Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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


Continued from page 4

From: Sam Harris To: Andrew Sullivan 02/08/07, 7:20 PM

Dear Andrew-

Many thanks for your latest essay. I must say, if we were at a dinner party, this is where I might be tempted to admit that rational dialogue can take us only so far (So, how are things over at The Atlantic?...). But we are not at a dinner party, and I think you and I have a responsibility to see whether a conversation of this sort can ever terminate in a proper meeting of minds.

I am, of course, unconvinced by your response. But this can hardly disappoint you, as it was not intended to convince me. You simply wrote to inform me that you have never doubted God's existence, cannot account for how you came to believe in Him, and are well aware that these facts will not (and should not) persuade me of the legitimacy of your religious beliefs. I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.

You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn't come to believe in God by taking any state of the world into account, no possible state of the world could put His existence in doubt. This is the very soul of dogmatism. But to call it such in this context will seem callous, as you have emphasized how your faith has survived-and perhaps helped you to survive-many harrowing experiences. Such testimonials about the strength and utility of faith mark off territory that most atheists have learned never to trespass. This reminds me of the wonderful quotation from Mencken: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." The truth is, no one wants to be in the business of arguing that another person's principal sources of comfort and gratification are not as he thinks them to be. But we are now in this up to our eyebrows, so permit me to just blurt out what I'm thinking and to tell you why I believe that your nonjustification-justification of faith should not satisfy you (or anyone else).

While you claim to have integrated doubt into your faith, you say that you have never (never) doubted the existence of God. This seems rather like my saying, "I am an extremely loving person. I just don't happen to love my parents or my children. Never have. Probably never will." There are surely instances where the caveats to an assertion loom too large to ignore.

As stated, your notion of God doesn't have much in the way of specific content (apart from love). Beyond that, you have sought refuge in a towering mystery-and have boosted yourself there with the claim that any Being sublime enough to have created our universe must be so far beyond our ken as to perpetually elude our powers of description. This last assertion seems plausible, as far as it goes. But, of course, it isn't an argument for the existence of God, much less a good one. In any case, your vaporous conception of a deity allows you to say that your religious beliefs do not conflict with those of others. God as a loving cipher allows for multiple, and even contradictory, doctrines to achieve parity. Faith in the absence of specifics makes a man humble.

All this, frankly, seems a little evasive. Given your attachment to Christianity and your admiration for the pope (who, as you know, makes far more restrictive-and, therefore, arrogant-claims about God), I suspect there is a raft of religious propositions that you actually do accept as true-though perhaps you are less certain of them than you are of God. I refer now to the specific beliefs that would make you a Christian and a Catholic, as opposed to a generic theist. Do you believe in the resurrection and the virgin birth? Is the divinity of the historical Jesus a fact that is "truer than any proof… any substance… any object"? If these are not the sort of things a person can just know without any justification, why can't they be known in this way? If a man like James Dobson is wrong to be certain, without justification, that Jesus will one day return to earth, why is your assertion about the existence of a loving God any different? What would you say to a person who once doubted the story of Noah, but whose doubt "suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted"? Is such a change of mood sufficient to establish the flood myth as an historical fact?

Perhaps I'm missing something, but your claim about God really does not appear limited to your own experience. You are not saying-"Sam, I just don't know how I can convince you of this, but when I close my eyes and think of Jesus, I experience a feeling of utter peace. I'm calling this feeling 'God,' and I suspect that if more people felt this way, our world would be radically transformed." An assertion of this sort would give me no trouble at all. But you are saying quite a bit more than that. You are claiming to know that God exists out there. As such, you are making tacit claims about physics and cosmology and about the history of the world. What is more, these are claims that you have just pronounced unjustified, unjustifiable, and yet impervious to your own powers of doubt.

