Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pay Dirt: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

"Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."
- Albert Einstein

Have a listen to this recent CBC Radio Tapestry program with Dr. Francis Collins who lives in both the scientific and the religious worlds. He’s a leading geneticist; in fact, he was the head of the Human Genome Project. The project mapped the code of DNA — which Collins called the "first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God." He is also a believer: not just in God — but in a God who hears prayers, who cares about souls — and who wants nothing more than a relationship with each one of us. Mary Hynes talks with Francis Collins about his journey from atheism to belief. Dr. Francis Collins' book is called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It's published by Free Press.

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:

Dear Andrew-

Many thanks for your latest essay. I must say, if we were at a dinner party, this is where I might be tempted to admit that rational dialogue can take us only so far (So, how are things over at The Atlantic?...). But we are not at a dinner party, and I think you and I have a responsibility to see whether a conversation of this sort can ever terminate in a proper meeting of minds.
I am, of course, unconvinced by your response. But this can hardly disappoint you, as it was not intended to convince me. You simply wrote to inform me that you have never doubted God’s existence, cannot account for how you came to believe in Him, and are well aware that these facts will not (and should not) persuade me of the legitimacy of your religious beliefs. 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. This is the very soul of dogmatism. But to call it such in this context will seem callous, as you have emphasized how your faith has survived—and perhaps helped you to survive—many harrowing experiences. Such testimonials about the strength and utility of faith mark off territory that most atheists have learned never to trespass. This reminds me of the wonderful quotation from Mencken: “We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” The truth is, no one wants to be in the business of arguing that another person’s principal sources of comfort and gratification are not as he thinks them to be. But we are now in this up to our eyebrows, so permit me to just blurt out what I’m thinking and to tell you why I believe that your nonjustification-justification of faith should not satisfy you (or anyone else).
While you claim to have integrated doubt into your faith, you say that you have never (never) doubted the existence of God. This seems rather like my saying, “I am an extremely loving person. I just don’t happen to love my parents or my children. Never have. Probably never will.” There are surely instances where the caveats to an assertion loom too large to ignore.
As stated, your notion of God doesn’t have much in the way of specific content (apart from love). Beyond that, you have sought refuge in a towering mystery—and have boosted yourself there with the claim that any Being sublime enough to have created our universe must be so far beyond our ken as to perpetually elude our powers of description. This last assertion seems plausible, as far as it goes. But, of course, it isn’t an argument for the existence of God, much less a good one. In any case, your vaporous conception of a deity allows you to say that your religious beliefs do not conflict with those of others. God as a loving cipher allows for multiple, and even contradictory, doctrines to achieve parity. Faith in the absence of specifics makes a man humble.
All this, frankly, seems a little evasive. Given your attachment to Christianity and your admiration for the pope (who, as you know, makes far more restrictive—and, therefore, arrogant—claims about God), I suspect there is a raft of religious propositions that you actually do accept as true—though perhaps you are less certain of them than you are of God. I refer now to the specific beliefs that would make you a Christian and a Catholic, as opposed to a generic theist. Do you believe in the resurrection and the virgin birth? Is the divinity of the historical Jesus a fact that is "truer than any proof...any substance...any object"? If these are not the sort of things a person can just know without any justification, why can’t they be known in this way? If a man like James Dobson is wrong to be certain, without justification, that Jesus will one day return to earth, why is your assertion about the existence of a loving God any different? What would you say to a person who once doubted the story of Noah, but whose doubt “suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted”? Is such a change of mood sufficient to establish the flood myth as an historical fact?
Perhaps I’m missing something, but your claim about God really does not appear limited to your own experience. You are not saying—“Sam, I just don’t know how I can convince you of this, but when I close my eyes and think of Jesus, I experience a feeling of utter peace. I’m calling this feeling ‘God,’ and I suspect that if more people felt this way, our world would be radically transformed.” An assertion of this sort would give me no trouble at all. But you are saying quite a bit more than that. You are claiming to know that God exists out there. As such, you are making tacit claims about physics and cosmology and about the history of the world. What is more, these are claims that you have just pronounced unjustified, unjustifiable, and yet impervious to your own powers of doubt.

You also appear to see some strange, epistemological significance in the fact that you cannot remember when or how you acquired your faith. Surely the roots of many of your beliefs are similarly obscure. I don’t happen to remember when or how I came to believe that Pluto is a planet. Should I say that this belief “chose me”? What if, upon hearing that astronomers have changed their opinion about Pluto, I announced that “I have no ability to stop believing…. I know of no ‘proof’ that could dissuade me of [Pluto’s planethood], since no ‘proof’ ever persuaded me of it.” I’m sure you will balk at this analogy, but I’m guessing that your parents told you about God from the moment you appeared in this world. This is generally how people are put in a position to say things like faith “chose me.” The English language chose both of us. That doesn’t mean that we cannot reflect critically on it or recognize that the fact that we both speak it (we might say it is the “air we breathe”) is an utterly non-mysterious consequence of our upbringings. Indeed, you do admit the role that such contingency plays in matters of faith. As you say, if you had been raised Buddhist, you’d almost certainly be a Buddhist. But you refrain from drawing any important conclusions from this. If you had been raised by atheists, might you even be an atheist?

I also hope you appreciate the irony of your viewing your sexual orientation as a gift from God. I’m very happy, of course, that you don’t consider your homosexuality to be a curse or a product of Adam’s fall. But the idea that homosexuality is sinful or otherwise pathological has more than a little to do with the history of religion. Is there any force on this earth that has done more to shame and terrorize homosexuals (or heterosexuals for that matter) than your own church? I’m not suggesting that the revulsion that some heterosexuals feel for homosexuals can be entirely explained in terms of religious doctrine (but it can be largely explained in such terms; and this hatred has, at a minimum, been enshrined and made durable by religious institutions). So I find it peculiar that you consider your successful ordeal of living as a homosexual in a homophobic faith to be evidence in support of the religious project. It’s like hearing a man who has been unfairly confined to a straight-jacket all his life say that he is grateful to have been taught such “economy of motion.” This is not to make light of the very obvious and important fact that we can all grow through adversity. Many people can honestly say things like, “cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.” So, I do not doubt for a moment that your struggle with the sexual taboos of Christianity has made you a better person. But your experience does not transform a two-thousand-year pandemic of needless and crushing sexual neurosis in the name of Christ into some kind of spiritual sacrament. Generally speaking, the Church has promulgated views about human sexuality that are unconscionably stupid and utterly lacking in empathy. Full stop. The fact that you have navigated this labyrinth of sacred prejudice and kept your sanity is no point in favor of religion. The glory is very much your own.

