Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sam Harris Dismantles Faith... Again

I read this email exchange between authors Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) and Andrew Sullivan (The Conservative Soul) on science and faith. I have to say, I came away from the discussion feeling that Harris had effectively diffuses all of Sullivan's main points, as well as mount a serious case against faith itself. Sullivan doesn't put up much of an intellectual fight, and is evasive of the challenges posed by Harris for the most part. I'll quote at length the final issues that came out of the discussion that Harris sums up in his latest email:

Moderation v. fundamentalism: There appears to be no principled separation between religious moderation and religious fundamentalism other than a facility for (and an inclination to) doubt. But how much doubt is too much? Why not doubt the whole shebang, as I do? The pope seems to believe many things which you doubt. Do you have reason to believe that the pope is mistaken about the true doctrine of Christianity, or do you just not like the social consequences of some of his beliefs? Can you justify the intermediate position you've taken with respect to Catholicism in terms of truth and falsity (rather than consolation and its lack)? And if you disagree that the truth of an idea can be neatly separated from its consolations, what does the phrase "wishful thinking" mean to you?

The inadequacies of the Bible: What is the intellectual justification for considering the Bible to be the inspired word of God, given how much bad stuff (like slavery) is in there, and how much good stuff (like all of science) isn't? Do you really think that no mere mortals could have written Mark, Matthew, John and Luke? Not even the combined talent of a first-century Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy? It seems to me that this textual claim really lies at the core of the matter: either the Bible is a book like any other great work of literature, or it's a magic book. Once one accepts it to be a magic book, I agree that a wide range of religious implications follow; but if one doesn't accept this claim, it seems to me that the basis for being a Christian (as a opposed to anything else) evaporates. Would it really surprise you if God told you that the Bible was a product of fallible, human minds? And if this wouldn't truly astound you (in the way that finding out that George Washington never existed presumably would), how can you claim to be so certain of the doctrine of Christianity?

Ontological fancy footwork: All that business about God being "definitionally" the creator of the universe, outside of space and time, etc. just doesn't wash. The "marzipan at the center of the sun" is definitionally at the center of the sun. Does this mean there is marzipan at the center of the sun?

The contingency of your own faith: As you said, if you'd been raised a Buddhist, you'd probably be a Buddhist. And yet, you also believe that Christianity is really true. This seems to entail that, by sheer accident of birth, you were raised and culturally conditioned to believe the one true faith. Do you really believe this? Doesn't it seem more likely that you just happen to subscribe to the religion into which you were born (as most people do) because of social pressure, emotional consolation, attachment to tradition, etc.?

The troublesome example of other religions: Don't you think Mormons and Muslims have similar stories to tell about feeling consoled in the presence of death, hearing voices, etc.? Can't both Mormons and Muslims use the same argument you have used about the cultural success of their faiths to vindicate their own truth claims? How is it that you reject their claims, and how is it that in rejecting them you don't find your own religious beliefs coming under pressure?

The argument from cultural success: Apart from the fact that the argument from cultural success would vindicate any religion that has millions of subscribers, it's also just plain false. The success of Christianity (or any faith) is not an argument for its truth. While dialogue and consensus (and, therefore, cultural success) play a role in our knowledge gathering, we don't do epistemology by plebiscite. The majority of people really can be wrong-as are the majority of American Christians about the age of the universe and about the evolution of life on this planet.

Ancient miracles are less compelling than modern miracles (and modern miracles don't compel you): Christianity is predicated on the reliability of the gospel account of the miracles of Jesus. And yet, there are modern books cataloguing the miracles of Hindu adepts, written by educated Westerners. Why not grant these testimonials even more credence than the gospel? I would bet that you are not even inclined to read this literature, much less organize your life around it. Then why not view the gospel with the same skepticism?
I feel that Sullivan has avoided addressing these specific issues with specific answers because, being an intelligent person, he knows the logical binds that await him if he tries to weasel out a defense of faith. I'm eagerly awaiting for this exchange to continue...

No comments: