April 8, 2007

The God Debate

I suppose I should start subscribing to Newsweek. They seem to have the best religious articles.

In the April 9 issue (front cover: "How I Live With Cancer," by Jonathan Alter), the article that drew my attention is "The God Debate." Rick Warren and Sam Harris fighting it out, toe to toe, faith vs. faith. (Yeah, I believe atheism is just as much a "faith" as any religion.) I've never before paid much attention to Rick Warren, having avoided all the "Purpose Driven Life" hype. (I think he's the one who wrote that book, isn't he? See what I mean?) But in this article, he certainly gave Sam Harris a run for his money.

As an aside: I've never read any of Harris' books, but I have seen him debate with other Christians, most notably with Andrew Sullivan on Beliefnet. I started reading this but grew bored with it after a while. I couldn't put my finger on why until I read the article in Newsweek. Then it hit me: Andrew Sullivan let Harris get away with making the most idiotic, dogmatic claims.

Rick Warren doesn't.

In fact, the whole tone of the Warren/Harris exchange can be summed up in this one snippet of conversation.

HARRIS: Any scientist must concede that we don't fully understand the universe. But neither the Bible nor the Qur'an represents our best understanding of the universe. That is exquisitely clear.

WARREN: To you.

Zing! Seriously, in my opinion, one must take into account why the Bible was written. It was not written to provide a discourse on "specific sciences from cosmology to psychology [although one could argue that Jesus Christ, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, was a pretty fine psychologist] to economics," which is apparently what Sam Harris wants it to be. It was written to tell the story of man's fall at the hands of Satan, and how God purposed, through the Kingdom under Jesus Christ, to bring things back to what Zie originally intended them to be.

As such, the Bible doesn't have to be a bloody scientific textbook.

Rick Warren also nails down Sam Harris' dogmatism, arrogance, and anger. Harris claims not to be angry, but rather "impatient." This sent off warning bells for me, and after thinking about it I realized why.

I get impatient when I'm behind the wheel. I cheerfully admit to being an aggressive driver; nothing will raise my ire faster, or make my horn honk louder, than some yahoo turning in front of me without signaling; or some idjit creeping down a perfectly good, dry highway at twenty frakking miles an hour when the speed limit (or suggestion) is thirty-five; or some jackass darting into my lane and cutting me off. You know why I get impatient? Because at that moment, as far as I am concerned (and screw the concept of right-of-way, consideration, and sharing the roads), YOU ARE STUPID and I AM RIGHT.

This is how Sam Harris (and Richard Dawkins) comes off. It does not endear me to the belief system of atheism, I can tell you. Especially when, at the core, the atheist cannot prove the non-existence of God. Sam Harris says things like "You don't have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain the complexity we see," but that does not constitute proof. This condescending attitude of "You poor deluded superstitious fool, you really need to be forcibly separated from your beliefs for the good of humanity," is to my mind just as dangerous as the mindset of the Popes during the Inquisition.

Anyway. Back to the article. Rick Warren continues calling Harris out (at one point he says, "Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions"), until we reach this exchange, which is to me at the heart of the debate.

HARRIS: So you and I both stand in a relationship of atheism to Islam. (After Warren's agreement to Harris' statement that "if the evidence were sufficient, you would be compelled to be Muslim.")

WARREN: We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God. In 1974, I spent the better part of a year living in Japan, and I studied all the world religions. All of the religions basically point toward truth. Buddha made this famous statement at the end of his life: "I'm still searching for the truth." Muhammad said, "I am a prophet of the truth." The Veda says, "Truth is elusive, it's like a butterfly, you've got to search for it." Then Jesus Christ comes along and says, "I am the truth." All of a sudden, that forces a decision.

HARRIS: Many, many other prophets and gurus have said that.

WARREN: Here's the difference. Jesus says, "I am the only way to God. I am the way to the Father." He is either lying or he's not.

Sam, is Rick intellectually dishonest?
I wouldn't put it in such an invidious way, but—

Let's say Rick's not here and we're just hanging out in his office.
It is intellectually dishonest, frankly, to say that you are sure that Jesus was born of a virgin.

WARREN: I say I accept that by faith. And I think it's intellectually dishonest for you to say you have proof that it didn't happen. Here's the difference between you and me. I am open to the possibility that I am wrong in certain areas, and you are not.

HARRIS: Oh, I am absolutely open to that.

WARREN: So you are open to the possibility that you might be wrong about Jesus?

HARRIS: And Zeus. Absolutely.

WARREN: And what are you doing to study that?

HARRIS: I consider it such a low-probability event that I—

WARREN: A low probability? When there are 96 percent believers in the world? So is everybody else an idiot?

HARRIS: It is quite possible for most people to be wrong—as are most Americans who think that evolution didn't occur.

WARREN: That's an arrogant statement.

HARRIS: It's an honest statement.

Well, at least Harris admits he's an arrogant prick.

"Such a low-probability event"? Sheesh. Unlike Sam Harris (and like Rick Warren) I read about other religions. I read a great many scientific articles and non-fiction works. I would go so far as to say that I accept micro-evolution (i.e., evolving bacteria and such, along with this fascinating article about how small dogs came to be) while utterly rejecting the idea of macro-. None of this has shaken my faith; in fact, it reinforces it.

I wonder if Sam Harris' refusal to consider other possibilities (beyond the "spiritual" ones he talks about in the article, which seems to come from his evident familiarity with meditation) derives from his arrogance, or his fear.

Harris also likes to compare apples with oranges. At one point:

Rick, if you had been born in India or in Iran, would you have different religious beliefs?
There's no doubt where you're born influences your initial beliefs. Regardless of where you were born, there are some things you can know about God, even without the Bible. For instance, I look at the world and I say, "God likes variety." I say, "God likes beauty." I say, "God likes order," and the more we understand ecology, the more we understand how sensitive that order is.

HARRIS: Then God also likes smallpox and tuberculosis.

Oh, nonsense. That's not only out of left field, it's just plain stupid. The latter two are diseases, arising from viruses and bacteria (and evolving bacteria, as far as that goes, considering the recent worrisome cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis). Diseases have nothing to do with God's sense of variety, beauty, and order. (This no doubt comes from Harris' assertion that God, if zie exists, is responsible for all the evil in the world, which I do not believe to be the case.) That's just a nasty, snarky remark.

However, the moderator does let Rick Warren have the last word.

WARREN: I believe in both faith and reason. The more we learn about God, the more we understand how magnificent this universe is. There is no contradiction to it. When I look at history, I would disagree with Sam: Christianity has done far more good than bad. Altruism comes out of knowing there is more than this life, that there is a sovereign God, that I am not God. We're both betting. He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.

Durned tootin.


Rootietoot said...

Yay! That was wonderful!

The maiden said...

Well said indeed! These sorts of debates have been going on lately at SubversiveChristianity, and I'm really getting concerned that they're fruitless because of the different languages the different parties speak. At any rate, well done. I enjoy reading your blog!