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Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan Debate
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This is a bit old, but I just came across it. It's a debate about religious faith between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris. I'm glad I found it, because I generally respect both of these guys intellectually. Harris' End of Faith is a great read, and I've always enjoyed Sullivan's blog. He's a British-born, gay, Catholic interesting mix. And he's always struck me as uncommonly sensible, although I'd never heard his explicit justification for his religious beliefs. Now I don't think of him as quite as sensible.

Anyway, the debate is fascinating, if very long. If you have the time, I suggest you read the whole thing, but I'll comment on what I consider to be the meatiest of the exchange.

Pretty early on, Sullivan writes this dizzying bit of justification for his beliefs:

As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth.

Yowza. If that doesn't make your head twist all the way around, I don't know what would. As Harris rightly points out, the big problem with these kinds of proclamations is that they're baseless and interchangeable. Play a little game and plug anything silly you want in place of "God" above. I believe that Bigfoot is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. I believe that Zeus is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. And so on...try it, it's fun.

After a bit more on this, Sullivan responds:

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.

(emphasis mine)

On the bolded! Why is truth the most important thing about a religious claim? It should be fairly obvious, but basically it should help keep beliefs from being completely arbitrary. If there is no evidence that what I say is true, why in the hell should you believe it? Just because it makes you feel good or behave better? If I told you you were the chosen pixie elf and gave you a magic bag of dust that made life good wherever you sprinkled it, and by pretending you were an elf you were happy and non-violent and giving and loving to others, would it be worth believing in? Fuck no. Because it's just as arbitrary as any other pile of bullshit. Without any kind of basis in reality, anything can be believed and anything can be justified. And that can be very dangerous indeed.

As for "shutting up", I'd personally never tell Sullivan that he doesn't have the right to believe what he wants or say whatever he wants about it, but I have the right to question the justification for his beliefs, call him out, and point out that his reasons don't make all that much sense.

I could go on all day based on material from this exchange, and maybe I'll revisit it again, but not right now. There's lots of good stuff in there...I'd definitely recommend you having a look.

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