Finally, let me make it clear that I do not consider religious moderates to be “mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance.” They are worse. My biggest criticism of religious moderation—and of your last essay—is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. As I wrote in The End of Faith, whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. It makes no sense at all to have one’s spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient events, however miraculous. What if, tomorrow, a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists and biblical scholars demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Gospels were ancient forgeries and that Jesus never existed? Would this steal the ground out from under your spiritual life? It would be a shame if it would. And if it wouldn’t, in what sense is your spirituality really predicated upon the historical Jesus?

I’m asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as “Japanese” as opposed to “French” science; we don’t speak of “Hindu biology” and “Jewish chemistry.” Imagine a world that has transcended its tribalism—racism and nationalism, yes, but religious tribalism especially—in which we could have a truly open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our experience of love and compassion for one another. Ethics and spirituality do not require faith. One can even achieve utter mystical absorption in the primordial mystery of the present moment without believing anything on insufficient evidence.

You might want to say that every religion offers a guide to doing this. Yes, but they are provisional guides at best. Rather than pick over the carcass of Christianity (or any other traditional faith) looking for a few, uncontaminated morsels of wisdom, why not take a proper seat at the banquet of human understanding in the present? There are already many very refined courses on offer. For those interested in the origins of the universe, there is the real science of cosmology. For those who want to know about the evolution of life on this planet, biology, chemistry and their subspecialties offer real nourishment. (Knowledge in most scientific domains is now doubling about every five years. How fast is it growing in religion?) And if ethics and spirituality are what concern you, there are now scientists making serious efforts to understand these features of our experience—both by studying the brain function of advanced contemplatives and by practicing meditation and other (non-faith-based) spiritual disciplines themselves. Even when it comes to compassion and self-transcendence, there is new wine (slowly) being poured. Why not catch it with a clean glass?

All the best,


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:
Dear Sam,

Thanks for waiting for this belated response. As a form of apology, and since some readers have said I've ducked some of your specific questions in the past, perhaps I should answer your last question first. It may move things forward a little. You wrote:

"What would constitute "proof" for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken? (i.e., what would get you to fundamentally doubt the validity of faith in general and of Christianity in particular?)"

It's a good question. It prompts me to say something I've been reluctant to talk about for reasons best expressed by Wittgenstein. But here goes anyway.

I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God's existence - of a force beyond everything and the source of everything - goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall "finding" this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith - at this level - as you are at my attachment to it. When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. 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.

I simply grew up from my earliest childhood in complete acceptance of this reality. I have had two serious crises of faith - but neither came close to a loss of faith in God's existence. The first crisis was the worst. Almost fourteen years ago, it occurred to me not that God didn't exist - that never occurred to me - but that God might be evil. I wrote about this experience - I remember precisely where and when it happened - in my spiritual memoir/essay, "Love Undetectable." I will not reiterate it here. The "proof" I contemplated for thinking God was evil was the cliched conundrum of human suffering. It was a particularly grim moment in the plague years, when the suffering of good people I loved a lot began to get to my faith. Yes, I know this paradox might (and should) have occurred to me earlier in life. But it's also human to avoid these things most fully until those closest to you are struck down. So there I was, having my Job moment.

What proof, what argument, what evidence persuaded me that God was actually not evil but good? Nothing that will or should persuade you. The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that "none of this cares for us," to use Larkin's simple phrase: this sense pervaded me for a few minutes and then somehow, suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted. I can no more explain that - or provide a convincing argument that it was anything more than your own moment of calm in Galilee. But I can say that it represented for me a revelation of God's love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.
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.

But I am a contingent human being in a contingent time and place and I heard Jesus. Do I believe that other religious traditions, even those that posit doctrines logically contrary to the doctrines of Jesus, have no access to divine truth? I don't. If God exists, then God will be larger and greater than our human categories or interpretations. I feel sure that all the great religions - and many minor ones - have been groping toward the same God. I don't need to tell you of the profound similarities in ethical and spiritual teaching among various faiths, as well as their differences. I believe what I specifically believe - but since the mystery of the divine is so much greater than our human understanding, I am not in the business of claiming exclusive truth, let alone condemning those with different views of the divine as heretics or infidels. We are all restless for the same God, for the intelligence and force greater than all of us, for that realm of being that the human mind senses but cannot achieve, longs for but cannot capture. But I've learned in that search that integral and indispensable to it is humility. And such humility requires relinquishing the impulse to force faith on others, to condemn those with different faiths, or to condescend to those who have sincerely concluded that there is no God at all. And when I read the Gospels recounting the sayings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth, I see a man so committed to that humility he was prepared to die under its weight.

I should add that this unchosen belief in God's existence - the "gift" of faith - does not prompt me to lose all doubt in my faith, or to abandon questioning. I have wrestled with all sorts of questions about any number of doctrines that the hierarchy of the church has insisted upon. As a gay man, I have been forced to do this perhaps more urgently than many others - which is one reason I regard my sexual orientation as a divine gift rather than as a "disorder". For me, faith is a journey that begins with the gift of divine revelation but never rests thereafter. It is nourished by a faith community we call the church, and is sustained by the sacraments, prayer, doubt and the love of friends and family. It is informed by reason, but it cannot end in reason.
I understand that this form of faith would provoke Nietzsche's contempt and James Dobson's scorn. But there is a wide expanse between nihilism and fundamentalism. I fear your legitimate concerns (which I share) about the dangers of religious certainty in politics have blinded you to the fertility of this expanse. And I think you're wrong that we religious moderates are mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance. I think, rather, we have an important role in talking with atheists about faith and talking with fundamentalists about the political dangers of religious fanaticism, and the pride that can turn faith into absolutism.

In fact, people of faith who are not fundamentalists may be the most important allies you've got. Why don't you want us to help out?


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:

Dear Andrew,

Many thanks for your last essay. Before I address your central argument, I'd like to point out that you continue to misunderstand me in small ways that make me seem (even) more boorish than I am. I did not, for instance, claim that you could not possibly offer an adequate response to my arguments, only that repeatedly calling me "intolerant" would not constitute such a response. Indeed, if I thought there were nothing you could say to convince me of the legitimacy of your point of view, I could scarcely be having this debate in good faith. I remain open to evidence and argument on this and all other fronts. In fact, I could easily imagine a scenario that would persuade me of the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the utter sanctity of the blessed Virgin. Granted, this communication would have to be of the crass "signs and wonders" variety, for I am a very doubting Thomas, but there is no question that my mind could be fundamentally changed, even in this email exchange. If, for instance, your "Imaginary Friend" gave you some highly specific information that you could not have obtained by any other means, I would take this as powerful evidence in favor of your point of view. To increase my vulnerability to this line of attack, I have just written a 30-digit number on a scrap of paper and hidden it in my office. If God tells you (or any of our readers) what this number is, I will be appropriately astounded and will publicize the results of this experiment to the limit of my abilities. It is, of course, true that your success would be open to a variety of interpretations-perhaps such a miracle says nothing about the existence of God but demonstrates that clairvoyance is an actual power of the human mind and that you possess it in spades. Or perhaps it proves that Satan exists, and he is similarly endowed. Of course, we should expect some skeptical readers to accuse us both of fraud. Let us cross these bridges if we ever come to them. The point, of course, is that if God exists, it would be trivially easy for Him to blow my mind. (Hint to the Creator: I'm thinking of an even number, and it's not 927459757074561008328610835528).

