February 10, 2007

Theology Smack-Down: Andrew Sullivan vs. Sam Harris

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:46 pm

For the past couple weeks, Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris have been having an online debate on faith. They have already covered a lot of territory, and it’s still going on. I am finding this “blogalogue” fascinating.

Although he’s a political conservative, Sullivan reflects a fairly moderate, and in some respects, a progressive Roman Catholicism. For example, although I heartily agree with his larger point regarding the ineffability of God, Sullivan is more pluralistic even than I’m willing to go:

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.

But what of Sam Harris? As the author of two books that advocate atheism and condemn relgion, all religion, it would be easy to dismiss him as I’ve dismissed Richard Dawkins in the past. But I find Harris is rather different than Dawkins. Where Dawkins is so convinced of his correctness that he can’t be bothered to learn anything outside his own field of genetics, Harris seems to be really trying to understand this whole religion thing. His conclusion so far is that it doesn’t withstand rational scrutiny, but he seems open, as demonstrated by his willingness to engage with Sullivan, to changing his mind. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t bluntly and forcefully state his case!

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.

I’ve met people that come across in person like Harris does in print. They are very smart, brilliant even, and with their formidable intellect have come to a particular conclusion on a topic. They don’t mean to be rude or arrogant, but can’t help stating the truth as they see it, and won’t change how they see the truth until and unless someone pokes a hole in their logical argument. They are unwilling to concede anything in the name of tolerance or manners, but only in the face of superior reasoning or new information. I find Harris to be an engaging writer and a worthy intellectual foil for us believers.

But he’s still wrong in several areas, sometimes spectacularly so. In particular, his depiction of religious moderates as less faithful than conservatives:

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.”


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.

Harris has several fundamental misunderstandings here. First, moderate and progressive Christians don’t believe the Bible was dictated by the Holy Spirit. For us, saying the Bible is “inspired” by God reflects the fact that God acted in human history, and humans were inspired by God’s actions to first, talk about their understanding of these events, and later, to write about them. Sure, the Holy Spirit acted to help them understand, talk about and write about what had happened to them, but in no way did the Holy Spirit “dictate” the Bible, the Pope’s comments notwithstanding.

This doesn’t mean we don’t take scripture seriously. In some ways, we take it more seriously than conservatives, as we try to get to successively deeper layers of truth in the Bible. And this is really where the Holy Spirit acts — to help us to understand God’s will through the words in the Bible. This is also where the body of Christ, the Christian church, acts. Through worship, fellowship, study and sacraments, we are brought into a clearer understanding of God’s plan for us and the world.

Harris is also wrong when he says that moderates refuse to question the preposterous ideas of religious conservatives, as this blog demonstrates. Pastors and priests have spoken out against the rapture (“the rapture is a racket“) and against violence of every kind. For Harris to say otherwise shows he hasn’t listened to many sermons in mainline protestant churches.

And lastly, Harris is wrong when he says moderate Christians don’t submit to the demands of science. We don’t reject religion because it can’t be proven scientifically, but we accept evolution because is has been. As Sullivan rightly points out, science is true, but not all truth is scientific truth. Moderates and progressives understand this, and embrace truth wherever we find it.

This is no betrayal of faith, it is a deepening and enriching of faith. Religious moderates certainly haven’t betrayed reason either, as the writings of theologians from Augustine to C.S. Lewis can attest. We have integrated faith and reason by way of the Holy Spirit, and elevated both.

The Sullivan/Harris blogalogue continues, and I’ll be following it closely. Sullivan is holding up the Christian side well, but Harris is certainly no slouch, and it will be interesting to see where this leads.

Update: Andrew Sullivan’s latest is here, and is his most impassioned defense of the faith yet — a must read.


  1. I too have been watching this debate with interest. Sullivan is holding up well, especially considering he’s a journalist and not a theologian. Harris is quite bright, but his world view is also quite narrow. He has created an image of religion and expects everyone to fit it. If you don’t well you’re not a good religious person. You almost get the feeling that he believes that truly religious people will fly planes into buildings and he’s surprised this doesn’t happen more often.

