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Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

"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.

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