This brings me to a point upon which atheists like myself are always harping: most people consent to have their minds blown on far lesser terms, with far more ambiguous stimuli, and keep reason in chains while the "will to believe" triumphs in a very unfair fight. Atheists like myself are generally asked to contemplate "miracles" of the following sort: some fellow was a big drinker (like our president), prayed to Jesus, and now lives a life of blissful sobriety. It is left to professional skeptics to wonder how an intelligent person can believe that mere recovery from alcoholism confirms the doctrine of Christianity. Hindus get sober, and atheists do as well. These facts alone nullify any religious interpretation of the data.
Testimony on the basis of "spiritual" experience tends to be equally ambiguous. Here is something I recently wrote for the Newsweek/Washington Post blog "On Faith" I quote it here, because I think it bears on this question of what counts as evidence for specific religious ideas:

I recently spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered in the noonday sun, taking photographs.
As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self-an "I" or a "me"-vanished. Everything was as it had been-the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water-but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

The experience lasted just a few moments, but returned many times as I gazed out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly interpret this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God, or felt the descent of the Holy Spirit. But I am not a Christian. If I were a Hindu, I might talk about "Brahman," the eternal Self, of which all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. But I am not a Hindu. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the "dharmakaya of emptiness" in which all apparent things manifest. But I am not a Buddhist.

As someone who is simply making his best effort to be a rational human being, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. The truth is, I experience what I would call the "selflessness of consciousness" rather often, wherever I happen to meditate-be it in a Buddhist monastery, a Hindu temple, or while having my teeth cleaned. Consequently, the fact that I also had this experience at a Christian holy site does not lend an ounce of credibility to the doctrine of Christianity.

You are, of course, right to say that there are many different contexts in which a statement about the world can be deemed "true" (or likely to be true) and not all of these are empirical or scientific, narrowly defined. Some are even fictional. It is, for instance, true to say that "Hamlet was the prince of Denmark." But admitting the role of context does not render all truth-claims equally legitimate. As you point out, history is not an exact science, but it isn't exactly in conflict with science either. Permit me to quote from another of my essays, as it addresses precisely this point:

It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: Either people have good reasons for what they believe, or they do not. When they have good reasons, their beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world. We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" sciences here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines, like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks credibility. Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely on "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque-that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.

Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to Heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower.

So, while I admit that there are many different contexts in which our beliefs may be justified, and many different modes of justification, there is still an important difference between justified and unjustified belief. My previous remarks-about not knowing what happens after death, about the gaps in science, about the potential validity of contemplative experience, etc.-do nothing to change this picture. And it is the manifest failure of most religious people to observe the distinction between justified and unjustified belief (generally calling their non-observance "faith") that leaves me convinced that they are generally misled in their search for truth.

It is the willingness of scientists to say "I don't know"-to really integrate doubt into their view of the world-that constitutes their privileged position with respect to truth. As you know, there are an uncountable number of questions upon which religion once offered a faith-based answer, which have now been ceded to the care of science. Indeed, the process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture is relentless, unidirectional, and highly predictable. Some smart person begins to doubt received opinion-about the causes of illness, the movement of celestial bodies, the nature of sensory perception, etc.-he or she then observes the world more closely (often making shrewd use of technology and/or mathematics) and makes predictions that can be verified by others. What we see, time and again, is a general unwillingness for religious people to seriously interact with this discourse (and even an eagerness to subjugate or murder its perpetrators) whenever it challenges doctrines to which they are emotionally attached. Eventually, however, the power that comes with actually understanding the world becomes too seductive to ignore, and even the clerics give in. In this way, real knowledge, being truly universal, erodes the basis for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their holy books might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religion (or it should), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science (and rational discourse generally) delivers this understanding and offers a very frank appraisal of its current limitations; Religion fails on both counts.

I also disagree that religious faith can be as well-behaved as you suggest. You claim that religious beliefs are "freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus." What does it mean to say that a belief is "freely chosen"? If our beliefs purport to represent any state of the world (physical, historical, contemplative, or even fictional), we do not "choose" them. They tend to be forced upon us by compelling chains of evidence and argument. Did you freely choose to believe that Jesus was crucified rather than guillotined? I doubt it. The biblical account just happens to specify crucifixion, and you find this account compelling. (I presume it is also relevant that Jesus predates the guillotine by over a thousand years.) The point, of course, is that you are not free to believe whatever you want. And people who would avail themselves of such freedom are demonstrably crazy. Consensus really is the gold-standard here, as elsewhere. Consensus, of course, admits of exceptions. It is possible for a solitary genius to have the truth in hand before anyone else realizes it. Eventually, however, others will authenticate his/her results. This is also true of contemplative or classically "mystical" results. Yes, subjective experience is private to a significant degree, but it isn't merely so. Language allows us to form a consensus about what is reasonable to believe even about one's private experiences.

Not lying to oneself and others takes discipline. It is, of course, hard to know how much progress one has made down the path of honesty, but it is not difficult to spot the pratfalls of others. Here, I do not merely refer to twenty-megaton displays of religious mendacity of the Ted Haggard variety. I mean the daily and ubiquitous failure of most religious people to admit that the basic claims of the their faith are profoundly suspect. How likely is it that Jesus was really born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and will bodily return to earth to judge us all? How reasonable is it to believe in such a concatenation of miracles on the basis of the Gospel account? How much support do these doctrines receive from the average Christian's experience in church? It seems to me that honest answers to these questions should raise a tsunami of doubt. I'm not sure what will be "Christian" about any Christians left standing.

It seems profoundly unimaginative-and, frankly, dangerous-to think that we cannot possibly overcome the religious divisions in our world. What is the alternative? Do you really think that the 23rd century will dawn, with unimaginably powerful technology having spread to every corner of the earth, and our thinking will still be governed by sectarian religious certainties? Muslims eager for jihad? Rapture-ready Christians holding political power?

Let me close by asking you a simple question: What would constitute "proof" for you that your current beliefs about God are mistaken? (i.e., what would get you to fundamentally doubt the validity of faith in general and of Christianity in particular?) I suspect the answer to this question will say a lot about why you believe what you believe.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:

Dear Sam,

Thank you very much for your latest post. It was clarifying for me - and forced me to think hard about how to respond. I even communicated with my Imaginary Friend about it. You raise a blizzard of points, but there is one above all that needs to be addressed, because it cuts to the chase, and shows, I think, that we are closer than might appear.

