Monday, February 05, 2007

Andrew Writes Back to Sam

He's been busy redirecting his blog (now hosted by The Atlantic, not Time), but Andrew Sullivan has finally posted his most recent response to Sam Harris in their dialogue about the big dude (or big delusion, if you prefer) upstairs.

Here's Sullivan's latest. As he likes to say, money quote:
I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God's existence - of a force beyond everything and the source of everything - goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall "finding" this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith - at this level - as you are at my attachment to it. When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. I have no ability to stop believing. Crises in my life - death of loved ones, diagnosis with a fatal illness, emotional loss - have never shaken this faith. In fact, they have all strengthened it.
Two of his readers have already responded. One in support:
Your latest email to Sam reminded of an event in Cambridge years ago, at the Episcopal Theological School. One of the dowager supporters of the school was parked by a potted palm, holding a china cup of tea. She had on an amazing hat. I asked her where she got it - and imperiously she answered, "We ladies in Boston do not 'get' our hats. We 'have' our hats."

It's kind of like that with a faith in God that transcends all we do, all that happens to us, and anywhere we are - We can't say quite where it came from - we simply "have" it.
And one reader, um, less supportive:
Yes, your faith is a lot like the church lady and her hat. Both of you are being very disingenuous when you claim to your questioners that you have no idea where they come from. The providence of that hat is no deep mystery. It was bought in a shop. It was acquired for reasons of vanity and adornment and to make the owner feel better than others. Also similar is the smug regional and tribal pride you both take from your divinely anointed blessings.

It's not pretty, Andrew. Step away from the potted palm and put the tea cup down and answer Sam's questions.
Andrew uses that last reader to point out how crass atheists can be, and that might be true. But I have to say that I agree completely with the sentiment. For someone who preaches humility like Sullivan, the "hat lady" is a terrible analogy. (Granted, he didn't come up with it, a reader did; but he posted it.) The woman with the hat is avoiding her earthly reality, turning the origin of even her fashion accessories into some kind of mystical claptrap that presumably underlines her specialness.

Sullivan is still losing this debate, because he's clinging to the specifics of his religion, despite admitting that they are historically and socially contingent, superfluous signifiers of a deeper impulse:
I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life - and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus' birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.
That deeper impulse is to believe in "God" broadly defined, and Harris would have a much harder time answering why that's so silly, when even evolutionary biologists sometimes grant that we might be hardwired for such beliefs. But as Douglas Adams or countless others would tell you, if you're telling people that the meaning of life is 42, they're going to ask you about your math. And telling them "I don't know, I'm just very spiritual" is not -- rightfully so -- going to be accepted as a viable answer. Sullivan remains what he's always been -- a devout person, respectful of other beliefs, and an important bridge in a world violently divided over the fictional details of a perfectly understandable and widely shared human experience. If he followed the line of his own logic to its conclusion, though, he could remain devout while becoming an even more important, sturdier bridge.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait. Sorry to be dense, but I think I'm missing something.

I agree that the Boston hat lady is a terrible analogy (although it seems like a great analogy for the opposing argument, so I can't help but wonder if the author meant something different than it seems). But when you suggest that Sullivan would make a better bridge between the faithful and the non-believers (that sounds like a loaded term, but I can't think of a better one; apologies) if he accepted the logical conclusion, I'm not sure what you're suggesting the logical conclusion is.

If you get right down to it, the logical conclusion is that there's no evidence of the existence of a God. But logic has nothing (or very little) to do with religious belief. It's about faith in the absence of definitive evidence. So if Sullivan was to accept the logical conclusion, he wouldn't be a bridge between the faithful and non-believers at all; he'd be a non-believer.

(I will, however, say that I've always thought a purely atheistic belief relies to some measure on faith, too. While there's no definitive proof of God's existence, I'm not aware of any logical proof that God does not exist, either. So any assertion that there is not a God would also seem to run afoul of the only logical conclusion: That we don't know if God exists.)

Now, I don't believe you're going that far. I think you're saying that the logical conclusion is that the specifics of his religious belief are merely accidents of time and place.

But again, logic has nothing to do with it. If you accept that he's drawn to religion, then why is it so difficult to accept that he's drawn to this particular religion? The beliefs of Muslims and Hindus and Christians are all quite different, and each of them requires different things of its practitioners. The Gods seem to have different personalities, and they reflect very different views of the world and the adherents' place in it.

It's difficult to the point of impossibility to divorce religious belief from religion. Admitting that all religious beliefs are equally valid would undercut the central truth of any religion. If Jesus was God's only Son and we should revere His teachings, then how could Muhammed have also been God's prophet when he taught such different beliefs? And how could the many Gods of Hinduism also be true? And how could there also be no gods whatsoever, as expressed in Zen Buddhism?

So if you're asking Sullivan to admit that his particular religious beliefs are superfluous to his religion, then I think you're misunderstanding the nature of religion. If Sullivan were to do that, he wouldn't be a bridge between the religious and non-believers. In that case, he might be a fan of religion, but he wouldn't be religious himself.

-- Comish

2:07 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Good comment. This will require a follow-up post, I think. I'll try to get to it tonight.

11:07 AM  

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