You also appear to see some strange, epistemological significance in the fact that you cannot remember when or how you acquired your faith. Surely the roots of many of your beliefs are similarly obscure. I don't happen to remember when or how I came to believe that Pluto is a planet. Should I say that this belief "chose me"? What if, upon hearing that astronomers have changed their opinion about Pluto, I announced that "I have no ability to stop believing…. I know of no 'proof' that could dissuade me of [Pluto's planethood], since no 'proof' ever persuaded me of it." I'm sure you will balk at this analogy, but I'm guessing that your parents told you about God from the moment you appeared in this world. This is generally how people are put in a position to say things like faith "chose me." The English language chose both of us. That doesn't mean that we cannot reflect critically on it or recognize that the fact that we both speak it (we might say it is the "air we breathe") is an utterly non-mysterious consequence of our upbringings. Indeed, you do admit the role that such contingency plays in matters of faith. As you say, if you had been raised Buddhist, you'd almost certainly be a Buddhist. But you refrain from drawing any important conclusions from this. If you had been raised by atheists, might you even be an atheist?

I also hope you appreciate the irony of your viewing your sexual orientation as a gift from God. I'm very happy, of course, that you don't consider your homosexuality to be a curse or a product of Adam's fall. But the idea that homosexuality is sinful or otherwise pathological has more than a little to do with the history of religion. Is there any force on this earth that has done more to shame and terrorize homosexuals (or heterosexuals for that matter) than your own church? I'm not suggesting that the revulsion that some heterosexuals feel for homosexuals can be entirely explained in terms of religious doctrine (but it can be largely explained in such terms; and this hatred has, at a minimum, been enshrined and made durable by religious institutions). So I find it peculiar that you consider your successful ordeal of living as a homosexual in a homophobic faith to be evidence in support of the religious project. It's like hearing a man who has been unfairly confined to a straight-jacket all his life say that he is grateful to have been taught such "economy of motion." This is not to make light of the very obvious and important fact that we can all grow through adversity. Many people can honestly say things like, "cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me." So, I do not doubt for a moment that your struggle with the sexual taboos of Christianity has made you a better person. But your experience does not transform a two-thousand-year pandemic of needless and crushing sexual neurosis in the name of Christ into some kind of spiritual sacrament. Generally speaking, the Church has promulgated views about human sexuality that are unconscionably stupid and utterly lacking in empathy. Full stop. The fact that you have navigated this labyrinth of sacred prejudice and kept your sanity is no point in favor of religion. The glory is very much your own.

Finally, let me make it clear that I do not consider religious moderates to be "mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance." They are worse. My biggest criticism of religious moderation-and of your last essay-is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. As I wrote in The End of Faith, whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. It makes no sense at all to have one's spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient events, however miraculous. What if, tomorrow, a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists and biblical scholars demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Gospels were ancient forgeries and that Jesus never existed? Would this steal the ground out from under your spiritual life? It would be a shame if it would. And if it wouldn't, in what sense is your spirituality really predicated upon the historical Jesus?

I'm asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as "Japanese" as opposed to "French" science; we don't speak of "Hindu biology" and "Jewish chemistry." Imagine a world that has transcended its tribalism-racism and nationalism, yes, but religious tribalism especially-in which we could have a truly open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our experience of love and compassion for one another. Ethics and spirituality do not require faith. One can even achieve utter mystical absorption in the primordial mystery of the present moment without believing anything on insufficient evidence.

You might want to say that every religion offers a guide to doing this. Yes, but they are provisional guides at best. Rather than pick over the carcass of Christianity (or any other traditional faith) looking for a few, uncontaminated morsels of wisdom, why not take a proper seat at the banquet of human understanding in the present? There are already many very refined courses on offer. For those interested in the origins of the universe, there is the real science of cosmology. For those who want to know about the evolution of life on this planet, biology, chemistry and their subspecialties offer real nourishment. (Knowledge in most scientific domains is now doubling about every five years. How fast is it growing in religion?) And if ethics and spirituality are what concern you, there are now scientists making serious efforts to understand these features of our experience-both by studying the brain function of advanced contemplatives and by practicing meditation and other (non-faith-based) spiritual disciplines themselves. Even when it comes to compassion and self-transcendence, there is new wine (slowly) being poured. Why not catch it with a clean glass?

All the best,


Continued on page 6: Andrew Sullivan: 'I do not believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth.' »

comments powered by Disqus