Your fundamental point is the following, it seems to me. I can say that the revelation I have embraced is true, but because it cannot be proven by the robust standards of scientific empiricism, I cannot prove it to be true to your satisfaction. If I cannot prove it to be true, in empirical fashion, then my faith must be excluded from rational discourse. In fact, if I understand you right, it must not only be excluded, it must be stigmatized. It must be ridiculed. It must end. Even if religion were to mean that everyone loved one another for ever (which, I readily concede, it obviously doesn't), that still would not be relevent for judging its truth. And the truth of a religious claim is the most fundamental thing about it. If I cannot prove this, I should shut up. As you rightly say, with self-fulfilling precision:

"You can call me 'intolerant' all you want, but that won't make unreasonable claims to knowledge sound any more reasonable; it won't differentiate your claims to religious knowledge from the claims of others which you consider illegitimate; and it won't constitute an adequate response to anything I have written or am likely to write."

I agree with all of that, except the last phrase. I believe I can offer an adequate response. It may not be adequate to you; but it is adequate to me, and to many, many others - in fact, to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived. 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. What I found insightful about your book was your openness to this possibility. You repeat that openness in your recent posting:

"While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us."

So you allow for a space where the logic of science and of materialism does not lead us toward truth, but may even mislead us about it, and lead us away from it. This is a big concession, and it undermines the certainty of your entire case. Such an argument must rest on a notion of ultimate truth that is deeper than science, beyond science. It must rest on a notion that allows for the rational legitimacy of my faith.

It might even include an appreciation of other modes of rational discourse that are not empirical in origin or form. Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true - and could never be proven true - by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian - and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.

My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode. The reason why you are not like some other, glibber atheists is that you recognize this. I might say that God has already been in touch with you on the matter.

But that is not the sum of your argument. You argue further that even if you concede the possibility of a legitimate form of religious truth-seeking, 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?

I agree that this is a central problem for religion in the world. It has always been so. it will always be so. This is not a new problem. It is arguably the oldest human debate. Whether one reads Pascal or Spinoza, Locke or Montaigne, Hobbes or Leo Strauss, the religious question always prompts a political question. I think the problem is eased - if never fully solved - by a critical move that I unpack in my book, "The Conservative Soul." That move is rooted in skepticism. Hobbes put it best, as he often did:

"For the nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is; and therefore the attributes we give him, are not to tell one another, what he is, nor to signify our opinion of his nature, but our desire to honor him with such names as we conceive most honourable amongst ourselves."

In my book, excerpted in Time Magazine here, I put it this way:

If God really is God, then God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding. Not entirely. 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. There will always be something that eludes us. If there weren't, it would not be God.

I don't think you're far away from this. That's why you've gone on retreats, explored Buddhism, experimented with psilcybin, as I have. You see: we are closer than you might think. But you differ with me on how this translates into life. You ask legitimately: how can I, convinced of this truth, resist imposing it on others? 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. That's why I am such a dogged defender of pluralism and secularism - because I believe secularism alone does justice to the profundity of the claims of religion. The attempt to force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my faith defeats the point of my faith - which is that it is both freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus.

And that brings me to the asymmetry of our positions. We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate, ludicrous, a form of lying, and irrational. Yes, you are being intolerant. More, actually. The entire point of your book is intolerance. Where I respect your position, you refuse to respect mine.

Or maybe, now that I've unpacked it, you respect my position a little more. Let me know,

God bless,

Sunday, February 11, 2007

How the Bible Became a Book...

In my December 16 posting "Bible Exploration", I committed to delving into the Bible a bit more to provide a further explanation of my current thinking about the Bible. Along with my "Fundamentals Framework", I think having a clear set of thoughts on the Bible is critical for me to be able to explain my current Christian thinking (especially to those who are still in more of a 'fundamentalist' mode of thinking). Some of my friends wonder why I even care (given our new thoughts on matters religious), but for me, I have decided that a spiritual dimension to my life is something I want to maintain. And for me, the framework within which I plan to address spirituality is Christianity (see Transformation: What It's All About for more on this) - not in a fundamentalist way, but with more of the emerging view of Christianity that is starting to be more prevalent. As a result, given the Bible's importance to the Christian tradition, I feel it is important for me to have a clear point of view on what to do with it.
I have decided that I just don't have the time to do this first blog on the Bible justice so I'm going to just throw together some points and hopefully they will have some sense of congruency.
(Note that many of the points below are from Bart Ehrman's book "Misquoting Jesus" so credit to him ahead of time - I'm not going to try to quote or reference all the direct quotes from his book...just trust me, there are many. And an up front warning - this is a long post!)

I grew up believing that the Bible was the inerrant, literal, divine words of God. As in "everything is accurate", "no errors", "if it says it in the Bible, it must be right", etc. It is interesting then to consider things like:
  • The mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds on the earth even if Jesus said it was;
  • Mark says Jesus was crucified the day AFTER the Passover meal was eaten while John says he died the day BEFORE it was eaten.
  • Luke says Joseph and Mary returned to Nazereth just a month after they had come to Bethlehem, whereas Matthew says they fled to Egypt.
  • Paul says that after his conversion, he did NOT go to Jerusalem, whereas Acts says that was the first thing he did.

These are just a few examples of "differences" within the Bible text. Now I'm not suggesting that any of the above differences are significant to the overall message of the Bible, but it is impossible to claim that these types of differences don't exist (i.e. the inerrant idea falls apart).

Combine this realization with the fact that we don't have the original texts to determine the exact original wording...oh wait, we don't even have the first copies of the originals...oh wait, we don't even have copies of the copies of the originals...oh wait, we don't have copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. Most of the earliest texts we have were made centuries later than the originals. Take Galatians as an example. The first reasonably complete copy we have dates to about 200 C.E. - some 150 years AFTER Paul wrote the letter. Given the fact that it had been copied for 15 decades to get to that point (more on that later), how accurate was it at that point?

With that as context, it is easy (at least it was for me... surprisingly!) to realize the the Bible is a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied (and changed) the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts. The Bible was written by different authors at different times, in different places to address different needs. Many, no doubt, felt "inspired" by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, theologies, etc.

With that, you quickly come to the realization that the Bible doesn't give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age - abortion, women's rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, etc. You realize that we need to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own...without setting up the Bible as a false idol - or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty.

Let's step back for a second. Let's go back to Judaism. It was unique among the religions of the Roman Empire in that its religious "instructions" were written down in sacred books. It stressed ancestral traditions, customs and laws, and maintained that these had been recorded in sacred books, which had the status of "scripture" for the Jewish people.

