Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Faith and Reason

via 3QD. BeliefNet has published a string of emails between Sam Harris (of The End of Faith fame) and Andrew Sullivan (The Conservative Soul), wherein they discuss frankly and candidly their differing positions on religious faith vs. science and reason.

Harris and Sullivan fight it out well, but remain trapped in an espistemological hole: neither of them realizes that the problem (and therefore the solution) to their divergence on matters of religion perhaps lies beyond their respective claims about knowledge. Science is about knowledge. That is not necessarily what religion is (primarily) about. This fact does emerge from the conversation as Sullivan continuously dodges Harris’ pointed questions by pointing to good religious people or his own religious experiences. But neither of the writers mange to look beyond their claims to knowing more truth than the other – not truth about facts (both are rather humble in that respect) but truth about the truth of religion. Both want to claim that the solution is to figure out what is the true stance: christianity, islam, atheism or agnosticism. Science is true; religion is (sometimes) useful. And religion will only truly become useful once it gives up its pretense at being true.

Harris was more convincing than Sullivan because, in the end, he seemed the more open-minded of the two. All that Harris wanted to establish was that no specific religion has any likelihood of being mostly true. Sullivan countered without as much gusto that his religion could not be proven untrue – either because it could never, by definition, conflict with the truth, or because Sullivan himself is incapable of believing that it would not be true.

Where Sullivan goes wrong, is when he gives in from the very beginning to the idea that religions need to be true or false, that everything hinges upon the historical and scientific veracity of the biblical tales. Sullivan advocates doubt in religious belief. However, it would be better if he could go so far as to doubt that Truth is the final goal of religion – to consider that religion perhaps serves purposes that differ from those it explicitly claims to serve. He should instead have countered Harris with the claim that the primary measure to be used on religion is ‘good’ or ‘useful’ – and only incidentally ‘true’. Christianity does not primarily preach Truth: it preaches Love, Forgiveness and Grace. Of course, it claims that the stories it tells to encourage us towards lives of love and forgiveness are true; this bolsters the ideas of Love, etc.; but Love does not die with the debunking of the virgin birth.

Where Harris goes wrong is to insist that religion must be abandoned once its claims have been proven wrong. All religions are most certainly wrong. This only means, however, that religions do not know themselves what they are trying to do. It is not because christianity claims nowadays that it is a true story about the history of the universe that that actually is why people are christians. People are probably christians for reasons they don’t know or admit themselves. What Harris needs to do is not attack religion front-on as if it were a spurious science; rather, he needs to place himself on the side and show to religious people why they embrace their religions.

If he is right (and i certainly believe he is) that people desire truth, then he should work at convincing people that they are religious not because their religion is true, but for other (better) reasons. If people cling so hard to patently untrue religions, it is probably because these religions are serving other, undiscovered purposes. Telling them that their religion is most certainly wrong won’t help. To fix the problem, you have to figure out what purpose religions serve in the first place. Then you must convince people through good scientific explanations why they actually do cling to religion. Only then will you be able to wean them from their mistaken beliefs that they believe because its true. They will realise that they do religion for other (better) reasons. Then you can get people to abandon their dogmatic claims that their religion is true and work at figuring out better ways to do religion.


7 Comments to “Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Faith and Reason”

  1. Thanks Michael.

    For another discussion, here is a link to 2 interviews, one with Dawkins, another with Collins. I’ve heard the Dawkins interview, which is much like others of his I’ve heard. I haven’t yet listened to the Collins interview, though it is bound to be interesting counterpoint.

  2. I think the problem that Harris correctly alludes to is that religion tends to be useful because people believe it to be true. While I agree with you that religion probably serves other purposes than truth too (and I think those purposes can be filled by something else than religion), it is able to serve those purposes because people believe it to be true. It’s like an infinite bad (or good, depending on your viewpoint) circle: religion is useful because it serves some purposes; religion is able to serve those purposes because it is believed to be true; because it serves those purposes, its alleged truth becomes strengthened. As I have said before, if you take away the truth claims, what you’re left with is something so radically different from religion that it is at best misleading to call it religion.

  3. EK – thanks for the links. im a bit too dawkinsed-out at the moment for the first interview. The second one was the usual “faith and science are two different ways of getting at the truth” argument, which is valid in itself but not very helpful when it come to figuring out how to _relate_ the two.

  4. Simen – while writing the post i couldn’t help but feeling the slight irony of my claim that we need to give up the belief that belief is the foundation of religion. And i will agree with you that _at the moment_ belief lies at the core of religion. However, i don’t think this is a necessary feature of religion but one that should be done away with. I will also agree that what we end up with after extracting belief from religion might look much more like ethics than religion; keeping the name ‘religion’ is a matter of PR: people will not easily abandon religion – but they might be willing to embrace a modified religion, especially if we can show that the new religion is much more reasonable.

    There is a second reason for keeping the name religion and it is that i don’t want to get rid of belief as such but only belief in impossible metaphysical ideas. We needn’t believe that there is a God out there who loves us – but we might still want to believe that love is essential to the universe. This latter belief, thoroughly demythologized and demetaphysicized, remains in my mind just as religious as it is ethical.

  5. I like your clarification Michael.

    Another sense of belief can be that one can have faith that one’s deepest intuitions — some might call this the “holy ghost” or the mysterious, (Socrates used different words but expressed something similar) — will lead us where we need to go, even though we might not understand where that will be. This is different than (but is the root of) intellectualized/codified ethics.

    It is a letting go, a surrender, of the ego to something beyond the individual… which is what love, in its various forms, is. Isn’t it?
    Because this experience sometimes transcends the laws and rules of a given culture at a given moment, it is no wonder those who live it most authentically are often persecuted and/or killed.

    One can argue that religions are invented to use stories (“impossible metaphysical ideas”) to promote ethics and community.
    One can also say religions initially happen to encourage the intuitive experience which gives rise to ethical and loving behavior.

    The further they are from their source, the more institutionalized they become, the more these religions become corrupted.

  6. EK – “The further they are from their source, the more institutionalized they become, the more these religions become corrupted.” yes. and what we now need (and are getting) is careful and thorough scientific research into this “source”. These are most exciting times for religion! Even the religious might finally understand the import of Socrates’ “know thyself”.

  7. Yes; though I imagine, as in astro-physics, the more knowledge we aquire the deeper the mystery becomes.

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