From: Andrew Sullivan  To: Sam Harris 1/21/07, 4:33 PM


You raise so many points that I hope you'll forgive me for focusing for a moment on just a couple. I want to address the main point of your latest post: your disdain for religious "moderates" (including, I assume, me). You say first of all that religious moderates "don't tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave." We allegedly under-estimate the real power of religious fundamentalism.

I plead emphatically not-guilty. In many ways, we religious "moderates", because we are embedded in communities, churches, mosques and synagogues that may be prey to fundamentalist rigidity, know this phenomenon much better than you, an atheist outsider, ever could. We have read the scriptures not searching for gotchas, but for truth. Some of us have battled the fundamentalist version of this truth for much of our lives. Some of us have come out of fundamentalism ourselves. In my book, I describe my own fundamentalist periods in the past. As a gay Catholic, I know what the cold draft of fundamentalism is like; I've felt its dogmatism and dismissal and denial close at hand. So spare me the thought that you know it better than I do.

I'm also aware that it might not be as simple as you claim it is.

I have met fundamentalists whose convictions are extreme but whose spiritual humility nonetheless leads them to great tolerance for dissent and doubt among others and great compassion for the needy. I have met those who are utterly uncompromising on the issue of sexual morality and yet have never shown me anything but interest, empathy and friendship. I have seen fundamentalists do amazing work for the poor and forgotten - driven entirely by their fundamentalist fervor. Try and think of how many souls and bodies the Salvation Army has saved, for example, how many sick people have been treated by doctors and volunteers motivated solely by religious conviction, how many homeless people have been taken in and loved by those seized by the fundamentalist delusion.

I disagree with many of fundamentalism's theological assumptions; when fundamentalism enters politics, I will resist it mightily as an enemy of political and social freedom; when it distorts what I believe to be the central message of Jesus - love and forgiveness - I will criticize and expose it. But when I see it in the eyes and face of a believer, and when she glows with the power of her faith, and when that faith translates into love, I am unafraid and uncritical. I know I cannot know others' hearts; I cannot know their souls. I know further that the mystery of the divine will always elude me; and that beneath what might appear as a bigot may be a soul merely seized by misunderstanding or fear or even compassion. My sense of the fallibility of human reason and the ineffability of God's will leads me not to dismiss these "extremists" as fools or idiots, but to wonder what they have known that I may not know, even as I worry about their potential for evil as well as good (a potential we all have, including you and me).

I also disagree that religious moderates simply have less faith. You write:

"Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously."

Blogger, please. In many ways, the source of much of today's religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express. For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.