Similarly, Christianity was also a "bookish" religion. This importance of written texts, however, does not mean that all Christians could read books...quite the contrary, most early Christians, like most people throughout the empire (including Jews), were illiterate. The texts (many of which were in letter form) were very important to the communities though...they were meant to be read aloud to the community at community gatherings. But most Christians couldn't read them themselves. Interesting isn't it?

Note that the texts weren't one big book...just many individual writings. At what point did the Christian canon of scripture get formed then? In the mid-second century, a philospher-teacher named Marcion (later declared a heretic) was the first Christian that we know of who produced an actual "canon" of scripture - that is, a collection of books that, he argued, constituted the sacred texts of the faith. It is interesting to note that Marcion was completely absorbed by the life and teachings of the apostle Paul, whom he considered to be the one "true" apostle from the early days of the church.

Some 30 years later, the bishop of Lyon in Gaul (modern France), Irenaeus, opposed Marcion and wrote a five volume work against heretics such as Marcion and the Gnostics. He claimed that Marcion and other "heretics" had mistakenly assumed that only one or another of the gospels was to be accepted as scripture (e.g. Marcion had suggested Luke). He claimed, in summary, that because there are four corners of the earth, four winds and four pillars, that there are four gospels. So, near the end of the second century, there were Christians insisting that there were four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) - no more and no less.

Debates on the Christian canon continued for centuries...long, harsh and drawn out debates about which texts were authoritative. The first time we can find a list of the 27 books of our New Testament was in the second half of the fourth century. The powerful bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius (in 367 C.E.) wrote his annual letter to the Egyptian churches and in it, included advice concerning which books should be considered scripture, and excluded all others.

So how did the communities get those books? How were they put into circulation? There was no desktop publishing back then remember! No, the books had to be copied by hand. The copyists, by the way, in the early centuries weren't trained to do this kind of work, but were simply the literate members of the congregation who were able and willing. As a result, the multiple copies of the texts that were produced were not all alike - since the scribes inevitably made alterations (e.g. changing the words by accident or by design). So anyone reading the books in early Christian centuries wasn't completely sure that he was reading what the original author had written.

On top of the copying challenge in general, ancient Greek texts (including all the earliest Christian writings) had no marks of punctuation, no distinction between upper/lowercase letters, and no spaces used to separate words (scriptuo continua). Obviously, this made it difficult to copy and read. "Godisnowhere" could be different things depending if you were an athiest or a theist (work at'll get it). Similarly, how about lastnightatdinnerisawabundanceonthetable ...normal or supernatural event?

To illustrate the challenges this caused, the third century church father Origen, once said "The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please."

This explains why authors would sometimes call curses down on any copyist who modified their texts without permission. With this context, re-consider the often quoted Revelation text "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book; and if anyone removes any of the words of the book of this prophecy, God will remove his share from the tree of life and from the holy city, as described in this book." So this might not be a threat to believe everything in the book (as is often the claim associated with this text in many sermons!), but instead a threat to copyists of the book.

So even if you believe that Biblical texts are the very words of God, the challenge would be to determine what portions of the texts go back to the original authors. Here are 2 examples of texts which many biblical scholars don't think go back to the original authors:

  • The story of Jesus and the women taken in adultery (you know, where Jesus writes something in the ground and the accusers go running) appears in only one gospel (John 7-8). It is interesting to note that the story isn't found in our earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, its writing style is very different from the rest of John, and it includes a number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. Interesting...perhaps a later addition to the text based on oral traditions of the time? If so, should this text be considered part of the Bible?
  • And now the last 12 verses of Mark. Before these verses, the story of the women encountering a risen Jesus is told and ends with Jesus fleeing the tomb and saying nothing to anyone "for they were afraid". Then the last 12 verses where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene who tells the disciples, appearing to 2 others and finally to the 11 disciples. Jesus commissions them to go forth and proclaim his gospel. Very moving and powerful passage that is quoted often in many of today's fundamentalist churches. One problem..the passage wasn't in the original text (they are absent from the oldest and best manuscripts of Mark), the writing style varies from the rest of Mark, and the transition between the previous verses and the last 12 is hard to understand (in reference to Mary Magdalene), and there a number of words and phrases not found elsewhere in Mark. Without the last 12 verses though, the ending is a little abrupt. How could that be the ending? So scholars think that a scribe added an ending.

Let's get back to the canon itself. Near the end of the fourth century, Pope Damascus commissioned the greatest scholar of the day (Jerome) to produce an official Latin translation - which came to be known as the Vulgate. It became the Bible for the Western church that Christians read, scholars studied and theologians used for centuries.

In the early 1500s, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus produced and published an edition of the Greek New Testament. For the most part, in doing so, he relied on a mere handful of late medieval manuscripts, which he marked up as if he were copyediting a handwritten copy for the printer. In fact, he relied heavily on just one 12th century manuscript for the Gospels and another 12th century manuscript for Acts and the Epistles. For Revelation, he borrowed a manuscript from a friend, but it was impossible to read in places and had lost its last Erasmus used the Vulgate (remember the Latin version translated by Jerome) to cover that last bit of Revelation. Erasmus' work is important since his New Testament was the primary source for the King James Bible created a century later, and became the standard form of Greek Biblical text to be published by Western European printers for more than 300 years. Hmmm...all that based on texts that were not of the best quality and produced some 1100 years after the originals.

One interesting story about Erasmus' text. It apparently didn't contain the Trinity verse..."There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Spirit...". This caused some outrage but Erasmus claimed it wasn't in his source texts and unless a Greek text could be shown to him with that verse in it, he wouldn't add it. So the story goes that a Greek text was produced (literally PRODUCED for that very reason). So, true to his word, Erasmus added it to the next version of his New Testament.

In the mid-1500s, another scholar (over a 30 year effort) produced a New Testament based on hundreds of texts available to him. The result was over 30,000 variations from the New Testament that was otherwise accepted as being the authoritative version (i.e. essentially the text that Erasmus had produced). Since then, more than 5,700 manuscripts have been discovered and catalogued. With these manuscripts, along with thousands of copies of the Vulgate and other texts discovered, schollars say there are more than 200,000 and maybe up to 400,000 variants known today. In summary, there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

There have been so many attempts to point out the true original texts over the years, I won't even attempt to summarize. And there are many very interesting examples of texts from our accepted form of the Bible that scholars question in terms of their authenticity. While Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus is just one book on this topic, I found it an interesting read nonetheless. For more on this, I suggest picking up the book yourself.

Given that the Erasmus text (which really is a key source to our modern Bible) was based on poorer quality manuscripts than many we have today, it isn't surprising that many "Bible-believing Christians", when faced with these facts, choose to pretend there is no problem and that God inspired the King James...not the original Greek!

