Monday, February 05, 2007

Because they're not helping

Andrew Sullivan posts his latest entry in his debate with Sam Harris: Faith Unchosen.

This will probably be my last post about this debate; both of the participants are now repeating themselves (as am I). I don't think there's much new remaining for any of us to say in this context.

I very quickly skimmed through most of Sullivan's post. It's just a restatement of the position he established earlier: He builds his personal narrative around some vague notion of "God", and that's just the way he is. Somewhere in there he throws in some unspecified notion of "doubt". Fine. Whatever. We get it.

Towards the end, though, Sullivan asks,
In fact, people of faith who are not fundamentalists may be the most important allies you've got. Why don't you want us to help out?
We'd love for religious moderates to help out, but they're not helping. By using the words "truth" and "reality" to label opinion, which is not and cannot be rationally substantiated (and for which Sullivan disclaims rational substantiation), moderates such as Sullivan make it that much harder to insist on rational discourse on the basis of fact. Religious moderates, according to Sullivan, rely on scripture, religious authority and spiritual experiences[1] to establish truth and reality. But these components are the exact same components which fundamentalists rely on to establish their truth, their reality. And the fundamentalists' case is far stronger than the moderates'.

The conflict is between rationality and superstition. Sullivan defends his unquestioning superstition with the considerable eloquence at his disposal. He compromises the only tool available to rationalists: reasoned, principled discourse based on fact. He begs for a tolerance of his superstition which, for any principled person, ought equally to apply to the fundamentalists.

And he asks us why we don't want his help.

I want to ask Andrew Sullivan the following question, and I hope he will consider it deeply:

Why have fundamentalists in the West so successfully hijacked conservatism and religion, the foundations of Sullivan's belief system, instead of atheism, secularism, and/or liberalism?

I submit is is precisely the tendency of both religious moderates and moderate conservatives to confuse truth, fact and reality with opinion and preference which has rendered these movements vulnerable to the fundamentalists.

Update: How religious moderates can help

[1] Sullivan throws "reason" in that list, but he's been utterly silent in this debate about how he actually employs any sort of reason in his religious beliefs.


  1. Gary Robinson2/5/07, 11:20 AM

    I basically agree with your post above about Andrew, but I think there's another dimension here that is worth noting.

    It seems to me that Andrew is honestly trying to communicate what is going on with him in an attempt to build a bridge of some sort. I admire that, and am finding his posts very educational. The mindset of the intelligent, non-fundamentalist "believer" is a lot less baffling to me due to his efforts.

    So I appreciate his efforts, and I think they exhibit courage and a worthy intent.

    Moreover I continue to wonder if the problem isn't partially, or largely, linguistic. He seems to admit that other religions have as much claim to truth as his. So maybe when he says he "believes" in Christianity, the word "believes" has a very different meaning than when you or I use it. As I mentioned in another comment last week, it seems more like an orientation or way of being than a "belief" as you or I would use that word.

    So I wonder if a lot of the differences between Andrew and Sam would simply evaporate if the real meaning of "belief" in Andrew's world were to be clarified. It's not as if Sam has no spiritual impulses of his own -- he's spent a tremendous amount of time meditating (I think in the Buddhist tradition, I don't recall for sure). Maybe Andrew's spiritual impulses come out in having a certain orientation in which the world is filtered through the stories of Jesus, and maybe on some level there is some commonality there with Sam's own practice.

    Where Andrew's approach is anathema to me is where he seems to be unclear on whether his "belief" is what I describe in the previous paragraph, or whether it's a series of statements about facts. A fantastic outcome of the debate, it seems to me, would be for Andrew to recognize the difference between his orientation and actual statements about facts.

    BTW, thanks to you for your blogging and for keeping it open to commenters like me.

  2. Gary: I think Harris's point all along has been that Sullivan's reasons for belief are not rational. I think he has cached-out that distinction between what one can reasonable claim to "know" and a theist claims to "believe." Sullivan has, I think, purposely relied on fuzzy semantics & metaphysics to draw out his side of this debate - he quickly abandoned his talk of "rational reasons to believe" in favor of "different kinds of truth" precisely because he is a crafty debater.

    In this latest installment (and a later vicarious blog post), he basically says he is compelled by his very nature to believe in God and, apparently, a series of particular events that go along with a specifically Catholic belief system. He can't explain why he believes them because he always has. This would have been a pretty short "debate" if Sullivan would have aknowledged this "feel it in me bones" line of reasoning from the start.

    Of course, Sullivan is quick to point out he is still able to "integrate doubt" into this compelled faith - but we are apparently expected to build a faith of our own regarding how Sullivan is able to integrate doubt into a system of beliefs he is, by his own admission, incapable of doubting.

    PS:I second gary's thanks re: blogging and open-comments.