    It would help if he did read a few theologians of note, from a Barth to a Niebuhr, perhaps a Bonhoeffer and then maybe a Borg. He might be amazed at what he finds.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall — February 10, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  2. Yes, it’s a fascinating debate that has taken some fascinating turns. Much better than the fundamentalist-style screeds of a Dawkins or a Falwell.

    Shameless plug: I posted some thoughts on Harris’s misconceptions about religious moderates at my own blog recently.

    Comment by BruceA — February 12, 2007 @ 9:59 am

  3. Thanks for the post. I’ve enjoyed this debate and also written about it here: http://danutz.blogspot.com/2007/02/faith-vs-belief.html

    Comment by Progressive Christian Blog — February 25, 2007 @ 1:47 pm

  4. I’ve also written about it here:

    And here:

    And here:

    Comment by normdoering — March 22, 2007 @ 1:35 am

  5. This “blogaloge” is indeed fascinating. It is interesting to see moderates dispute some of Harris’ claims about moderates. And excellent to see that “Pastors and priests have spoken out against the rapture (”the rapture is a racket“) and against violence of every kind.” The fact remains though, that trying to beleive in both science and the existence of god is becoming increasingly difficult.

    Comment by ThorMakesThunder — April 4, 2007 @ 8:09 am

  6. If the questions posed by Sam at the end of his communication of 20th March were carefully considered by all open minded people of faith, mass enlightmnement would break out. It will be interesting to see if Andrew has the courage to confront these questions and meet them head on. Given his past answers, I suspect he will not.

    Comment by keithswan — April 4, 2007 @ 10:18 am

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

    Comment by sam harris — April 4, 2007 @ 10:20 am

  8. Christianity is predicated on the reliability of the gospel account of the miracles of Jesus. And yet, there are modern books cataloguing the miracles of Hindu adepts, written by educated Westerners. Why not grant these testimonials even more credence than the gospel? I would bet that you are not even inclined to read this literature, much less organize your life around it. Then why not view the gospel with the same skepticism?

    Comment by sam harris — April 4, 2007 @ 10:21 am

  9. Thor –

    The fact remains though, that trying to beleive in both science and the existence of god is becoming increasingly difficult.

    Really? A fact? For someone obviously devoted to science you have a rather loose definition of the word fact. My undergraduate degree is in Physics, I accept the Big Bang, evolution and all the rest, and see no conflict between science and God whatsoever. Your statement is simply indefensible.

    Comment by Bob — April 4, 2007 @ 2:04 pm

  10. Keith –

    As Andrew Sullivan replied, I am a contingent human being. It is very difficult for me to answer “what if” questions because I am a product of my life experiences.

    However, I’m certainly not one to dismiss other religions as without merit. True, I was set on a particular spiritual journey because of my upbringing, but have spent my adult life reading about other religions as well as my own. I can appreciate their philosophies, but have found nothing to convince me to give up the path I’m on.

    Sheer accident? Perhaps. I’m a product of my upbringing? Certainly. Is Christianity true? Yes. Is Buddhism true? I can’t really say.

    Comment by Bob — April 4, 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  11. HAHA! Christianity is true? The reasons you have for calling Christianity “true” are in the same class of reasons that determine the trueness of Buddhism, Islam, etc… Most every religion is just as “true”. My opinion… Buddhism is the closest thing to reasonable. Christianity makes zero sense. It is filled with contradictions and lacks anything that would make it more “true” than any other religion.

    Comment by Christianity makes no sense... — April 6, 2007 @ 4:45 pm

  12. You said, “First, moderate and progressive Christians don’t believe the Bible was dictated by the Holy Spirit.” I find it astounding that you can deliver an ultimatum about what moderate and progressive Christians believe. Besides, what is a moderate/progressive Christian anyway? Someone who, specifically doesn’t believe that the Bible was dictated by the Holy Spirit? I find that far too narrow of a definition. Is progressive Christianity an ideological platform with which one can define themselves, or is it a descriptor of your beliefs?

    Comment by Ryan — June 6, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

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