Sullivan Replies to Harris...

Following up on my previous post about the blogalogue between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris, here have now been a few more entries. Picking up where the previous post left off, let's look at Sullivan's reply. Since Harris has replied in turn, I will content myself with a few brief points.

Sullivan writes:

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. (Emphasis Added)

See the original for links.

That bold-faced part captures what is for me the main issue. Sullivan refers to “very human proof of a remarkable event,” the event presumably being the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What proof could he have in mind?

Presumably the testimony of the Gospel accounts. So the question becomes why Sullivan believes that accounts written many years after the fact, that describe events that are, on their face, absurd, are sufficiently reliable to form the basis of his worldview. I think it is safe to say that in any other context Sullivan would scoff at people who cliam to have seen a person bodily resurrected after being dead for three days. So why do the Gospel accounts impress him so much?

It would seem that Sullivan left out an especially important adjective from his little list: Blind.

But it's about to get worse:

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.

This is precisely the sort of gobbledygook that gets me so frustrated with religious moderates. Fundamentalists don't write things like this. They recognize that divinely inspired human endeavors should not be full of contradictions and other flaws. They would agree that if it really were the case that the Bible were full of errors, that would be evidence against the proposition that it was divinely inspired.

Take the creation story in Genesis, which Sullivan is so keen to sweep under the rug. Chapter one of Genesis outlines a creation story that is a marvel of clarity. It gives a precise description of certain acts undertaken by God and tells us the sequence in which he did them. It is also a sequence of events that modern science tells us is impossible, for numerous reasons.

How is it possible for a person who is divinely inspired by a God of truth and love to write down a creation account that is comically wide of the mark? Why would God permit such inaccuracy about what it is that he did? Why would he have the book of His Word begin with a story that would later become an embarrassment to countless Christians? I can't imagine how Sullivan resolves that dilemma.

Before moving on, we should also note the incredible condescension of inserting Harris' first name into these remarks, thereby affecting the tone of a teacher lecturing an intransigent pupil. This is made all the more offensive that Sullivan is grossly distorting Harris' argument as he does so. As Harris himself points out in his reply, he doesn't say that the Gospels are primarily about slavery, for example. He says merely that the Bible gets it wrong on slavery, and this reflects very badly on the Bible's worth as a source of moral wisdom.


More like this

Beliefnet is hosting a blogalogue between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Harris is defending the entirely sensible view that religious faith, especially in its monotheistic form, is a lot of twaddle, while Sullivan takes the view that reasonable religious faith is not an oxymoron. Here are a few…
The blogalogue between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on the subject of the reasonableness of religious faith continues. We pick up the action with Sullivan's latest salvo. He is responding to the following question asked by Harris: “What would constitute “proof” for you that your current beliefs…
As I mentioned, Sam Harris has already replied to Sullivan's essay. Let's consider some highlights: 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…
Another point made in the Newsweek article mentioned in the previous post is that Harris et al are as hard on religious moderates as they are on the fundamentalists: It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are attacks on religious “moderates” as well--indeed…

...the incredible condescension of inserting Harris' first name into these remarks,...

You have read the material, haven't you? Harris started with, "Hi Andrew" in his first post. Talk about condescending and trying to get the upper hand right from the start!

Mind you, Sullivan's just as bad ... he dared to start his first post with "Hi Sam" in an obvious attempt at oneupsmanship! :-)

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 24 Jan 2007 #permalink


There's a difference between using someone's first name in a salutation and using it as part of an argument, where it's clear intention was to achieve a certain tone.

The offending passage:

No, Sam, the Gospels really aren't, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi.

Why does this first make me think, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"? Is it just because I've been listening to the Dresden Dolls too much lately?

. . . and yes Virginia all because
the truth can't save you now —
the sky is falling down —
everything they ever told us
shakes our faith and breaks their promise —
but you can stop the truth from leaking
if you never stop believing. . . .

I love the way Sullivan accuses Harris of cherry-picking right before he pretends the Old Testament doesn't exist.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 25 Jan 2007 #permalink