Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sam Harris v. Andrew Sullivan

Mark at Ready Steady Blog points to a lengthy debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at Beliefnet. Since I find both Harris and Sullivan generally unimpressive, and debate about the existence of God extremely tiresome, I wasn't planning on plowing through the thing any time soon. However, I got involved in a mini-exchange in the comments to Mark's post (based on the opening email in the debate from Harris, I said that Harris' definition of "reason" is problematic; another Richard said that Harris had not actually defined reason, but had attempted to define faith; I argued that his definition of faith implied a definition of reason; he said it didn't, and that Harris' use of reason was more expansive than I was giving him credit for), prompting me to read it now. On balance, I was not blown away; some observations follow.

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.)


Richard said...

"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."

I did think he was an inept debater, as it happens. In the event that I thought faith as a concept existed without any relation to social or political propositions I'd be inclined to agree with you, but the fact is that it not the case. People do base all sorts of political, social and many other sorts of stances on their faith and refuse to accept any form of evidence or argument to refute them. Do you recall that Whitehouse quotation about the faith and reality based communities, for example?

As I suspect we are unlikely to agree on this, I'll not go into detail on the rest, but the essential problem I have with your argument is that you seem to assume that religion belongs in a different category to economics or politics and I really don't think it's a separable issue.

Richard said...

You're right, we probably aren't going to agree on this. But I want to clarify a couple things.

First, I do not think that religion belongs in a different category than economics or politics. In part, I am contending that that's what Harris & Sullivan assume, even as they start off by agreeing about the political danger posed by Islam. I'm saying that economics and politics affect and determine religious belief (and of course the opposite is also true, which may be what you mean).

Second, I did not say that "faith as a concept exist[s] without any relation to social or political propositions". I merely said that faith, as such, is not the same as religious belief, or religious practice. Sullivan in his bumbling way is trying to say this, but Harris doesn't know what he's talking about.

I'll leave it there for now... except to say that I think the Bush crew are dangerous for a multitude of reasons, including their religious conviction. I'm not discounting that.

Adrian said...

Being Good Friday, life's a little short to read all of this debate and counter-debate. But, yes, religion requires far much more to survive (ie politics, culture et al), than just faith. And because there are so many religions (the Sunni and Shia distinction would be hilariously Swiftian if it wasn't so catastrophically to people's lives) really it IS political. Yet, there's something else. I was anti all religions in many ways - and still shudder at Tony Blair of George Bush using them "in the name of", they may as well believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden - yet, working in Manchester's regeneration areas, it is the faith communities who are first to go in, last to leave. The city council wants a casino (or an Asda or a Tesco) and the only voice of "reason" here is from the Bishops, who actually believe in something that can't be measured in pounds and pence.

Anonymous said...

Someone should explain to them that 911 was an inside-job. Surely only the most tone-deaf to reason and empirical knowledge could deny that having looked at the freefall collapse of WTC7. That and a million other bits of evidence that conflict with the official conspiracy theory of fundamentalist Muslims. Nice to see ye olds Slave Mentality still has the good slaves...I mean citizens still buying that load of garbage that the elites and their mass medias feed the public.

opit said...

These days the political impact of religion is becoming more and more difficult to overcome.
I link it to the outpouring of brainwashing on the American public ; it's merely one component in a comprehensive agenda of mind control.
Contrariwise, God is essentially so nebulous a basic proposition that rebutting it is senseless : one would have to reject a basic impression of perceived order and predictability in the world.
The baggage tagged onto this is where the mischief lies. Religion is merely the stretching of analogy far beyond the bounds of reliability, throwing in social goals to make the mix acceptable plus whatever fiction can be thrown onto this 'basic truth' without it becoming thrown out by those wishing to believe - a low bar.