Friday, April 6, 2007

Sullivan Evades Challenges Posed By Harris

Yesterday, I blogged about an email exchange between authors Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan titled, “Is Religion ‘Built Upon Lies’?” In my post, I quoted Harris’s more recent email, which laid out the most pressing questions unanswered by Sullivan that came out of the dialogue. Today, Sullivan writes back. Harris had previously asked Sullivan to consider the plausibility of these competing doctrines:

(1) There is no God.

(2) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.

(3) Christianity is the one true religion, and Catholics have the truest version of it.
Instead of answering Harris honestly, Sullivan writes in his own answers, ultimately choosing these two:
(5) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was a man more suffused with divinity than any other human being who has ever lived. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes, except that a person know God and accept God's love freely and expresses that love toward everyone he or she encounters. Jesus uniquely showed us how to accept God's love and how to be worthy of it. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace. But Jesus was the proof that such love exists, and that it is divine and eternal, and that it cares for us.

(6) None of us knows anything about these things.

The only things different about Sullivan’s (5) from Harris’s (2) is that Sullivan has inserted “god’s love” into the doctrine, as well as assert the “divinity” of Jesus. Sullivan has evaded Harris’s original inquiry -- asking Sullivan which doctrine is the most plausible. Considering that all Sullivan has done is added to Harris’s (2) with more assertions that Sullivan accepts purely on faith, it is logical to assume that Sullivan finds Harris’s (2) more plausible than the other choices posed by Harris. My question is this: what explanation does Sullivan have to assume that his more complicated and fantastic (5) is more plausible than Harris’s simpler (2)?

And let’s address “the wisdom” of Sullivan’s (6), as he put it. Sorry, but I’m not convinced of the wisdom of holding two unequal ideas at a level playing field. On the one hand you have faith, which asserts that there is a god of some form or another, and which provides zero empirical evidence to back up its claim. On the other hand you have reason, which asserts that because there is a lack of evidence in faith’s claim, there is no reason to assume that a god could exist at all. Atheists don’t claim to not believe in god's existence, atheists claim to be convinced god doesn’t exist. There is a fundamental difference -- the burden of proof is on the theists to prove that their god exists. Atheists are convinced of god’s nonexistence for the same reasons that most people are convinced of the tooth fairy’s nonexistence.

Sullivan goes on to clarify why he speaks of “god’s love”:
For me, the radical truth of my faith is therefore not that God exists, but that God is love (a far, far less likely proposition).
Ok… so Harris asks Sullivan to answer with which doctrine he thinks is the most plausible, and Sullivan answers with one he made up himself, and one that he himself has stated is “a far, far less likely proposition”? I guess I’m having a hard time following the logic here because there is none. Sullivan continues:
But I believe it to be true - not as a fable or as a comfort or as a culture. As truth.


…Jesus lived[] a life full of love and friendship and self-giving, even to the point of non-violent submission to violence, as proof of God's love. I do not need the proof of miracles to believe this.

Sullivan has just stated that he believes god is love because he believes it to be true. So far, he hasn’t given any reason to hold onto faith here -- in fact, Sullivan even says that miracles are unnecessary for him to continue to believe this! So what, then, is Sullivan’s standard of proof? It seems as though anything could convince him. So what does Sullivan have to say about miracles, anyway?

The universe itself is a miracle to me. If there are aspects of it that science has not yet grasped but that believers have somehow glimpsed, then I am content to allow for the possibility of miracles. But I have not witnessed any but the normal ones: the miracle of the blossoms out of my widow at this time of year or the miracle that someone else actually loves me unconditionally, or the miracle of a newborn child. This is miracle enough for me.

Under this definition, almost anything would be a miracle to Sullivan -- even things that can be explained by modern science, like “the miracle of the blossoms out of my widow at this time of year”! To understand just how meaningless Sullivan’s definition of miracle is, consider the definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
1 : an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
2 : an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

Sullivan also uses his completely meaningless definition to describe the universe itself as “a miracle.” Does this mean that Sullivan implicitly thinks the universe is meaningless? Probably not, but I couldn’t help but point out that Sullivan has applied a meaningless definition to describe something which he thinks holds meaning.

All that and I haven’t even gotten to the specific issues that Harris outlined for Sullivan to ponder! Sullivan does get to those, but doesn’t answer them all. Gee, I wonder why?

Sullivan completely evaded Harris’s pointed critique of his distinction between fundamentalism and moderation. Sullivan never once addressed his distinction between fundamentalism and moderation in terms of truth or falsity, as Harris had challenged him to do so. Sullivan answers the challenge by saying he’s already answered it -- once again confirming my suspicion that Sullivan doesn’t want to consider some questions because of where they might lead him.

Sullivan then addresses Harris’s challenge on the inadequacies of the Bible by stating that he doesn’t “believe in its inerrancy or its literal truth” but does “believe in the deepest truths of the Gospels, and the truth of the life and death of the man they describe.” This begs the question, what reason does Sullivan have to believe in only certain parts of the Bible? Considering that Sullivan is Catholic and that the pope has stated that the Bible is inerrant, how has Sullivan reasoned his intermediate position?

Another challenged posed by Harris is completely ignored, and this time it’s not even mentioned in Sullivan’s text. On the question of Sullivan’s claim that god is “definitionally” the creator of the universe, Sullivan says nothing. Sullivan must know the fault of his claim -- he's assuming god’s existence to claim god’s existence -- hence why he did not address the challenge. The question I have for Sullivan is this: for what reason do you have to believe that god is the creator of the universe by definition?

On Harris’s destruction of Sullivan’s argument that the success of the Christian religion is proof of its truth, Sullivan had this to say:
I agree that such success doesn't actually prove anything about a faith. But it is a sign that a truth has endured the test of time…

Sullivan just snuck one in there -- he agrees that his argument is bogus, and then without skipping a beat makes the same exact argument. How is Christianity’s success “a sign that a truth has endured the test of time” if the cultural success of Christianity doesn’t prove anything? Hasn’t Sullivan already conceded that cultural success doesn’t prove truth? Sullivan has just shown that he is assuming the “truth” of Christianity and that he is not open to the questioning of that “truth.”

The end of Sullivan’s email suggests that this exchange is coming to a close -- oh how I hope that that isn’t so! I really would like to see a point-by-point rebuttal from Harris. Sullivan’s email is just begging for it.

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