Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Andrew Sullivan Scores

Sam Harris lets down his guard, and Andrew Sullivan lands some substantial blows. I don't think it's a knockout, but Sullivan will win on points if Harris can't find some opening to wrest the focus of the debate back to the truth without appearing churlish or dismissive. And Sullivan is a pro; he doesn't often lead with his chin as Harris has done.

One simply cannot give a pro like Sullivan the kinds of openings Harris provides. Of course Sullivan understands religious fundamentalism, of course he takes his scripture "seriously"; saying that he doesn't just gives him the opportunity to change the subject away from the truth of his beliefs towards the importance and seriousness he attaches to them.

And it's simply an inexcusable blunder in a debate to accuse anyone, anywhere of deliberately lying. There's such a high burden of proof that even perjury is rarely prosecuted.[1] It's trivial to avoid this blunder: "delusion" has the same sense of astonishing incorrectness without the pejorative and difficult-to-substantiate sense of intent to deceive.

Sullivan uses these openings to duck and weave and avoid the question of the truth of his beliefs. Happily, though, he does more: He reinforces an important and serious issue in the debate.

Religious belief, according to Sullivan, really is important. And I have to agree. Religious narratives have not persisted in every human society for millennia just because people are stupid or evil. Nor can one simply abandon the idea that these narratives are somehow true in a way that mere opinion is not; without such truth, religious narratives dissolve into insubstantial Unitarianism.

It's not enough to get me to just give up my car to tell me that it's helping to destroy the planet. It's not enough to completely and thoroughly convince me that it's true that my car is helping to destroy the planet. I still need to get to work and buy groceries; I'm not going to sit and starve just for the sake of the planet. You have to give me an alternative; not necessarily even as good an alternative, but you have to give me something.

I still think Harris is right that the truth claims of the religious moderates rest on ground no more rigorous and substantial than intuitive "truthiness". I still think Harris is right that these insubstantial grounds help intolerant and violent fundamentalists more than they help humanity at large.

But Sullivan is right too: If you're going to do away with religious truth, what's the alternative?

Not since Robert Ingersoll has the atheistic community had any sort of powerful spokesman delivering a compelling narrative that pointedly excluded God. Secular liberalism has lost its thread. But even Sullivan's sort of ecumenical conservatism is in serious trouble, having ceded considerable control over the conservative narrative to religious fundamentalists and neoconservatives. Atheists are becoming aware of the issue, but there is still no coherent narrative.

But give us time. It's still been only about 150 years since Darwin put the final piece of the puzzle in place to render atheism more than weakly-justified optimism; Christianity required almost 300 years to get real traction.

[1] In his own response, Sullivan--unlike the anonymous reader I criticized Sullivan for publishing--uses a legitimate basis to change the subject; he walks through a door which Harris himself opened. And my charge of hypocrisy applies to Sullivan's own accusation rather than to his complaint about Harris's missive.)


  1. >But Sullivan is right too: If you're going to do away with religious truth, what's the alternative?

    >Not since Robert Ingersoll has the atheistic community had any sort of powerful spokesman delivering a compelling narrative that pointedly excluded God. Secular liberalism has lost its thread.

    The alternative is as Dawkins and Sagan before him stated. There is a secular awe for the breadth and majesty of the universe. I was once a religious person, and I was exposed to the show Cosmos when I was young, about 13.

    Suddenly there was more than just God to have awe about. The way the universe worked was astounding, the sheer unimaginable size and age of it. It was breathtaking. It was a beginning of a journey. I didn't realize it at a time but it was an awakening to a wider world, which had been closed to me because of twice weekly religious indoctrination.

    If we take that awe of the universe and we couple it with ever deeper empathy for our fellow human beings in an ethical minded society then we have all that we need. Supernatural religion actual impairs the achievement of these. But rather than decry that no such thing exists better to realize we have that now. Some call it Secular Humanism. It only needs to grow and take root.

  2. Secular Humanism, and Sagan-style awe is certainly a good start. It certainly worked on you and me.

    I'm not a poet. I can't even criticize poetry--except in the most extreme examples I can barely recognize good poetry. But I'm at least observant enough to know that we need good poetry.

    I was six years old when Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. I was twelve when I discovered science fiction. I've been working with computers since the days of punch cards and core memory, and I'm only 43.

    It's interesting that "science fiction" is still used as an pejorative for unserious or utopian. I'm reminded of this little snippet from Firefly:

    "Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction."

    "We live in a space ship, dear."

    I don't know precisely what we're not doing, or not doing enough of, but I do we need to do the first and more of the second.

  3. I have been exploring the intersection of religion, morality, and society for a short while now. I agree that the most fitting critique of atheism is "what do we replace it with?" There is no easy answer.

    Like Sam Harris, I was virulently anti-religion; as my learning has slowly matured, I find myself to be more anti-fanaticism than anti-religion. After all, people like Andrew Sullivan illustrate the healthy role the teachings of a religion can play. But still... it all boils down to a leap of faith, one that I'm incapable of making. Religious tracts serve the same roles as mythology or good literature - they impart lessons, discuss and teach morality, and at the best of times encourage thought and introspection.

    My own answer has been to reply with what I, rather tongue-in-cheek, call "transcendent humanism" (or, as one critic called it, "idealistic materialism"): All we can be sure of is that we can be remembered in history by our deeds, by the world we leave behind us. Shouldn't we then strive to leave our mark on the world, for the betterment of our children and our friends' children and the generations that will follow?

    It's the best I can do for now. It's not wholly satisfactory on a metaphysical, fear-of-oblivion level. But it's a far cry from optimism, and a damn sight better than worshiping at the altar of false authority.

  4. Ack! That should read "nihilism," not "optimism."

    Freudian slip? I hope not.


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