Now don't get me wrong. Even though I now see the human nature of the Biblical texts, I do not deny the wisdom and insight we can get from parts of the Bible. As I noted in my "Fundamentals Framework", I see the Bible as a sacred document for Christians. It is the foundation document for our faith with which we should be in "continuing conversation" and from which we can better understand the character and will of God (see Bible Beliefs for more). Having said that, while I do not deny the concept of inspiration (although I do not see it as direct inspriration of the specific words), I think the Bible's words and thoughts are ultimately human words, not God's.

And, given this view that the Bible is a human product, as Christians, our interaction with it should be both from a critical viewpoint (i.e. deciding and discerning what passages are relevant to our time, or discerning/interpreting meanings of texts) as well as from a more open viewpoint whereby we allow ourselves to learn from and be shaped by the wisdom in the Bible. As such, I believe, for Christians, the Bible is a core document within our religious tradition and we should seek the wisdom and meanings of its texts - not seeing them as God's literal, inerrant words, but as a document that captures the experiences of the ancient Israel community and the early Christian community and their responses to God and Jesus, which is important within the Christian religion.

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:


Our debate appears to be heating up. You have now convicted me of "intolerance" reminiscent of "the worst aspects of fundamentalism." As I indicated in my last essay, I am quite familiar with this line of attack and find it depressing. Nevertheless, your specific charge is rather amazing, and I am eager to respond to it.

But first, a little housekeeping:

1. You spend the first two paragraphs of your last essay taking offense at something I did not say, culminating with, "spare me the thought that you know it [fundamentalism] better than I do." I did, in fact, attempt to spare you that thought when I wrote:

First, many moderates assume that religious "extremism" is rare and therefore not all that consequential. Happily, you are not in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates. As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential.

Indeed, this was one of several places where I sought to communicate that I do not view you as a run-of-the-mill religious moderate. I was extending an olive branch, of sorts, and you have gone and poked yourself in the eye with it. What's a well-intentioned atheist to do?

2. Contrary to your allegation, I do not "disdain" religious moderates. I do, however, disdain bad ideas and bad arguments--which, I'm afraid, you have begun to manufacture in earnest. I'd like to point out that you have not rebutted any of the substantial challenges I made in my last post. Rather, you have gone on to make other points, most of which I find unsurprising and irrelevant to the case I have made against religious faith. 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 have no doubt that there are millions of nice Mormons who are likewise tolerant of dissent and perfectly cordial toward homosexuals. Does this, in your view, even slightly increase the probability that the Book of Mormon was delivered on golden plates to Joseph Smith Jr. (that very randy and unscrupulous dowser) by the angel Moroni? Do all the good Muslims in the world lend credence to the claim that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse? Do all the good pagans throughout history suggest that Mt. Olympus was ever teeming with invisible gods? As I have argued elsewhere, the alleged usefulness of religion--the fact that it sometimes gets people to do very good things indeed--is not an argument for its truth. And, needless to say, the usefulness of religion can be disputed, as I have done in both my books. 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. On the subject of doing good, I ask you, which is more moral, helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think God wants you to do it? Personally, I'd much prefer that my children acquire the former sensibility. On the subject of doing bad: there are, at this very moment, perfectly ordinary Shia and Sunni Muslims drilling holdes into each other's brains with power tools in the suburbs of Baghdad. What are the chances they would be doing this without the "benefit" of their incompatible religious identities?

3. You have also made the false charge that I think religious people are "fools" or "idiots." Needless to say, I do not think Blaise Pascal was an idiot (nor do I think you are, for that matter). But I do consider certain ideas idiotic, and idiotic ideas can occasionally be found rattling around the brains of extraordinarily intelligent people. One of the horrors of religious dogmatism is that it can produce a Pascal--a brilliant man who was irretrievably self-deceived on matters of profound importance. As I wrote in The End of Faith:

It is true that Pascal had what was for him an astonishing contemplative experience on the night of Nov. 23, 1654-one that converted him entirely to Jesus Christ. I do not doubt the power of such experiences, but it seems to me self-evident that they are no more the exclusive property of devout Christians than are tears shed in joy. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, along with animists of every description have had these experiences throughout history. Pascal, being highly intelligent and greatly learned, should have known this; that he did not (or chose to disregard it) testifies to the stultifying effect of orthodoxy.

I stand by this claim. There is no way around the fact that St. Paul, Pascal, the popes (any of them), and every other Christian worth the name have made a claim about the exclusive validity of Christianity. This claim is, at best, ludicrously provincial. The evidence adduced in support of Christian doctrine can be found in every other religion--saints performing miracles, resurrections from the dead, channeled books, psychic powers, devotional thrills, unconditional love, etc.--these claims are either equally compelling or equally bogus. Happily, for my purposes, "equally compelling" reduces to "equally bogus"--because these claims are mutually incompatible. If Christianity is right, all other religions are wrong. Christians are committed to the following (at least): Jesus was the messiah (so the Jews are wrong); he was divine and resurrected (so the Muslims are wrong-"Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger--they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them": Qur'an, 4:157); there is only one God (so the Hindus are wrong). But, of course, the Christians have no better reason to think they're right than the Jews, Muslims, or Hindus do.

4. Your brandishing of Vatican II is just silly, and only bolsters my argument. Are you saying that for about 1960 years Christians (including all the popes) were mistaken about the true doctrine of Christianity? Would you have our readers believe that Vatican II represents some kind of epistemological breakthrough? In reality, Vatican II was just damage control. The Catholic Church has been struggling to make the best of a bad situation ever since Galileo-who, as you know, was forced to his knees under threat of torture and obliged to recant his understanding of the earth's motion and then placed under house arrest until the end of his life. He wasn't absolved of heresy until 1992 (a few decades after Vatican II), at which point the Church ascribed his genius to God, "who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." (This might be an appropriate place to vomit.) In any case, I didn't have to quote Leo XIII for lack of modern material. I could have quoted John Paul II, post-Vatican II. Here he is in all his sagacity:

This Revelation is definitive; one can only accept it or reject it. One can accept it, professing belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, the Son, of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, who is Lord and the Giver of life. Or one can reject all of this.

No doubt, if I wanted to take the time, I could find even less ecumenical statements coming from the current pope. The bottom line is that this pope, and all his predecessors (and you, apparently) believe that the Bible is a magic book: that it was not authored by human beings, however brilliant, but by some supernatural force. This is a claim for which there is not a scintilla of evidence and about which there are many good reasons to be skeptical. The Bible is, as you suggest, an "unsatisfying scriptural mess." But it is worse than that. No, I have not argued that the book is principally "about owning slaves," just that it gets the ethics of slavery wrong. The truth is that even with Jesus holding forth in defense of the poor and the meek and the persecuted, the Bible basically condones slavery. As I argued in Letter to a Christian Nation, the slaveholders of the South were on the winning side of a theological argument. They knew it. And they made a hell of a lot of noise about it. We got rid of slavery despite the moral inadequacy of the Bible, not because it is the greatest treatise on morality ever written.

