Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"...and even the clerics give in."

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been exchanging posts about religion. You can see their first exchange here and follow links to the second, third, etc.

Harris has now posted his fourth missive, and it's full of arguments (not new to me or any other atheist/agnostic -- and probably not new to many religious people, either, for that matter -- but well articulated here) that leave me very curious as to how Sullivan (a trained debater and all-around smart guy) will respond. Here's a bit of Harris:
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 think the disconnect between the two writers exists almost entirely because of organized religion. I'm almost certain Sullivan would deny this, but to him and other intellectually rigorous believers, the doctrines of Christianity seem less important as Truth than as symbol. The reason I respect Sullivan's religion is that I honestly believe the crucial thing to him is not dogma but simply the exercise of faith, the almost romantic embrace of mystery and the belief that there are some mysteries we will never solve through science (a belief I share). But I think he's far from wedded to defending everything that a literal reading of the Bible would yield. It's why he's perfectly capable of respecting the religious views of others (including atheists) in a way that an argument about truth rarely, if ever, allows. (If someone told him that they earnestly believed, with all their heart and mind, that 3 and 4 totaled 8, or that cancer was caused by thinking too long about television while jogging, I doubt Sullivan would respect that in any meaningful way.) The fact is that many of the details in religion's stories stretch rational belief past its breaking point, never mind the additional fact that many of those details and stories contradict each other, something that competing claims for the truth can do only if one of them isn't really the truth.

But while Sullivan smartly and compassionately writes about his belief (and doubt), and there are undoubtedly many who share his temperament, millions don't. Check this out, and then come back to me:

The narrow focus of that clip might make it a cheap shot in a broader debate, but if that statistic of 54 million American adults not believing in evolution is even close to accurate, that's plenty broad. And Sullivan most certainly doesn't deserve to have to tackle the impulses in that clip, but given the terms of the debate, I think he must. Considering religious faith as broadly as possible, someone of Sullivan's deep intelligence has to confront the unique ways in which that faith can license certain types of ignorance and intolerance. (Sorry for all the italics. I'm used to talking about things like this -- a former debater myself -- and I miss spoken emphasis sometimes.)

Harris, like so many rational atheists before him, is having a field day because of this gap, between the ineradicable, beautiful (in my opinion, despite even that clip) human impulse to believe in something grand, mysterious, and organizing, and the unfortunate impulse to codify that imagined thing until it becomes shabby, baseless, and arrogant -- far less grand and not at all mysterious. In short, because of humanity's stubborn, misguided insistence that our deepest, most meaningful searches lead to math, not metaphor.



Blogger Russell said...

Well, Sullivan pretty much has to deny that the Christian story is mere metaphor or that Christianity is solely about the "exercise of faith," in some sense that totally excises doctrine, because otherwise he wouldn't be Christian. He would instead be some variety of deist or someone who followed a spiritual practice sans cosmology and soteriology. The problem is that Christianity inherently has some doctrinal element. Any adherent who abolishes that completely strays so far from what Christians have taught, from Paul forward, that they essentially divorce themselves from that tradition.

So sophisticated Christians like Sullivan try to minimize that doctrinal element, and make it a small part of the religion, and pretend that the faith required to believe it is somehow different from the faith required to believe the larger and more baroque doctrines taught by fundamentalists. But no matter how small and moderate-seeming and fluid and guarded he makes it, he can't eliminate it while remaining Christian, and he can't make it rational. Which puts him in a tough spot in this debate.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Gary Robinson said...

Certain things, such as the Christ having risen fro the dead, can't be scientifically tested. It seems to me that Sullivan is willing to give up any religious belief that can be tested by science, while still maintaining that certain tenets that can't be tested are literally true.

An atheist sees the inexorable march of science overthrowing one supernatural religious tenet after another, and thinks it's totally reasonable to assume that ALL supernatural religious tenets are false. That is, given that EVERY supernatural tenet that could be empirically tested to date has been overthrown, and given that the nontestable ones are in no special class except with respect to their testability, it is statistically extremely unlikely that those untestable ones would just happen to be the only ones that are true.

They might be true, but it is simply extremely unlikely that they are. I think most atheists understand that intuitively, but it is actually a formal statistical proposition. It can be examined with either traditional or Bayesian statistics and results in the same conclusion.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Hip E. said...

I'm also an atheist and a regular Sullivan reader and I've been following this exchange enthusiastically. I really appreciate Sullivan's attempts at honesty, and while he has resorted to several of the classic non-argument arguments against atheism (ad hominem, bringing up Stalin, etc.), he has spent most of the debate dancing away from Harris's direct questions like a flyweight boxer. He has started to lose his footing though, in downgrading the meaning of Truth by pointing out that there is a sliding scale from the empirically verifiable truths of Hard Science through the more hazy recollections of History to the "truths" of religion, which he might be starting to see are really just popular myths.

I think that there is something valuable in observing old traditions and rituals, and in metaphor, allegory, the moral of the story, imagination, fantasy, and ecstatic visions. The myths of the Greeks are still great stories, and can still be appreciated on many levels, even though we all agree they are just stories. Reasonable people have no problem with the Bible as literature, as a window on a different age, it's only when people are allowed to proclaim that the crazy stories in it are True without being laughed out of the room or ignored, that we get all huffy about religion. I'm looking forward to the rest of this dialogue.

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Poseidon said...

Great intelligent comments so far, but now it's my turn. I think Sullivan is very far from a moderate Christian in his views and in particular has an axe to grind with moderates on the "gay" thing.
When he threw in the "most people who have ever lived would find his position adequate" thing...he diluted his position to the point of including every "god" ever postulated as equally legitimate to his own.....Zero points for that one!

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have suggested to Andrew that if this debate goes on long enough, he and Sam should have it published in book form. It would probably sell better than their most recent books.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a long-time Sullivan fan, but he has been evasive and non-responsive in the debate with Sam Harris. He'd do better to answer every Harris post by belting out "Feelings...wowowowo Feelings..."

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"if that statistic of 54 million American adults not believing in evolution is even close to accurate, that's plenty broad."

From the people I've talked with it all depends upon how the question is asked. In grade school we were all taught the "theory of evolution" which included "speciation" as well as the "Big Bang".

While most people (probably including most of the above mentioned 54 million) acknowledge evolution with in a species as verifiable fact, many do not agree that evolution from one species to another is yet observable fact...even though it has the greatest evidence in it's favor to date.

Belief in any existing theory of abiogenisis requires a similar "leap of faith" to any other religious belief out there.

If the "string theory" gains more credability, or better yet proof, it makes biblical claims of "stretching the cosmos like a fabric" more credible too.

The words in the bible simply cannot change, but our understanding of the meaning behind those words still can and does change regularly.

At any rate, we will all find out over time as our understanding of both the bible and of our universe are dynamic, even if they are not very swift.

I am content living with doubt about what we know and with what we belive to be true.

2:13 PM  

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