Harris vs. Sullivan on Religion

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan are debating at Beliefnet. So far I have to give the debate to Sullivan. If Harris would simply stick to the absence of belief in God and challenge Sullivan to prove his beliefs he would be more difficult to argue with, but as Harris takes his attack on religion beyond the absence of evidence he is open to more easy rebuttal.

Both Sullivan and Harris are obviously in agreement in opposing Islamic fundamentalism. While I would agree with Harris over Sullivan with regards to the role science over faith, Sullivan minimizes this weakness by avoiding the tendency of fundamentalists to think that their religion forces them to deny what has been proven by the scientific method, such as evolution:

As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth. So I am perfectly happy to believe in evolution, for example, as the most powerful theory yet devised explaining human history and pre-history. I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe – since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator. I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith – since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.

Harris sticks with the view he has expressed in his writings that moderate religion enables the extremists:

But there are several problems with such a defense of moderate religion. First, many moderates assume that religious “extremism” is rare and therefore not all that consequential. Happily, you are not in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates. As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense—extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration—but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. The problem, as I see it, is that 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. They have, as you say, “integrated doubt” into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith—and for good reason. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis his heartfelt religious beliefs. Moderate doubt—which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects—often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy. Such blindness is now particularly unhelpful, given the hideous collision with Islamic certainty that is unfolding all around us.

Second, many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one’s neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God’s loving machinery of justice.

Just as some religious fanatics cherry pick religious works to justify their beliefs, Harris tends to stress the most extreme views and ignores the more moderate passages, dismissing the differences between moderates and extremists. While Harris denies the possibility, the fact is that many people hold religious beliefs without needing to embrace the most extreme teachings which can be found. Perhaps Harris is correct in arguing that there is an intellectual inconsistency, but the fact is that many such people exist and the arguments against the religious extremists do not apply to them.

We may believe Sullivan is wrong in his personal beliefs, but that hardly matters as long as he does not attempt to impose his views on others and does not contribute to the anti-scientific atmosphere prevalent in this country by denying basic science on religious grounds. To attack such moderate believers as being practically indistinguishable from the extremists is to ignore the reason why many of us find it necessary to be so vigilant against encroachments upon the separation of church and state. From a practical political point of view it would be foolish to lump all theists together as opposed to finding common ground with the moderates who respect the separation of church and state, which is the only way we can possibly achieve a majority.

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