Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan discuss whether religion is “built upon lies.”

February 2, 2007 | By | 16 Replies More

Beliefnet is currently hosting an on-going discussion involving atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan.  The topics of the discussion are God, faith, and fundamentalism.  These are two excellent writers who are doing a terrific job of testing each others’ positions.  Well worth a visit.

Here’s a sampling of Harris:

Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation . . .When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement. But no one doubts that Newton’s work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal—and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur’an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this “inerrant” text—scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually—in this email exchange.

Consider the possibility of improving the Ten Commandments. This would appear to be setting the bar rather high, as these are the only passages in the Bible that the Creator of the universe felt the need to physically write himself. But take a look good look at commandment #2. No graven images? Doesn’t this seem like something less than the-second-most-important-point-upon-which-to- admonish-all-future-generations-of-human-beings? . . . Almost any precept we’d put in place of this prohibition against graven images would augment the wisdom of the Bible (Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know…? Don’t mistreat children…? Avoid trans fats…?). Could we live with all the resulting problems due to proliferating graven images? We’d manage—somehow.

Here’s a sampling from Sullivan:

You see: we are closer than you might think. But you differ with me on how this translates into life. You ask legitimately: how can I, convinced of this truth, resist imposing it on others? The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it. That’s why I am such a dogged defender of pluralism and secularism – because I believe secularism alone does justice to the profundity of the claims of religion. The attempt to force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my faith defeats the point of my faith – which is that it is both freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus.

And that brings me to the asymmetry of our positions. We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate, ludicrous, a form of lying, and irrational. Yes, you are being intolerant. More, actually. The entire point of your book is intolerance. Where I respect your position, you refuse to respect mine.


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Category: Evolution, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Scholar says:

    Great lead, I kind of think Sullivan is a nutcase, or at least crazier than the "average bear". However, his beliefs about religion are the same as many other Americans. He is well spoken in many areas, and carries many mainstream (rational) ideas which I do agree with. Somebody must be crazy here…is it us (harris) or them (sullivan), or both?

    PZ Myers also thinks that Sullivan is "an obnoxious fool"…

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    I recently saw a Christian newsletter which contained an article about a troubled teen who had overcome a personal obstacle through prayer. The article stated that the teen "prayed to Buddha, but Jesus answered." I could not help but marvel at the arrogance, conceit, contempt and self-delusion embodied in that statement. If someone prays to Buddha, Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the prayer is "answered" in some fashion, then, says the devout Believer, of course, Jesus must have intercepted the prayer and run it back for a goal. It reminds me of the stories I've read about totalitarian regime governments, in which official documents attribute to the nation's "glorious leader" whatever good occurs in the country, no matter how far removed it might be from the influence of said individual. How nice that Jesus eavesdrops on prayers to other gods and intervenes on their behalf, never minding that millions (or billions) of people will then end up believing in those other gods instead of in Jesus and, thus, creating the basis for religious wars. Maybe this is why Bush's war strategies have gone so disastrously wrong, despite his claim to be listening to Jesus….

  3. Scholar says:

    Last night, Stephen Colbert interviewed Chris Hedges, author of "American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America".  Here's the link.

    I was initially impressed with Hedges' attack on fundamentalists. But, after hearing him talk for a while, I realized that he is actually supporting "real Christian values". Then he began quoting Augustine, and seemed to acquire a religious fervor, which thoroughly disturbed me.

    Here is the clip.

    Until recently, I had not realized that "moderates" such as Andrew Sullivan and Chris Hedges could be so vehemently opposed to fundamentalism.

    How should a rational person (Atheist) respond to these "moderates" who seem to have conflicting values? For example, identifying themselves as Christian, but only (cherry) picking the good parts as they see fit.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Scholar – interesting stuff by Chris Hedges. Thanks for the references. I enjoyed his Augustine quote: "Hope has two children, anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to make them better."

  5. normdoering says:

    I'm blogging this debate:

    Here's a taste:

    Andrew turns the question around, instead of answering why he believes Jesus rose from the dead he asks Sam why Andrew himself and so many others believe Jesus rose from the dead. He asks "What is your explanation? How do you account for why one person out of the billions who have ever lived had this impact? How probable is it that all these countless followers were all deluding themselves completely?"

    Well, contrary to Andrew's assertions, it's obviously quite probable that all those followers are deluding themselves. What does Andrew make of the believers in Islam, Hinduism etc.? Look at all the things people do believe, Andrew, and then think that through again. Aliens abducting people, faith healers curing people, John Edward talking to the dead, Sylvia Brown telling you where the body is buried, Elvis sightings, Nazi holocausts that supposedly never happened, white supremacy, Ouija boards, voodoo, penis enlargement pills, breast creams, real estate scandals, Scientology, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Ted Haggart becoming a heterosexual, the honesty and integrity of George Bush … and on and on and on. People's brains are apparently full to the brim with BS.

    To see my blog of the debate, click here.

  6. Ben says:

    Here is a link to a juicy debate over at scienceblogs about whether their site is unfairly "leaning toward atheism". What makes it so interesting is that the guy defending Christianity has a blog there too.

  7. Ben says:

    Harris rips right into Sullivan's latest diatribe in Harris vs. Sullivan part II….

  8. Rinaldi says:

    Sam Harris, keep on telling it like it is, you are doing a good job, all the religious are doing is brown nosing a hypothetical god they may assume belongs to them and that exists for their own personal reasons, comfort and future, smart people know better.

