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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Terry

    I have just read in the New York Times that almost 75% of Americans still beleive in life after deathlife after death

  • Terry

    I have just read in the New York Times that almost 75% of Americans still beleive in life after deathlife after death

  • Robert G

    “A tomb in Talpiot, Jerusalem seen in March, 1980, was found to contain at least 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, some of which may have belonged to Jesus Christ and his family.

    One wonders what impact this will have on the general debate between Christian theists and the atheist community.

    Let me predict: it won’t matter how compelling the facts are, Christians will reject the findings outright. After all what’s physical proof beside the authority of a collection of poorly transcribed, poorly translated, moldering Bronze-age texts?

  • Robert G

    “A tomb in Talpiot, Jerusalem seen in March, 1980, was found to contain at least 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, some of which may have belonged to Jesus Christ and his family.

    One wonders what impact this will have on the general debate between Christian theists and the atheist community.

    Let me predict: it won’t matter how compelling the facts are, Christians will reject the findings outright. After all what’s physical proof beside the authority of a collection of poorly transcribed, poorly translated, moldering Bronze-age texts?

  • Polly

    ANY belief in a god on the basis of a purported holy book is nothing more than superstition. The nuances between one brand of superstition and another are meaningless. To argue that his version of the fantasy is better, and therefore, real, is an appeal to the common ground of modern sensibilities while ignoring the glaring intellectual differences.
    It boils down to: “Hey look at us, we’re not as bad as those other guys. See, religious people CAN be open-minded, too. Now you don’t have to be atheists anymore.”
    But I haven’t seen any new, compelling reasons to accept Faith as even a complement to reason. And, really, faith functions more like a SUBSTITUTE most of the time.

    Arguments from universal morality.
    Arguments from subjective experiences
    God of the gaps (human consciousness for example)

    At lest with a fundy, the discussion could turn to matters of evidence and facts about scriptural errors. But, this guy doesn’t believe it, either, which makes me wonder where he gets his notions of a god other than his imagination. And if so, why shouldn’t all of our imaginations be projected into reality? I belive on the planet Xenu there are millions of pink unicorns…tasty, succulent, juicy unicorns…mmmmmm.

  • Robert G

    Polly hits the nail square on the head and drives it home! Full points!

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Polly,

    At lest with a fundy, the discussion could turn to matters of evidence and facts about scriptural errors. But, this guy doesn’t believe it, either, which makes me wonder where he gets his notions of a god other than his imagination. And if so, why shouldn’t all of our imaginations be projected into reality? I belive on the planet Xenu there are millions of pink unicorns…tasty, succulent, juicy unicorns…mmmmmm.

    You are hilarious. I literally laughed out loud! I am still laughing. You have a way with the clever turn of phrase.

    I can answer your question in part. Speaking as a “liberal” Christian, I base my concept of God on Jesus’ teachings. Why do I follow Jesus? Because when I read about him, and put his teaching into practice, things get really good. I use the proof of experience. If I try something and it works, I keep it. If not, I do not.

    It boils down to: “Hey look at us, we’re not as bad as those other guys. See, religious people CAN be open-minded, too. Now you don’t have to be atheists anymore.”

    I disagree. You do have to be atheist. Until you can honestly believe in God, you have no other choice!

    My point is, I did not change my beliefs in order to “lure in the freethinkers”. I believe what I believe because it makes sense to me. I imagine this is the case with most liberal Christians. It is not particularly easy to explain to my fundamentalist friends my ideas. It is only out of conviction of the truth that I chose this path.

    I hope that helps a little.

