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.