  9. Beer Bum says:

    I think a standard desktop computer is more awe inspiring than any religious text. Nobody thinks god created the computer…. unless you are an apple fanboy and think Woz is god.

    I love the freedom that social news networks give to people to espouse views about controversial subjects.

  10. Oowatie says:

    Before people can really understand religion they need to first understand themselves. People are either for or against religion which is just about always based in their conditioning. Check out, it can perhaps bring more clarity to thinking about religion and who you are in relationship to the rest of life.

  11. Bruce Ramsey says:

    If there is a God who created this vast universe and "fills heaven and earth" with "His" presence; who wrote a book that predicted "knowledge increasing" in the latter days (computers make that possible now), predicted Jews returning to the very land of Israel (they did, thanks to the evil of Germany and the guilt of the UN), then, even though there IS a book, the Bible, that SEEMS to have a poor scientific grasp of the reality atheistic scientists put forth as they dig around in earth layers…well, as I said, IF there is a God who is behind this vast universe, then, it seems to me, our very own beliefs, whether religious or non, are all up TO the thoughts of this Being. I, for one, have experienced things that support both the atheist perspective AND the Biblical. But, since there is nothing but dark despair at the end of the average atheist's life, I'm pulling more for the One that has hope, as stupid as that might sound to you so called "free thinkers".

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Bruce: You've asserted that there is "nothing but dark despair at the end of the average atheist's life."

    Gee, Bruce. I would recharacterize alleged the plight of non-believers as follows. Some of us accept the natural order of things, even if it is inconvenient to our hopes and desires.  I've written on this topic before (more than once), and here's the response I offer to you (see

    <p align="center">–Gentle Reminder to a Theist Acquaintance–

    You have publicly made a religious claim that is vague or has no trustworthy basis in fact. If I had remained silent, you might have erroneously assumed that I agreed with you. Because I value our relationship, though, I am hereby taking this moment to advise you of my disagreement. I am handing you this card to remind you of my beliefs:

    There are no invisible sentient beings such as Gods, spirits and ghosts.

    When people die, they are completely dead. They don’t “go” anywhere.

    The ancient religious scripture on which you rely is untrustworthy because it is vague, self-contradictory and historically unsupported.

    To best understand life one should employ a naturalistic worldview free of supernatural elements.

    There are many important things about life that humans simply don’t know and it is important to acknowledge our ignorance.

    I judge morality entirely on whether people demonstrate kindness to one another, not on religious beliefs.

    I would end by reminding you that people who don't believe in supernatural beings often nevertheless love their children, strive to preserve their planet and volunteer to make their communities better places.   For me, the proof is in the pudding.  You need to get to know a few non-believers before judging them as living pointless lives.   Anything less is bigotry.

  13. floyd bradley says:

    Well when some can explain why we are here, why death, and what happens after death, then they can explain the bible. until then I shall live forever. Love God

  14. grumpypilgrim says:

    Bruce writes: "But, since there is nothing but dark despair at the end of the average atheist’s life, I’m pulling more for the One that has hope…."

    I can't help but equate Bruce's comments with those of alcoholics who drown their sorrows in a bottle, or drug addicts who get high with a little pill. I've never understood why it feels good to some people to escape reality by reading the happy stories in the Bible and hanging out with other people who smilingly tell each other they're going to live forever in heaven — when, in fact, they don't know any more about death than anyone else does. That's really what religion, or at least Christianity, is about: finding a group of like-minded, deluded people who would rather tell each other happy lies than admit they are just as ignorant about death as everyone else. Sadly, Bruce isn't happier than the average atheist, he is just more deeply entrenched in self-deception.

    For years now, I have wondered why some people become evangelical Chrisitans — actually trying to persuade other people to become Christians. I've never understood why some people are so determined to convert other people. Now I have an answer: the bigger the group of like-minded, deluded people all telling each other the same happy lies, the more comforting and believable those lies become. Evangelicals want more Christians not for the sake of saving others, but because they are desperate to surround themselves with more people who share their delusion.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: I've often noticed how fundamentalists see free-thinkers to be flies in the ointment. To fundamentalists, we are the party-poopers. Why is it that people who are choosy to believe things only based on evidence are such an annoyance to fundamentalists?

    I concur with your comment immediately above. People like us remind them that things aren't as certain as they'd like to believe and that irritates them to no end. If they were certain, people like us wouldn't annoy the fundamentalists so much. They would just ignore us instead of constantly accusing us (without any evidence) of living pointless and immoral lives. Really, there is a reason why so many people who are generally amiable descend to rampant bigotry when they encounter others who sincerely doubt such things as virgin birth and supernatural otherworlds.

    I also suspect you are right that surrounding themselves with like-minded others gives fundamentalists comfort. Incestuous thinking does feel good in the short run (here's a recent post from the political world: ). In my mind, though, intellectual health requires that we periodically expose our selves to diverse opinions, including opinions directly contrary to our own. If my opinions can't stand "the light of day," they weren't worth a damn in the first place.

  16. grumpypilgrim says:

    Floyd says, "Well when some can explain why we are here, why death, and what happens after death, then they can explain the bible. until then I shall live forever. Love God."

    It's easy to explain why we are here, why death and what happens after death: we're hear because we were born — our parents had sex; death happens because we wear out; and what happens after death is that our species continues to live on through the other members of our species and our offspring, just as other species do. There is only mystery and confusion about these topics because: (a) the Bible is loaded with scary, nonsensical stories, and (b) Christian leaders make their living by maintaining the mystery and confusion.

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