    Matt

  • Polly

    Thank you Matt for your kind words. I’m glad that you got a laugh out of that :D

    The thing I just never understood about “liberal” Christianity (even more so when I was a fundy) was that if you don’t believe the Bible to be the complete, inerrant Word of God, then HOW do you choose the parts that are “true.” I believe I understand the WHY of what you choose to believe. After all, “Love your neighbor as yourself is rather difficult to argue with.” But, why not just stop there and forget about the label of Christianity.
    Why do you want to associate yourself with the Old Testament, the idea of eternal Hell for cosmic misdemeanors, and condemnation of certain activities that have nothing to do with morality if you don’t really believe in it? If I were still in my old belief system I would consider a practicing, gay Catholic/Christian such as Sullivan hellbound and a contradiction in terms. I still do, in fact (contradiction NOT hellbound). Why bother with a belief system that calls you “abominable?” I could quote New Testament scripture to “prove” my point. If it had plenty of evidence to support it, then that would be one thing, but it’s a fairy tale. When I was a Christian I took Jesus’s words about “No one comes to the Father except through me” deadly seriously. When Jesus said that people don’t believe because their deeds are evil, I believed that because HE said it, even though I knew plenty of good non-believers and plenty of evil Christians. But, why not just be content to let all that go and just say, “I believe in being good to my neighbor and not holding a grudge for wrongs commited against me.”?

    I honestly don’t know if liberal Xians are really trying to score any points with atheists. I do think that’s what the debater was saying. Unlike the fundamentalist mindset, I don’t think most feel the need to “save” others – as I did. Although, I freely admit I have only an outsider’s view of these things. When I believed in the Bible, I accepted it hook, line, and sinker. Once I became convinced that it had errors and was completely non-historical, I dropped it because if it’s not the Word of God, it’s just another book. It has much more evil in it than good. However, I still live by the good parts and I don’t regret the time I invested in filling my head with those sections on love and forgiveness.

    —”You do have to be atheist. Until you can honestly believe in God, you have no other choice!”
    You put it perfectly. I wish everyone understood this.

    —”It is not particularly easy to explain to my fundamentalist friends my ideas”
    I’d bet dollars to donuts that your friends are Praying for you to “see the light and mature in the Word.” Some probably even doubt your salvation. But, I’m sure you won’t let them bully you into the fold. Your position, much like Deism, is a rather unpopular one. The mainstream Church is not ready for open-mindedness and. It takes courage to think for yourself as I’m sure you know. I made some assumptions about spcific moral beliefs you may hold. Please feel free to correct me if I was wrong about anything.

    N-Joy

    -Polly

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Matt R,

    I can answer your question in part. Speaking as a “liberal” Christian, I base my concept of God on Jesus’ teachings. Why do I follow Jesus? Because when I read about him, and put his teaching into practice, things get really good. I use the proof of experience. If I try something and it works, I keep it. If not, I do not.

    Quick question. (And going a bit off-topic for everyone else.) Do you practice Luke 14:26?

    If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

    The reason I ask is that, if you don’t, then you’re not following Jesus as such – you’re judging between the different parts of Jesus’ teaching, and following the good parts. If that’s the case, then I commend you; but I’d be hesitant to call you a Christian, “liberal” or otherwise.

  • Billf

    I found part of this debate alarming to the core.

    Sam Harris outlines how he is open to belief, he just needs proof. He even gives one example as to the type of evidence he would require. Then he asks Andrew Sullivan “What would constitute “proof” for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken?”

    And Andrew’s response is: “I have no ability to stop believing” and “I know of no “proof” that could dissuade me of this.”

    Andrew is a moderate gay catholic, and he can’t even IMAGINE anything that would affect his belief in god.

    The human race is doomed.

    Billf

  • Billf

    I found part of this debate alarming to the core.

    Sam Harris outlines how he is open to belief, he just needs proof. He even gives one example as to the type of evidence he would require. Then he asks Andrew Sullivan “What would constitute “proof” for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken?”

    And Andrew’s response is: “I have no ability to stop believing” and “I know of no “proof” that could dissuade me of this.”

    Andrew is a moderate gay catholic, and he can’t even IMAGINE anything that would affect his belief in god.

    The human race is doomed.

    Billf

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    I found part of this debate alarming to the core.

    Well I found that part immensely gratifying, but that’s just me.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    HI Shishberg,

    Quick question. (And going a bit off-topic for everyone else.) Do you practice Luke 14:26?

    If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

    The reason I ask is that, if you don’t, then you’re not following Jesus as such – you’re judging between the different parts of Jesus’ teaching, and following the good parts. If that’s the case, then I commend you; but I’d be hesitant to call you a Christian, “liberal” or otherwise.

