillotined? I doubt it. The biblical account just happens to specify crucifixion, and you find this account compelling. (I presume it is also relevant that Jesus predates the guillotine by over a thousand years.) The point, of course, is that you are not free to believe whatever you want. And people who would avail themselves of such freedom are demonstrably crazy. Consensus really is the gold-standard here, as elsewhere. Consensus, of course, admits of exceptions. It is possible for a solitary genius to have the truth in hand before anyone else realizes it. Eventually, however, others will authenticate his/her results. This is also true of contemplative or classically "mystical" results. Yes, subjective experience is private to a significant degree, but it isn't merely so. Language allows us to form a consensus about what is reasonable to believe even about one's private experiences.

Not lying to oneself and others takes discipline. It is, of course, hard to know how much progress one has made down the path of honesty, but it is not difficult to spot the pratfalls of others. Here, I do not merely refer to twenty-megaton displays of religious mendacity of the Ted Haggard variety. I mean the daily and ubiquitous failure of most religious people to admit that the basic claims of the their faith are profoundly suspect. How likely is it that Jesus was really born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and will bodily return to earth to judge us all? How reasonable is it to believe in such a concatenation of miracles on the basis of the Gospel account? How much support do these doctrines receive from the average Christian's experience in church? It seems to me that honest answers to these questions should raise a tsunami of doubt. I'm not sure what will be "Christian" about any Christians left standing.

It seems profoundly unimaginative-and, frankly, dangerous-to think that we cannot possibly overcome the religious divisions in our world. What is the alternative? Do you really think that the 23rd century will dawn, with unimaginably powerful technology having spread to every corner of the earth, and our thinking will still be governed by sectarian religious certainties? Muslims eager for jihad? Rapture-ready Christians holding political power?

Let me close by asking you a simple question: What would constitute "proof" for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken? (i.e., what would get you to fundamentally doubt the validity of faith in general and of Christianity in particular?) I suspect the answer to this question will say a lot about why you believe what you believe.



From: Andrew Sullivan To: Sam Harris 2/5/07, 9:12 AM

Dear Sam,

Thanks for waiting for this belated response. As a form of apology, and since some readers have said I've ducked some of your specific questions in the past, perhaps I should answer your last question first. It may move things forward a little. You wrote:

"What would constitute "proof" for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken? (i.e., what would get you to fundamentally doubt the validity of faith in general and of Christianity in particular?)"
It's a good question. It prompts me to say something I've been reluctant to talk about for reasons best expressed by Wittgenstein. But here goes anyway.

I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God's existence--of a force beyond everything and the source of everything--goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall "finding" this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith - at this level - as you are at my attachment to it. When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. I have no ability to stop believing. Crises in my life - death of loved ones, diagnosis with a fatal illness, emotional loss - have never shaken this faith. In fact, they have all strengthened it. I know of no "proof" that could dissuade me of this, since no "proof" ever persuaded me of it.

I simply grew up from my earliest childhood in complete acceptance of this reality. I have had two serious crises of faith - but neither came close to a loss of faith in God's existence. The first crisis was the worst. Almost fourteen years ago, it occurred to me not that God didn't exist - that never occurred to me - but that God might be evil. I wrote about this experience - I remember precisely where and when it happened - in my spiritual memoir/essay, "Love Undetectable." I will not reiterate it here. The "proof" I contemplated for thinking God was evil was the cliched conundrum of human suffering. It was a particularly grim moment in the plague years, when the suffering of good people I loved a lot began to get to my faith. Yes, I know this paradox might (and should) have occurred to me earlier in life. But it's also human to avoid these things most fully until those closest to you are struck down. So there I was, having my Job moment.

What proof, what argument, what evidence persuaded me that God was actually not evil but good? Nothing that will or should persuade you. The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that "none of this cares for us," to use Larkin's simple phrase: this sense pervaded me for a few minutes and then somehow, suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted. I can no more explain that - or provide a convincing argument that it was anything more than your own moment of calm in Galilee. But I can say that it represented for me a revelation of God's love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.

You will ask: how do I know this was Jesus? Could it not be that it was a force beyond one, specific Jewish rabbi who lived two millennia ago and was executed by the Roman authorities? Yes, and no. I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life - and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus' birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.

But I am a contingent human being in a contingent time and place and I heard Jesus. Do I believe that other religious traditions, even those that posit doctrines logically contrary to the doctrines of Jesus, have no access to divine truth? I don't. If God exists, then God will be larger and greater than our human categories or interpretations. I feel sure that all the great religions - and many minor ones - have been groping toward the same God. I don't need to tell you of the profound similarities in ethical and spiritual teaching among various faiths, as well as their differences. I believe what I specifically believe - but since the mystery of the divine is so much greater than our human understanding, I am not in the business of claiming exclusive truth, let alone condemning those with different views of the divine as heretics or infidels. We are all restless for the same God, for the intelligence and force greater than all of us, for that realm of being that the human mind senses but cannot achieve, longs for but cannot capture. But I've learned in that search that integral and indispensable to it is humility. And such humility requires relinquishing the impulse to force faith on others, to condemn those with different faiths, or to condescend to those who have sincerely concluded that there is no God at all. And when I read the Gospels recounting the sayings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth, I see a man so committed to that humility he was prepared to die under its weight.

I should add that this unchosen belief in God's existence - the "gift" of faith - does not prompt me to lose all doubt in my faith, or to abandon questioning. I have wrestled with all sorts of questions about any number of doctrines that the hierarchy of the church has insisted upon. As a gay man, I have been forced to do this perhaps more urgently than many others - which is one reason I regard my sexual orientation as a divine gift rather than as a "disorder". For me, faith is a journey that begins with the gift of divine revelation but never rests thereafter. It is nourished by a faith community we call the church, and is sustained by the sacraments, prayer, doubt and the love of friends and family. It is informed by reason, but it cannot end in reason.

I understand that this form of faith would provoke Nietzsche's contempt and James Dobson's scorn. But there is a wide expanse between nihilism and fundamentalism. I fear your legitimate concerns (which I share) about the dangers of religious certainty in politics have blinded you to the fertility of this expanse. And I think you're wrong that we religious moderates are mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance. I think, rather, we have an important role in talking with atheists about faith and talking with fundamentalists about the political dangers of religious fanaticism, and the pride that can turn faith into absolutism.

In fact, people of faith who are not fundamentalists may be the most important allies you've got. Why don't you want us to help out?


Continued on page 5: Sam Harris: 'The fact that you have navigated this labyrinth of sacred prejudice and kept your sanity is no point in favor of religion.' »

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