The Harris-Sullivan Debate: II

As the debate continues, Sam Harris responds to Andrew Sullivan’s contention that many of the fundamentalists he knows are compassionate, caring people who do many selfless good deeds for others:

For instance, you claim that many fundamentalists are tolerant of dissent and capable of friendship with you despite their dogmatic views about sex. You also remind me that many devoutly religious people do good things on the basis of their religious beliefs. I do not doubt either of these propositions. You could catalogue such facts until the end of time, and they would not begin to suggest that God actually exists, or that the Bible is his Word, or that his Son came to earth in the person of Jesus to redeem our sins.

I believe a well-articulated and properly understood atheism should consist of two claims: first, that religious beliefs are not true; second, that on balance they have done more harm than good. The first claim explains why we are atheists, the second explains why we speak out about it. Though I’ve never advocated belief in convenient falsehoods just because they are comforting, I’ll be the first to say that if religion had only ever been a force for good in this world, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of creating this website.

But we should be careful not to confuse these claims, or let theists confuse them for us. More importantly, we must take care not to suggest that religion is false because it is harmful. These are separate claims and should be defended separately.

Harris goes on to offer an incisive remark on Sullivan’s defense of religious morality:

As you may know, I’ve argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available; I have also argued that it rather often gets people to do very bad things that they would not otherwise do.

This is exactly right, and this is a point we should be making more often. The problem with religious morality, even when it causes people to treat others well, is that religious morality is grounded in an idea – obeying the supposed will of God – that is orthogonal to human concerns. We should not be caring for the poor and the sick because it is what God wants; we should be caring for them because it is the right thing to do, and because these others are human beings who need our compassion. A morality not grounded in human concerns can still produce good results, when what the believer is taught to be God’s will lines up with what their fellow humans need; but it can also produce dreadful results when the alleged will of God does not align with human desires and needs, as my letter of advice to a Christian illustrates. And, as this story shows, these two seemingly contradictory behaviors can paradoxically exist within a single person. An atheist morality of compassion would produce good results consistently, not just by happenstance.

Andrew Sullivan says:

My response rests on an understanding of truth that is not exhausted by empiricism or materialism. I do not believe, in short, that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be ‘proven’ by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer.

Sadly, he does not elaborate on what non-empirical – in other words, non-evidence-based – method he has in mind. (He does claim, incorrectly, that historical investigation is not an empirical method of truth-seeking because it’s not based on repeatable experiments, a common apologist mistake.) Most religious believers don’t, in my experience, which makes claims like these an exercise in vacuous special pleading. The usual assertion is that there are some beliefs that should be exempted from the tiresome necessity of evidence because, well, just because.

Sullivan goes on to address one of Harris’ arguments:

…the content of various, competing revelations renders them dangerous. They are dangerous because they logically contradict each other. And since their claims are the most profound that we can imagine, human beings will often be compelled to fight for them. For if these profound matters are not worth fighting for, what is?

Sullivan has grasped the central problem here and summed it up with aplomb. He goes on to admit that this is a “central problem” for religion and “will always be so”. However, his proposed solution is entirely inadequate:

We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never grasp, something we can never know – because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T…

The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it.

This solution is glib and superficial. As Sullivan is certainly aware, because he says he has dealt with them many times, there are a huge number of religious believers who do not share his commendable humility. There are a huge number of theists who feel that they do have surety, that they do know God’s will (because, they hasten to add, God has told them what it is), and even worse, that God wants them to be the agents of his will, imposing it on others who do not agree. What does Sullivan propose when his “non-empirical” methods of truth-seeking lead, as they inevitably will, to people adopting this theocratic viewpoint? What do we do then?

Andrew Sullivan, after all, is not the problem. He does not want a theocracy. But there are millions of believers who do, fervently so, and are fighting to bring that outcome about. Sam Harris is right to point that out, and to argue that religion is a very dangerous thing because of it. Sullivan’s response that he isn’t one of those bad guys does not undermine the validity of this point, and though he gravely frowns over the matter and pronounces it a serious problem, he proposes no feasible way to deal with it.

There is only one workable solution to this problem, in fact, and that is that we need a method of truth-seeking that relies on evidence which we can all examine for ourselves. That is the only way we will ever be able to reach consensus. Relying on subjective claims of internal revelation and other “non-empirical” methods of belief-formation mean that when those methods lead to violent and tyrannical actions grounded in the actor’s belief in God, there is nothing for religious moderates to do except to protest that they believe something different – which is precisely what Sullivan does, and which is Harris’ point. What we need to do is to teach the supremacy of evidence and reason over faith, and teach people to think skeptically, critically and rationally. That, in the long run, is the only possible way to end religious bloodshed and jihad.

The fourth section contains, I think, one of the most revealing exchanges in the entire debate. Sam Harris ends his letter with an extremely important question, and Sullivan’s response is startling in its candor:

Let me close by asking you a simple question: What would constitute “proof” for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken?

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. I know of no “proof” that could dissuade me of this, since no “proof” ever persuaded me of it.

…You will ask: how do I know this was Jesus? Could it not be that it was a force beyond one, specific Jewish rabbi who lived two millennia ago and was executed by the Roman authorities? Yes, and no. 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.

So, according to Sullivan’s own words, he is a believer because of a subjective, emotional experience he had, which he cannot explain and which did not come upon him in response to any evidence. He admits that he interpreted it as a confirmation of Christianity, rather than some other religion, only because that was the religion he was brought up with. And yet, this faith built on nothing is so persuasive in his eyes that he would refuse to reconsider it in response to any evidence.

I thank him for putting it so plainly, because I think something very similar is at the heart of most religious belief. A person experiences something that has a powerful emotional impact on them, they interpret it in the context of whichever religion is dominant in their society, and they decide through faith that they could not possibly be mistaken about the cause of this experience or what it signifies. Those three steps – emotion, tradition, faith – probably explain nine-tenths or more of all religious belief, notwithstanding the unconvincing after-the-fact apologetics offered by a minority of the faithful.

It should be obvious that this is an utterly insufficient basis for believing anything, much less anything of such extreme importance. Sullivan almost seems embarrassed by it himself, as he phrases his position not in terms of choice but compulsion, claiming that he is unable to believe differently. Even if that is the case, and I think he gives himself too little credit, it does not follow that he should want to continue believing in this way. After all, we all know the experience of having higher-order desires that contradict our lower-order desires – like the smoker who wants a cigarette, but also wants not to want cigarettes. Even if Sullivan cannot stop believing, he could still decry (higher-order) the emotional addiction to religion that has left him in that state. That he does not do so suggests that his problem is one of will, not ability.

Coming up: Thoughts on part 5 and 6 of the Harris-Sullivan debate.


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