    Good question! I follow Luke 14:26 the same way I follow Matthew 5:29-30.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Polly,

    Thanks for your reply. I have several things for you, but my time is short now. I will respond later.

    Have a nice day!

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    The thing I just never understood about “liberal” Christianity (even more so when I was a fundy) was that if you don’t believe the Bible to be the complete, inerrant Word of God, then HOW do you choose the parts that are “true.”

    When I was a fundametalist, I read the Bible the way I looked at girls when I was a teenager. I only looked on the surface and I evaluated the worth of the girl based on what I saw on the surface.

    Fortunately I matured significantly before I married and chose my wife on much more enduring qualities (I will say that I think my wife is very pretty too, but that is a bonus, not a necessity.)

    So it is with the Bible. I do not only evaluate the surface, but I read more deeply into the text and see what the text as a whole means. I have found readings of the Bible which make it quite coherent as a whole.

    So I do not think there are false parts of the Bible, only parts which have been grossly misunderstood. For example, I do not think that God in the O.T. is a view of the Living God, but a view of the Hebrews perception of God. This helps give a commentary on mankind in general, religions specifically, and also provides context for the teachings of Jesus. In the Old Testament we have a window into Hebrew culture. We have poetry, wisdom, religion, “science” (by that I mean an explanation of how things work according to the Hebrew mind), and social customs. This gives a sort of “rosetta stone” to understand the context of Jesus’ words and actions. Without an understanding of the Old Testament, much of the Gospels do not make very much sense. It is only with careful study that such things become clear. Jesus’ words are very easy to misunderstand or to reject as silly if one wants to. I think this was done on purpose. Jesus makes wild, outlandish statements which many people ridicule. With the right perspective, however, these statements make sense.

    Jesus himself said that he spoke this way so that only those who wished to understand would understand. Jesus was unclear on purpose.

    So how do I determine what the Bible means? The same way I determine what anything means, through logic. If my eyes play a trick on me and tell me that I am seeing something which I know is impossible, I disregard because it does not make sense. It is the same way with different readings of the Bible. I reject meanings that do not make sense and accept ones that do.

    It does not make sense for God to declare himself loving and just, and then command the Hebrews to wipe out cities full of babies and little children. That is neither loving nor just by any definition I am familiar with, therefore I reject it as a literal historical account of what actually happened.

    That is how I choose. I think they are all “true”, the reader just has to figure out what the “truth” is.

    I believe I understand the WHY of what you choose to believe. After all, “Love your neighbor as yourself is rather difficult to argue with.” But, why not just stop there and forget about the label of Christianity.

    Following God is not a moral system, it is life itself. I do not care if I am a “Christian”, “Protestant”, “Jesus-follower”, or any other “label”. I follow God. It’s what I do and who I am. I believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God in the flesh, so I do “love my neighbor as myself”. The laws I live by are love God and love people. That is it.

    The heart of the matter is that God is real and alive. God is not a theoretical construct or a moral system. God is real and I interact with God and God interacts with me. I cannot begin to describe the difference this has made in my life. I was a “Christian” for a long time before I really understood what it really means to follow God. When I finally understood, that is when everything changed. It is truly miraculous.

    Why do you want to associate yourself with the Old Testament, the idea of eternal Hell for cosmic misdemeanors, and condemnation of certain activities that have nothing to do with morality if you don’t really believe in it?

    I do not belive those things, but I am guilty by association because I associate with people who do. I feel that the community which I have with other people is more important than fine theological points. The only part of Christianity that really affects me now is the fact that God has helped my life become wonderful. All other things become academic for the most part.

    Furthermore, I have found that I cannot change people’s minds. Everyone must find their own path. I could try to convince my fundamentalist friends to change their mind but it would have no effect, so I just ask the hard questions which will lead them down the road to discover truth for themselves.

    I apply the same approach with everyone. Here I tell people what I have expereinced and what I think it means and then I leave it to them to decide. I can only tell you what I know. I certainly do not have the ability to change your mind. I do not think I would want the responsibility either! :)

    If I were still in my old belief system I would consider a practicing, gay Catholic/Christian such as Sullivan hellbound and a contradiction in terms.