    I am a web developer, BTW, with good knowledge of anti-spam techniques, so if you start having a comment-spam problem I am certain I can eliminate it in further thanks for hosting this forum)

  3. Gary Robinson2/5/07, 1:25 PM

    Kipp -- I fully understand what you're saying, and did when I wrote the comment you're responding to. My point is that there MAY be an opening for a bridge between an atheist like myself and a "believer" like Andrew if we get clear on what he means by "belief". He's made it clear that he doesn't think his religion has unique access to the truth, which means that to the extent that he "believes" in tenets of his religions that contradict other religions, it's not "belief" as I (and I suspect you) use that term. I'm hoping there's an entry for both sides to get more understanding of each other by looking at that linguistic difference.

    Also, I really don't have the impression that Andrew is weasling here -- I think he is so completely esconced in his point of view that to come out of it to the extent he has has taken real work and courage on his part.

  4. Also, I really don't have the impression that Andrew is weasling here -- I think he is so completely esconced in his point of view that to come out of it to the extent he has has taken real work and courage on his part.

    I have to second this observation. It's a pattern Sullivan exhibits with many of his posts on conservatism. He is able to be introspective enough to question modern conservatives in their beliefs and actions, and yet at the same time able to embrace the straw men caricatures of liberalism or other types of ethical thought (like relativism) that conservatives accept without question. He can be infuriatingly obtuse about his own preconceptions, and yet shows consistent promise.

  5. I'm pretty skeptical Sullivan is really doing any thinking now that he has not been inspired to do in previous arguments with athiest friends and readers and in his own soul-searching. And I think Sullivan knew going into this debate that to start off with saying he believes firstly and foremostly because he is incapable of non-belief would have undermined any attempt to distinguish his own religious "moderation" from others' religious "fundamentalism." It would also have immediately gutted the plausiblity of his oft-touted "doubt" since, apparently, he only integrates doubt into the things he doesn't really believe (a point the Bum made in an earlier post re: true-truths and not-so-true truths).

    I don't think Sullivan is purposely trying to confuse the debate with his sloppy semantics, rather, he is simply trying to justify his religious belief by whatever charitable interpretations of "rational" and "reasonable" and "doubt" fit his perspective. I even think he was sincere when he trotted out the notion of "aesthetic truth" - but I also seriously doubt Sullivan would tolerate such fuzzy rhetoric were this a debate concerning social policy, political philosophy, or any other delicate topic in which Sullivan is actually capable of true skepticism.

  6. I know first hand how moderates at least contribute to the problem of fundamentalism.

    I am now an atheist, having at one time been a moderate Methodist and before that, well, an atheist. Actually, I was an atheist for a long time when I was younger, but drifted into Methodism because of my moderate wife. After I decided to become a Christian, my wife and I were classic moderates. We did not worry about who was going to hell. Even contemplating it was wrong in our book. God slaughters millions in the Old Testament? Not to worry—It wasn’t nice that God might do that, so it must be a myth. We were of the "Judge not..." brand of Christianity. My wife never worried about inconsistencies or even justifying her beliefs. Things that were not signs of a “loving” God were ignored. He was love; Jesus was love. If someone acted out of anything but love they were wrong—but she rarely said anything. It makes her a good person.

    I on the other hand always had to think about it all. And, truthfully, I never liked the mental gymnastics I went through in an attempt to settle on a belief system that was not repugnant. But I worked on it. The people at church were nice enough (although there are many people that go to moderate, liberal, mainstream churches who are very conservative and closet fundamentalists.) I read the Bible, but ignored or explained away the parts I did not like. I could live with all the inconsistencies, at least for a while. But eventually I realized that I could no longer simply ignore parts of the Bible as simply myth, because so much of the faith is built on these stories. Most moderates do not really believe that God killed everyone in a flood. But we still taught the story to our kids. We still explained the rainbow as a sign of God’s love and desire for reconciliation—something like an abusive husband might offer to his wife after beating her. The whole story is evil. To attempt to derive from this any sense of a “good” god was horrid. But the Bible was filled with stories like this, where people thanked God, often in elegant poetry and prose, for not killing them that week. So much of moderate and liberal theology revolved around attempting to reconcile all of these inconsistencies.

    Then there is my hyper-“rational,” fundamentalist Church of Christ brother in law. He knew more about the Bible than I did; he knew when the Bible was metaphor and when it was not; he knew everything. He had no trouble with how to explain the flood. It happened. It was god’s right. We were bad. How did he know this? It was right there in the Bible. I could never win an argument with him, because I had nothing but my own subjective values, and the parts of the Bible I liked—About 50 pages.

    He had the rest.

    Eventually, I got tired of the Bull sh*t and stopped pretending.


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