Harris says a lot that I more or less agree with when it comes to questions of empirically verifiable knowledge about the world, and the likely factual truth of any particular religious belief. And Sullivan does, indeed, as Harris charges, basically ignore this stuff. This shouldn't be surprising, at least in part because Sullivan routinely has problems with evidence in his political writing. However, Harris comes off as remarkably tone-deaf, and Sullivan at times surprisingly compelling--but only when he's talking about his experience of his faith, not the "beliefs" themselves. Harris is wrapped up in factual truth-claims of religion, Sullivan is more interested in his religious experience.
I used to make all kinds of arguments like those that Harris makes, until I realized that they didn't matter; I recognize his tone-deafness as resembling my own. Other-Richard was disturbed that Sullivan, he says, "essentially said that his beliefs existed independently of any form of evidence or argument". But he doesn't quite say this (or, if he does, it's more because he's an inept debater). He really says this of his faith. I think atheists all too often refuse to see a distinction.
But, as might be expected, my main problem with the exchange is this: politics. Harris claims that the survival of the species may well depend on our ability to eradicate religion. Religion, therefore, must end (good luck with that). He says, in his opening salvo:
We are both especially concerned about Islam at this moment--because so many Muslims appear to be 'fundamentalists' and because some of the fundamentals of Islam pose special liabilities in a world overflowing with destructive technology.And in his first reply, Sullivan says:
We agree that Islamic fundamentalism is by far the gravest threat in this respect (because of its confort [sic] with violence); and that the core feature of what occurred on 9/11 was not cultural, political, or economic - but religious. We agree that a large part of the murder and mayhem in today's Iraq is also rooted in religious difference, specifically the ancient rift between Sunni and Shia. We also agree, I think, that the degeneration of American Christianity into the crudest forms of Biblical inerrantism, emotional hysteria and cultural paranoia is a lamentable development.The fact that they, and too many others, agree on this is part of why this conversation, as ever, basically goes nowhere. The fact that they believe that the problems besetting the world (from 9/11 to Iraq to American domestic problems, etc.) are basically religious and not "cultural, political, or economic" means that those problems will not go away. They are effacing politics, because discussing politics in any useful sense would mean challenging some basic premises of their own privileged existence.
Sullivan spends a huge portion of one of his replies in the exchange talking about "contingency"--how our lives are necessarily contingent: on time, place, culture, parents, history; how there can be no "contingency-free" existence. His bringing this up is interesting (even if he's constructed a straw man, since Harris never really said there could or ought to be a contingency-free existence, as he later points out). It's interesting because, in effect, in their refusal to admit that culture, politics, and economics might be determining factors even for those who seem to be in the grip of these religious fundamentalisms, they refuse to notice that the experience and practice of religious fundamentalists might also be contingent. And they absolutely refuse to recognize some of what that experience and practice might be contingent on: for example, the giant elephant in the room of Western Imperialism, in general, and American foreign policy, in particular. They refuse to notice explicit, longstanding policies of liberal economic dominance and their military enforcement. They refuse to notice intentional American patronage (that is, calling it a "mistake" is wildly disingenuous) of the most extreme elements in various other countries, and how this patronage might have affected the options available to the people in those countries. When the fundamentalists are the only ones who can ensure clean drinking water, where might your loyalties lie?
If I had a copy of Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith, in front of me, I'd quote those passages that I read previously which demonstrated to me the massive political blindspot at the center of his "humanistic" quest to rid the world of religion, and which effectively ensured that I'd be unlikely to read the book in full or bother with him much in the future. But that'll have to wait for a trip to the library and another post. (Hint: it has to do with extremism he identifies in certain political radicals, an extremism he naturally equates with religious fundamentalism. Second hint: Noam Chomsky, you'll be shocked to learn, is one of these radicals.)