    I do agree that Sullivan is in a rather unusual position, but how he lives his life is between him and God. If he is convinced that God wants him to live his life the way that he is living it, I certainly cannot change his mind. I may disagree, but my disagreement will, I suspect, amount to little. Again, I can only tell people what I have experienced and what I think it means. They must find their own path.

    I still do, in fact (contradiction NOT hellbound). Why bother with a belief system that calls you “abominable?”

    I have followed Jesus, not because I like the way his words sound, but because they have made a remarkable impact on my life. Jesus condemns many actions that I once loved. It was hard for me to let those things go, but when I did, I found a better life waiting for me on the other side. Jesus took the old and replaced it with a much better new.

    So, what Jesus says is important, but what convinced me is what Jesus *did* for me.

    I could quote New Testament scripture to “prove” my point. If it had plenty of evidence to support it, then that would be one thing, but it’s a fairy tale.

    There are absolutely no fairies mentioned anywhere in the Bible! :)

    When I was a Christian I took Jesus’s words about “No one comes to the Father except through me” deadly seriously. When Jesus said that people don’t believe because their deeds are evil, I believed that because HE said it, even though I knew plenty of good non-believers and plenty of evil Christians. But, why not just be content to let all that go and just say, “I believe in being good to my neighbor and not holding a grudge for wrongs commited against me.”?

    No one can come to the father except through Jesus. I don’t think that Jesus was saying that you have to say the magic word “Jesus”, but that the only way to the father is through him. For example, according to the apostle Paul, Abraham was justified by faith. Did abraham know of Jesus? I doubt it. Did he confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in his heart that Jesus rose from the dead? Unlikely, since the event had not happened yet. Nevertheless, it was Jesus who made it possible that Abraham’s faith in God was sufficient to please God. Does that make sense?

    Regarding evil Christians and good non-Christians, well people have the freedom of choice. People can choose to be good or bad. Christianity is not saying magic words and then being good, it is realizing the reality of God, then disciplining oneself to follow God, and then God helps you do it. I think this is true because it happened to me, just like that.

    I honestly don’t know if liberal Xians are really trying to score any points with atheists. I do think that’s what the debater was saying. Unlike the fundamentalist mindset, I don’t think most feel the need to “save” others – as I did.

    I do not think that I can “save” anyone but myself. I can tell people what happened to me and explain it as best I can, but ultimately the individual must choose.

    Although, I freely admit I have only an outsider’s view of these things. When I believed in the Bible, I accepted it hook, line, and sinker. Once I became convinced that it had errors and was completely non-historical, I dropped it because if it’s not the Word of God, it’s just another book. It has much more evil in it than good. However, I still live by the good parts and I don’t regret the time I invested in filling my head with those sections on love and forgiveness.

    This is where we differ. I am not so black-and-white. I look at the good and accept the ideas, then if I can reconcile that which does not make sense, I do so. I have been able to reconcile it, so I keep it. The teachings of Jesus have proven to be valid and reliable in my life, so I follow Jesus.

    —”You do have to be atheist. Until you can honestly believe in God, you have no other choice!”
    You put it perfectly. I wish everyone understood this.

    It was not long ago that I realized that it was possible for me to rationally accept either atheism or theism. Instead of being a frightening experience, It was liberating. I could really choose either way and be completely honest with myself. It was wonderful. I chose theism based on what I have experienced and it is great.

    —”It is not particularly easy to explain to my fundamentalist friends my ideas”
    I’d bet dollars to donuts that your friends are Praying for you to “see the light and mature in the Word.”

    You can bet that I keep my ideas rather private! I only tell those who are able to comprehend them. The rest only get a hint when I ask the really hard questions in sunday school! I am sure that they will have a chance to open their minds when the time is right. What they do then is their own decision.

    If I may be so bold as to comment on your experience:

    I see you as the logical result of an intelligent person who at one time was a funamentalist. You were conditioned to believe that if any of the Bible was wrong, then it is all wrong. You were offered only one way to view the Bible, and that way is not consistent with reality as we understand it today. Naturally you eventually discovered the disparities and were forced to throw out the whole Bible based on your conditioning. You are not the only one who has had this experience. I read atheist testimonies and the story is rather common.