You and I both know that it would take us five minutes to produce a book that offers a more coherent and compassionate morality than the Bible does. Did I say five minutes? Five seconds--just tear out Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, and 2 Samuel from the Old Testament, and 2 Thessalonians and Revelation from the New Testament. The book would be mightily improved. Would it then be the most profound book we have on morality (or cosmology, biology, psychology, etc.)? Not by a long shot. But it would be a much better book than it is at present.

5. Contrary to your assertion, I have not made any claims about there being a "nothingness at the end of our mortal lives." The truth is, I don't know what happens after death. Is it dogmatic for me to doubt that you and the pope do? What reason have you given me to believe that you know that "something" happens after death, or that your something is more probable than the Muslim something, the Hindu something, or the Buddhist something? The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us. But this doesn't entitle religious people to imagine that all their crazy ideas about miraculous books, virgin births, and saviors ushering in the end of the world are remotely plausible.

6. I'd like to address some of the assertions you made in your first post. You wrote:
Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth… I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe - since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator. I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith - since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.

This is more than a little wooly and clearly question-begging. You are making the positive assertion that the universe had a Creator. Doing so, you are attempting to make a substantial contribution to the science of cosmology. When the real cosmologists come back from their next conference and say things like, "spacetime may be a closed manifold and, therefore, may have no beginning or end" this would be one of many possible descriptions of the universe which would close the door on a creation event and, therefore, on a Creator. There are many ways that science could conflict with the "truth" upon which your faith now rests.

Needless to say, your attempt to pull theism up by its bootstraps ("since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator") could be used to justify almost any metaphysical assertion. "The Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe" is also "definitionally" the Creator of the universe; this doesn't mean that he exists, or that the universe had a Creator at all. Many other chains of pious reasoning could be cashed-out in the same way: "Satan is the Tempter; I find that I am tempted on a hourly basis to eat ice cream and have sex with my neighbor's wife; ergo, Satan exists." Or what if I suggested that what we know about the brain renders the idea of a human soul rather implausible, and one your brethren countered: "The immortal soul governs all the activity in a person's brain; I have no fear about what neuroscience will tell me about the brain, because the soul is definitionally the brain's operator." Would this strike you as an argument for the existence of souls? Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, just as there are gaps in our understanding of the cosmos into which the faithful eagerly insert God, but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit. You can insert almost anything "definitionally" into those gaps. The Muslims have inserted Allah, and the Qur'an is His perfect word. The Hindus have inserted Gods of every color and flavor. Why don't these efforts persuade you?

Now let me briefly address your primary charge of "intolerance." The sentences that you appear to have found most troubling are these:

Anyone who thinks he knows for sure that Jesus was born of virgin or that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe is lying. Either he is lying to himself, or to everyone else. In neither case should such false certainties be celebrated.

What if I told you that I am certain that I have an even number of cells in my body? What are the chances that I am in a position to have actually counted my cells (there are on the order of 100 trillion) and counted them correctly? Would it be unfair (or worse, "intolerant") of you to dismiss my assertion as either a product of self-deception or outright dishonesty? Note that this claim has a 50% chance of being true (unlike claims about virgin births and resurrections), and yet it is patently ridiculous. Some claims to knowledge-even about facts that have a high order of probability--immediately brand their claimants as intellectually dishonest. Please forgive me for saying that it is extraordinarily obvious that neither you, nor the pope, nor any other Christian is in a position to know that Jesus was actually born of a virgin or that he will one day return to earth wielding magic powers.

As far as the Qur'an being the perfect word of the Creator of the universe, the Qur'an itself makes it especially easy to dismiss this idea. The book claims to be so perfect, it could not have possibly be written by a human being, (10:37), and readers are challenged to just try to write a surah equal to any in the text (2:23). Anyone who has actually read the Qur'an (and any other work of significant literature) would agree that this would be remarkably easy to do. The Qur'an declares that if it was not the perfect word of Allah, its critics would find some mistakes in it (4:82). Its critics have found mistakes in it. What's a reasonable person to conclude?

It is not my intention to go on at tiresome length, but your last post has opened so many doors to the winds of unreason that I can't resist running from room to room trying to settle things down. You seem to have taken particular offense at my imputing self-deception and/or dishonesty to the faithful. I make no apologies for this. One of the greatest problems with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn't actually know this. The truth is that, while Mommy may be rigorously honest on any other subject, in this instance she doesn't want to distinguish between what she really knows (i.e. what she has good reasons to believe) and 1) what she wants to be true, or 2) what will keep her children from grieving too much in Granny's absence. She is lying--either to herself or to her children--but we've all agreed not to talk about it. Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves.

You can call me "intolerant" all you want, but that won't make unreasonable claims to knowledge sound any more reasonable; it won't differentiate your claims to religious knowledge from the claims of others which you consider illegitimate; and it won't constitute an adequate response to anything I have written or am likely to write.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:


You raise so many points that I hope you'll forgive me for focusing for a moment on just a couple. I want to address the main point of your latest post: your disdain for religious "moderates" (including, I assume, me). You say first of all that religious 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." We allegedly under-estimate the real power of religious fundamentalism.

I plead emphatically "not guilty". In many ways, we religious "moderates", because we are embedded in communities, churches, mosques and synagogues that may be prey to fundamentalist rigidity, know this phenomenon much better than you, an atheist outsider, ever could. We have read the scriptures not searching for gotchas, but for truth. Some of us have battled the fundamentalist version of this truth for much of our lives. Some of us have come out of fundamentalism ourselves. In my book, I describe my own fundamentalist periods in the past. As a gay Catholic, I know what the cold draft of fundamentalism is like; I've felt its dogmatism and dismissal and denial close at hand. So spare me the thought that you know it better than I do.

I'm also aware that it might not be as simple as you claim it is.

I have met fundamentalists whose convictions are extreme but whose spiritual humility nonetheless leads them to great tolerance for dissent and doubt among others and great compassion for the needy. I have met those who are utterly uncompromising on the issue of sexual morality and yet have never shown me anything but interest, empathy and friendship. I have seen fundamentalists do amazing work for the poor and forgotten - driven entirely by their fundamentalist fervor. Try and think of how many souls and bodies the Salvation Army has saved, for example, how many sick people have been treated by doctors and volunteers motivated solely by religious conviction, how many homeless people have been taken in and loved by those seized by the fundamentalist delusion.

