Saturday, January 20, 2007

Potshots, part 2

In Just Books?, Sullivan passes along a reader's response to Sam Harris's latest response in their debate about religious moderates.

The reader blatantly misrepresents Harris's point, quoting Harris as saying:

So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves?

This is the entire quotation that appears in Sullivan's reproduction of the reader's post. What's missing is Harris's very next statement:

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."

It is plain that Harris is not calling religious scripture ordinary or quotidian; his further comparison to the works of Isaac Newton makes it plain that Harris is not engaging in literary criticism.

And it's clear that the reader responds to Harris's point in a literary sense. According to the reader,

It is absurd to claim that whoever - one or many - who wrote, among others, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or the Tao te Ching were just regular guys writing regular books. [emphasis added]

In fact, the reader appears to agree with Harris's actual point:

But to say that the New Testament expresses the Holy Spirit is not to be understood either to mean that some kind of vapor descended from on high and penetrated the fingertips of Luke or St Paul.

It's pointless and futile to try to judge the intellectual integrity of an anonymous poster. But Sullivan chose to reproduce this particular comment, and he reproduces it, moreover, with only the editorial comment that he is "in sympathy with much of this." He fails to mention that the reader has misunderstood the argument, and that the out-of-context quotation misrepresents Harris's point. This isn't the biggest issue in the world (or even in Harris's response), but it's intellectual honesty 101 to get the sense of a quotation right, whether you're writing yourself or using your name to reproduce the works of another.

This is a perfect example of Sullivan's vapidity and truthiness I alluded to in my earlier post. The reader expresses a point which Sullivan presumably finds amenable and so an basic standard of intellectual honesty and integrity simply falls by the wayside.

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