    This is only an observation of a process. I do not think you are evil, or stupid, or abominable. The course of your belief in Christianity makes perfect sense to me. It is what I would expect.

    Thank you for your reply,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    As if I could have anything left to type….

    I have one general comment:

    And there lies the crux of the matter (no pun intended). Who decides what the Bible is really about?

    You, the individual must investigate the matter for yourself. I daresay that anyone who believes because he is told to do so is doing himself an injustice.

    Matt

  • Polly

    Matt —”There are absolutely no fairies mentioned anywhere in the Bible!”
    You got me there! :)

    I don’t have much time at the moment. You made some really interesting points. I think I understand your POV better, now.

  • schemanista

    Nevertheless, it was Jesus who made it possible that Abraham’s faith in God was sufficient to please God. Does that make sense?

    Not to me. I can appreciate the finer points of theology, but I can’t accept or understand them because I never get past the “unspoken presupposition” stage. For example, it’s pretty hard to have a discussion which relies on postulates such as “the soul” or “free will” when I’m convinced that neither such thing exists.

    However, I do like the way you express yourself and the manner in which you articulate your beliefs. Yours is a refreshing attitude, Matt. I enjoy reading your comments.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Schemanista,

    Thank you for your kind words. There are quite a few things one has to accept before the statement in question will be meaningful. I can understand your perspective.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com/ Chris Hallquist

    You write: Harris, in reply, sums up Sullivan’s position so eloquently that no one could accuse him of understating it: Don’t you mean “misunderstanding” it? The context doesn’t seem to support a sarcastic interpretation.

  • Polly

    Matt – “I have followed Jesus, not because I like the way his words sound, but because they have made a remarkable impact on my life.”

    This is, at the same time, an insurmountable argument and the least convincing to anyone else. Insurmountable, because I can no more re-characterize your personal experience for you and claim that my understanding of it is better, than I could tell you what your favorite icecream flavor ought to be. Both would be equally imperious and the height of arrogance.

    But, it’s also one of the weakest arguments in that experience is not a fact. And here is where I think any debate like this comes apart. The benevolent theist (I think that sounds better than Liberal Xian) has made a PERSONAL choice and really, that’s not something that we ought to debate. It’s only when one leaves the confines of their personal experience to tell others that this experience MUST (not “can” or “may”) apply to everyone else as well, does conflict arise.
    It seems that some atheists (myself included) suspect that just beneath the surface one of our own ilk is fighting to get out of the theist “trap” of “wishful/fuzzy thinking.” And it’s hard to resist the impulse to encourage you to take that last step of non-faith(?) into pure materialism. :-D

    My conclusion is that you have something good going on and, quite appropriately, you would like to talk about it in case it also works for others. Everyone should speak their experience so that the community at large can learn. Even if I don’t buy into the philosophy, maybe something within that system CAN help me. Debates really aren’t the right venue for this, though, IMhumbleO.

    Take Care

    -Polly

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Hi Polly,

    Truly, I have no way to “convince” anyone that God is really there. I suppose is a person knew me personally and saw how Jesus effected me, they may take that as “evidence”, but personal experience is really only useful evidence for the person having the experience and possibly a few people who are intimately acquainted with the person.

    I offer my experience more as an explanation of why I am convinced that there is a Creator and less as a means to convince others.

    It’s only when one leaves the confines of their personal experience to tell others that this experience MUST (not “can” or “may”) apply to everyone else as well, does conflict arise.

    I do not think that this expereince “must” apply to everyone so much as I think that since God is real and everyone exists in reality, that it necessarily applies to everyone. This is similar to how the fact that the earth is approx 5 billion years old necessarily applies to everyone since it is reality. No one imposes the “belief” of an old earth. It just is.

    What I am saying is that I do not see that I should force anyone to act in a certain way since there is a God, but I think that everyone has to live with the fact of God, whether one believes or not. (Of course, I could be wrong, in which case we all have to live with the fact of not-God)

    I think this topic lends itself to good conversation, but debate becomes rather futile rather quickly.

    Cheers,

    Matt


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