The Harris-Sullivan Debate: I

Since last month, Beliefnet has been hosting a debate between Sam Harris, atheist author and neuroscientist, and Andrew Sullivan, the conservative commentator and devout Catholic.

This is a wonderful debate, and I strongly encourage my visitors to read it for themselves. Both participants are highly educated, articulate and persuasive, and both do an admirable job of advocating for their respective positions, with excellent points traded on both sides and a refreshing lack of animosity. Harris is his usual lively, spirited, take-no-prisoners self, and he puts forth an inspired presentation, full of incisive and immensely entertaining quips. Sullivan, meanwhile, makes the case for theism as effectively as I have ever seen anyone make it. He is not a fundamentalist, but that works to his advantage, since he is able to present a case shorn of the usual absurdities and contorted rationalizations used to justify the most extreme and literal forms of religion, and truly gets down to the basics of why people believe.

A great advantage of the internet is that, unlike newspapers and magazines, it has no practical limit on space. That has allowed this debate to truly flourish and take on depth and thoughtfulness, as opposed to space- and time-limited debates which usually fall into the rote repetition of talking points. I emphasize my recommendation that readers check out the whole thing for themselves, but I’d like to provide some additional commentary on both debaters’ remarks.

In his first letter, Sullivan expresses his belief that reason and faith are compatible when both are properly understood. He says that his position allows for distinctions between fundamentalism and a more moderate faith, while Harris’ position permits no such distinction:

I’m struck, in other words, by the difference between Christianity as it can be and Christianity as it is expressed by fundamentalists. You are struck by the similarity between my doubt-filled, sacramental, faith-in-forgiveness and fundamentalism.

Harris, in reply, sums up Sullivan’s position so eloquently that no one could accuse him of understating it:

I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken “extremists” to be representative of these “great” faiths, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, “simplistic,” “dogmatic,” or even “fundamentalist.”

But the problem, as Harris ably points out, is that the liberals and moderates who find such nuance and complexity in their faith are not the ones running the show. The simplistic fundamentalist views which Sullivan decries are widespread and hugely influential, both in Christianity and in Islam, as well as other major world religions. Regardless of the exegetical soundness of the fundamentalists’ strategy, they are still convincing millions of people to follow them, with potentially disastrous repercussions for humanity in general. In a sense, the religious moderates are living in an ivory tower, and this can erroneously lead them to conclude that fundamentalism is not a threat:

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.

Harris also makes a brilliant observation that I think cuts to the heart of the debate, namely that the nuance and complexity that Sullivan discerns consists mostly of interpreting scripture less literally and taking its claims less seriously:

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.

It scarcely needs pointing out that the Bible and other holy books are rife with the moral anachronisms of the time in which they were written, endorsing such evil acts as slavery, intolerance, holy war and persecution of nonbelievers. The religious extremism which Sullivan denounces is not an inexplicable perversion of true faith; quite simply, it is the result of reading scripture for what it says, and not letting one’s own conscience or the discoveries of modern science override the words of the text. As Harris says, no matter the pious talk of some modern believers, scripture will remain a “perpetual engine of extremism”, because “the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate”.

Sullivan protests this point, asserting that he and his allies actually take 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.

Sullivan stresses this wishful point, but I don’t think he can downplay the significance of Harris’ observation. He says that the gospels “really aren’t, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi” (why only the gospels – why not the whole Bible?) – and yet, he does not and cannot deny that scripture does contain teachings on matters like this, as well as others that are far worse. His sole defense is that this isn’t what the Bible is “really about” and so he’s free to disregard these verses that clash with conscience or the findings of science, because they are incidental to its main message, “the love of the force behind the entire universe, and the need to reflect that love in everything we do”.

First of all, I fail to see the basis for Sullivan’s certainty that love is the Bible’s central message, the one next to which everything else it says is incidental. Even if we set aside the holy war and vindictiveness that fills the entire Old Testament, culminating with God’s becoming so angry at his chosen people that he burns down their capital city and holy temple and sends them into slavery in a distant land, the message of the New Testament is hardly one of unalloyed love and compassion either. If anything, its main message is that those who do not possess the correct faith can expect to suffer a grim and frightening fate in the afterlife; and this fate, Jesus says, will come upon the majority of humanity, while only a relative few will escape it. Even if one interprets the verses about never-quenched fires and undying worms only metaphorically, that scarcely mitigates the horror any good person would feel at such a theology. But perhaps Sullivan also disregards verses like these, because they too are not what the Bible is “really about”.

And there lies the crux of the matter (no pun intended). Who decides what the Bible is really about? Set aside all the obvious scientific inaccuracies, all the stories that have obviously become mythologized. Set that all aside, and you’re still left with two large and conflicting sets of verses. One contains some moving messages about love, forgiveness, and compassion. The other contains some horrifying messages about wrath, hate, and damnation. Which do we follow? Which do we choose? And why?

If these be the choices, Sullivan has made the right one. I do not fault him for that. What he cannot then do is proclaim that his is the only way to read the Bible, that he takes the text more seriously than the fundamentalists or understands it better than they do. He should at least acknowledge, as Harris presses him to acknowledge, that scripture is very much an “engine of extremism”. If he admitted that there were other readings of the Bible, just as legitimate as his own, that had some deeply troubling moral implications, that would represent real progress.

Coming up: Thoughts on parts 3 and 4 of the Harris-Sullivan debate.

Atlas Shrugged: The Wealth of Nations
The Bad Parable of the Prodigal Son
Atlas Shrugged: The Great Chain of Being
Atlas Shrugged: The Almighty Dollar
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.