Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

Continued from page 6

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.

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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.

Best,

Sam

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.
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