The Harris-Sullivan Debate: III

In the previous exchange from their debate, Andrew Sullivan has declared that his faith in God is not based on any evidence whatsoever, and no imaginable evidence could cause him to change his mind about it. Sam Harris reacts with bemusement, as well he might:

I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.

You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn’t come to believe in God by taking any state of the world into account, no possible state of the world could put His existence in doubt.

As Harris notes, this is the point at which many people, believers and nonbelievers alike, would conclude the futility of further debate and change the subject. “You have your opinions and I have mine,” the cant goes, “and we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

It is true enough, there is nothing to be gained by stubbornly continuing to debate a person who has already made it clear that they will not be swayed by any argument. On the other hand, I would argue that this attitude, when applied on a larger scale, is the cause of most of the religious dissension and division in the world. By embracing the attitude that other people just have their own beliefs and we should steer clear of challenging them too vigorously, would-be ecumenists have unwittingly promoted a dangerous intellectual isolation between competing creeds. The problem, as I see it, is that many liberal theists have gone beyond the mere recognition of differences in belief to the illogical conclusion that differences in belief are a good thing.

That statement needs some clarification. Diversity among human beliefs is an artifact of our inability to directly and infallibly perceive the truth. And since there’s no reliable way to tell who is in error – it might be any of us – it’s a wise idea to maintain a reservoir of differing opinions and not be too dogmatic about promoting any particular belief. Tolerance and intellectual diversity are essential hedges against error, given our manifest fallibility. But it does not follow that diversity of belief is an intrinsic good. There is only one world, and there must be one true description of it. So while we accept the existence of conflicting beliefs, and we are right to do so, we should at the same time be actively working to weed out error and reach agreement through the truth-seeking method of rational debate. The fact is that different groups of people hold different beliefs about the world, and not all of these beliefs can be correct. It does no one any favors for us to agree not to try to find out who it is. Even worse is the declaration that one’s own beliefs are immune to evidence-based challenge.

Harris closes the letter by inviting Sullivan to rely on the more dependable method of reason, and in response, Sullivan commits a classic fallacy used by liberal and conservative theists alike:

Science rests as well on some basic elements of faith…. These little puddle-jumps of faith are the foundation for your reason. I think they are justified. But that reason is really, au fond, a belief, an act of faith, an acknowledgment that, as humans, we have no “contingency-free” place from where to start at all and no “contingency-free” place on earth to end up at.

No, no, a thousand times no. Science, like every human endeavor, can deliver only provisional and not absolute truth about the world we live in, and can be sidetracked by human fallibility and ego. But this categorically does not mean that science is no better than any other way of knowing invented or alleged by humans, nor does it mean that its conclusions are no more certain than any religious assertion based on faith. Despite its faults, science is still by far the most and indeed the only reliable way of knowing we have ever discovered. The exponential growth of scientific knowledge, compared to the eternal stagnation of religion, should alone lay this silly trope to rest. Harris dismantles it with razor-keen wit:

…the fact that Hume’s worries make sense, the fact that Wittgenstein can say things like “our spade is turned,” does not place every spurious claim to knowledge on an equal footing with science. The discomfort induced in mathematics by Godel does not make the doctrine of Mormonism even slightly more plausible. There is still a difference between jumping a puddle and walking on water.

Sullivan closes his letter, the last so far, with a description of what he finds so inspiring about Christianity.

The Catholicism I imbibed was a minority faith in a majority Protestant or agnostic culture. And I can track its origins through history–through my Irish ancestors who held onto it despite cruel persecution, back to the time when England itself was pervaded by the religious faith I still hold. In high school and university, I was able to study the history of that faith–the astonishing cultural wealth and spiritual depth of the Catholic church that kept the memory of Jesus alive for millennia… They passed it, these souls, from person to person, from generation to generation, in one of the most astonishingly persistent endeavors in human history.

…Even today, as I type these words, I look on my desk and see the sign I bring with me everywhere: his cross. When I go to dinner later, a small cross will come with me, in my wallet. In my study at home, a fourteenth century wooden carving of Jesus stares down at me from the wall. He is alive in me and millions of others after all this time, sustaining, nurturing, inspiring not just me but countless more. Even if you do not believe in him in the way I do, surely you must acknowledge that something very special has been going on here, something truly remarkable, something beyond the norm of much else in human history.

Sullivan gives eloquent voice to the human need for belonging, the need to feel as if we belong to something larger than ourselves, and the way that Catholicism fulfills that need for him. However, this intricate web of unfolding history is not the exclusive provenance of Christianity. Sullivan, I am sure, knows that every faith that exists in the world today can trace its history back through a similar chain of tireless devotion, martyrdom, and endurance through persecution. Islamic scholars, too, can marvel at the vast ocean of history that lies behind their creeds. Buddhists, too, can be awed by the way their founder’s dharma has been passed from mind to mind over the long march of centuries. Mormons can admire the faith and hope that kept their forebears unbowed in the face of unrelenting persecution. Even atheists can, and do, remember the astonishing courage, conviction, and strength of character of famous historical nonbelievers who dared to speak truth to a bitterly hostile world.

In fact, all of history – every person, every event, indeed every living thing – owes its existence to an astonishing and glorious web of intertwining contingency. No one link in this web is more or less important than any other. The history of Christianity that Sullivan so rapturously describes is, in truth, just a vanishingly small section of a far vaster and more amazing weave of causality and chance. It is the story of how we, as a species, first emerged out of the dawn on the red plains of Africa; how we moved out and swept across the world in successive waves of migration, surviving ice ages, crossing hostile oceans, and multiplying into the new vistas that opened up before us. It is the story of how civilization first took fragile root, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Europe, in the Americas; of how we learned to chip stone, to mold clay, to spin cloth, and to forge metal, each new discovery building on the last. And, yes, it is the story of the supernatural beliefs we told each other, huddled around the glow of our campfires at night, and of how our folk religions and shamans grew into cathedrals, priests, popes, and kings.

It is all part of our history, and there is indeed a beauty in this grandeur. It is all worth knowing and worth marveling at. What it is not is reason to believe that any one set of irrational ideas is true. If anything, the sheer vastness of the causal web should give Sullivan, or any thinking religious person, reason to hesitate before plucking one tiny thread out of this grand weave and declaring that it and it alone is the key to it all and the one that governs all the others. Our religions are far too small for that.

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.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I love this last paragraph. It is humble yet inspiring. Very like Sagan. I’m really glad that you write this blog. You and Hemant can always brighten my day!


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