I disagree with many of fundamentalism's theological assumptions; when fundamentalism enters politics, I will resist it mightily as an enemy of political and social freedom; when it distorts what I believe to be the central message of Jesus - love and forgiveness - I will criticize and expose it. But when I see it in the eyes and face of a believer, and when she glows with the power of her faith, and when that faith translates into love, I am unafraid and uncritical. I know I cannot know others' hearts; I cannot know their souls. I know further that the mystery of the divine will always elude me; and that beneath what might appear as a bigot may be a soul merely seized by misunderstanding or fear or even compassion. My sense of the fallibility of human reason and the ineffability of God's will leads me not to dismiss these "extremists" as fools or idiots, but to wonder what they have known that I may not know, even as I worry about their potential for evil as well as good (a potential we all have, including you and me).

I also disagree that religious moderates simply have less faith. You write: "Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously."

Blogger, please. In many ways, the source of much of today's religious moderation is taking 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. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.

This is a real faith, a modern faith, a mature faith that cannot be dismissed as glibly as you'd like. Going back to Pope Leo XIII struck me as a very weak move. Have you heard of the Second Vatican Council? Are you aware of the development of doctrine, the evolution of theories of ecclesiastical authority that aren't reducible to some comic-book depiction of nineteenth century papal diktats? You say others cherry-pick the Scriptures, but you have done some of the more egregious cherry-picking in describing the priorities of Christianity. No, Sam, the Gospels really aren't, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi. They are stories about and by a man who preached the love of the force behind the entire universe, and the need to reflect that love in everything we do. Yes, there are contradictions, internal clashes, vagueness, politics, cultural anachronisms, and any number of flaws in a divinely inspired human endeavor. But there is also a voice that can clearly be heard through and above these things: a voice as personal to me as it was to those who heard it in human form.
I also find in your last email a form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism. Take these sentences: "Anyone who thinks he knows for sure that Jesus was born of virgin or that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe is lying. Either he is lying to himself, or to everyone else. In neither case should such false certainties be celebrated."

What you are doing here by the use of the word "lying" is imputing to the believer an insincerity you cannot know for sure. When we speak of things beyond our understanding - and you must concede that such things can logically exist - we are all in the same boat. Your assertion of nothingness at the end of our mortal lives is no more and no less verifiable than my assertion of somethingness. And yet I do not accuse you of lying - to yourself or to others. I respect your existential choice to face death alone, as a purely material event, leading nowhere but physical decomposition. Part of me even respects the stoic heroism of such a stance. Why can you not respect my conviction that you are, in fact, wrong? Why am I a liar in this - either to myself or to others - and you, in contrast, an avatar of honesty? Isn't this exactly the sort of moral preening you decry in others?

God bless,

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:

ColdMolasses note: based on the following, it seems clear to me that Harris has a fairly narrow definition of "religious moderates" - for example, his premise about moderates would not be consistent with the writings of some of the best known Christian moderates/liberals such as Borg and Spong.

Hi Andrew--

I think we basically understand one another, and yet we disagree on many points of importance—so we're off to a good start. You are right to say that my view of faith doesn’t really allow for “solid distinctions within faiths,” while yours “depends on such distinctions.” This summarizes our disagreement very well. I recognize, of course, that there are many important differences between religious moderation (your “Christianity as it can be”) and religious fundamentalism. And I agree that these differences have something to do with doubt and the progress of reason on the one hand and a hostility to both doubt and reason on the other. But, as you expect, I don’t view the boundary between moderation and fundamentalism as “solid,” or even principled, and I hold a very different view of many of the topics you raised—Pascal included. (I do think Nietzsche had it right when he wrote, “The most pitiful example: the corruption of Pascal, who believed in the corruption of his reason through original sin when it had in fact been corrupted only by his Christianity.”)

First, on my frustration with religious moderates, to which you alluded: It is true that your colleagues in the religious middle have taught me to appreciate the candor and the one-note coherence of religious fanatics. 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.” As a frequent target of such profundities, I can attest that they generally come moistened to a sickening pablum by great sighs of condescension. Present company excluded.

But there are several problems with such a defense of moderate religion. First, many moderates assume that religious “extremism” is rare and therefore not all that consequential. Happily, you are not in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates. As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense—extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration—but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. 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. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis his heartfelt religious beliefs. 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. Such blindness is now particularly unhelpful, given the hideous collision with Islamic certainty that is unfolding all around us.

Second, many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn't. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God’s loving machinery of justice.

How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights—scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Yikes…”), mathematical (“pi doesn’t actually equal 3? All right, so what?”), and moral (“You mean, I shouldn’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves? They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, “written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost.” Needless to say, I believe you have given the Supreme Pontiff far too much credit as a champion of reason. The man believes that he is in possession of a magic book, entirely free from error. Here is the Vatican’s position (from the Vatican website), in the words of Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus (his 1893 encyclical on the Study of Holy Scripture):

[I]t is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it-this system cannot be tolerated. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. These are the words of the last: "The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council (Trent) and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author." "

“This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church”—of course it does change a little from time to time. Being bogus to a remarkable degree, it has to. The fact that the current pope freely uses terms like “reason” and “truth” does not at all guarantee that he is on good terms with the former, or would recognize the latter if it bit him. Starting with the (utterly unjustified) premise that one of your books is an infallible guide to reality is not a particularly promising approach to inquiry—be it physical, ethical, or spiritual.

Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation and dodging an outbreak of plague that was laying waste to the pious men and women of England. When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement. But no one doubts that Newton’s work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal—and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur'an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this “inerrant” text—scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually—in this email exchange.

Consider the possibility of improving the Ten Commandments. This would appear to be setting the bar rather high, as these are the only passages in the Bible that the Creator of the universe felt the need to physically write himself. But take a look good look at commandment #2. No graven images? Doesn’t this seem like something less than the-second-most-important-point-upon-which-to- admonish-all-future-generations-of-human-beings? Remember those Muslims who recently rioted by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons? Many people wondered just what got them so riled up. Well, here it is. Was all that pious mayhem nothing more than egregious, medieval stupidity? Yes, come to think of it, it was nothing more than egregious, medieval stupidity. Almost any precept we’d put in place of this prohibition against graven images would augment the wisdom of the Bible (Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know…? Don’t mistreat children…? Avoid trans fats…?). Could we live with all the resulting problems due to proliferating graven images? We’d manage—somehow.

Of course, people of faith are right to insist that there is more to life than being reasonable—which is to say there is much more to life than merely understanding the world and getting one’s beliefs about it to cohere. But we can have ethical and spiritual lives without lying to ourselves and to others and without pretending to be certain about things we are clearly not certain about. Anyone who thinks he knows for sure that Jesus was born of virgin or that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe is lying. Either he is lying to himself, or to everyone else. In neither case should such false certainties be celebrated.

Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

I've gone on at such length, and I still haven’t addressed your claim that “God is truth” or your apparent attempt to ram through some hybrid of the ontological and cosmological arguments (“since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe”). But I’m not sure what you mean by “God,” or what exactly you believe about reality that requires the framework of Christianity.

Feel free to spell it out in your next email, if you care to.