Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Harris versus Sullivan: The battle becomes a pillow fight

I just read, at beliefnet.com, Sam Harris' newest response to Andrew Sullivan and it is surprisingly gentle. Considering Andrew viciously attacked a straw man and then instead of telling Sam why he believes Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin, risen to heaven as declared in what Andrew acknowledges is an error filled book, and as is his responsibility in such a debate, he asked Sam why so many others have believed for so long. We don't know, Andrew, that's why we don't believe it, you have to tell us. Is that all you've got, "ah, Mom, everybody else is doing it." Andrew's response was pathetic.

I've argued with fundies that could describe their born again experiences in emotional detail, I've heard C.S. Lewis' arguments about universal morality and I have heard the argument from Biblical prophesy. I have never seen a Christian come back to the debate with their hands as empty as Andrew's. And I think Sam is starting to feel sorry for him. Sam doesn't throw any real bombs which would have been easy to do. Remember the old Sam of the earlier debate who could come up with lines like:

"You simply wrote to inform me that you have never doubted God's existence, cannot account for how you came to believe in Him, and are well aware that these facts will not (and should not) persuade me of the legitimacy of your religious beliefs. I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket."

Such lines got quoted and cheered here: on richarddawkins.net

Maybe they're digging them out now and I missed it? In basic substance, however, Sam's answers were not all that different than mine, (which is here).

Sam used different examples and different phrasing but covered some of the same points, and answered the same questions as I did. He had a couple better examples, I confess. The South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba is one example. Sathya Sai Baba claims to have been born of a virgin, walked on water, raised the dead, flew without the aid of technology, materialized objects, read minds and foretold the future.

"He has literally millions of followers, many of them educated westerners. You can watch some of his "miracles" on YouTube, performed before credulous throngs of spiritually hungry souls. Prepare to be underwhelmed. And yet, you are suggesting that tales of similar events emerging from the pre-scientific religious milieu of the 1st century Roman Empire (decades after their supposed occurrence) are especially credible."

So, how can I critique Sam if he's done that better? It's the things he's not doing that bother me. For example, Sam doesn't use the word "dogma" as I did. Instead Sam is still using the overly broad and off the mark word, "contingency." Sam uses other euphemisms for religious dogma, like "cultural prejudice" when he says:

"I merely asked you to imagine what it would be like if our discourse about ethics and spirituality were as uncontaminated by cultural prejudice as the discourse of science already is."

That doesn't work because I have lots of cultural prejudice to bring to bear on talk of ethics. As an American male who has grown up with scantily dressed women in advertising, at the beach, in my entertainment, and having "no means no" drummed into my psyche I am just way to use to my culture. I can only barely imagine what it would be like to grow up among those black, amorphous blobs of cloth where you only see their eyes and knowing them as women. Similarly, I would feel vaguely uncomfortable in a nudist colony – at least for awhile. So much of our morality is really just ingrained habits our culture makes us get use to.

The phrase "cultural prejudice" just misses the mark because dogma like "the bible says homosexuality is an abomination" is not just "cultural prejudice," it's something more. It claims not to be a cultural prejudice, it claims to be God's law.

This is dogma:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV):
"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters, nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Actually, the whole buy-bull is dog-ma.

Maybe dogma is a word that would require definition for Andrew, and perhaps Sam too. Here you go guys:

Dogma: a religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof.
Dogma: a doctrine or code of beliefs accepted as authoritative; "he believed all the Marxist dogma."
Dogma: (the plural is either dogmata or dogmas) is belief or doctrine held by a religion or any kind of organization to be authoritative. Evidence, analysis, or established fact may or may not be adduced, depending upon usage.
Dogma: a religious truth established by Divine Revelation and defined by the church.
Dogma: a blind belief in things often without a material base.

"Dogma" gets closer to the heart of the matter than "cultural prejudice" or "contingency." Those two phrases are vague and fluffy pillows, but the word "dogma" cuts to the bone. And some of Sam's claims aren't entirely on the mark, for example:

"...the discourse of science already exists, and it already functions by norms that are quite alien to religion. If applied in religion, these norms would leave very few traditional doctrines still standing. But contrary to your fears on the matter, this would not make religious music, art, or architecture any less beautiful."

If beauty is the enjoyed emotional reaction to a work of art then I indeed do feel an emotional change in my reactions to art after dropping my religious beliefs. I don't think an atheist and a Christian are going to have the same emotional reaction to a film like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" or "2001." Atheism drags all possibilities down to a human level with only human possibility and with science fiction being the closest thing to transcendent hope. It would be dishonest to say one's response to art, beauty and religious metaphor remains the same. Contemplating God or heaven isn't done with some warm, vague and fuzzy expectations of eternity. Eternity becomes a colder, more distant and indifferent idea. But the human side of art takes on a new depth and clarity, but the clarity isn't always pretty. Music and architecture are pretty much the same I guess, they're abstract - but not literature, movies, painting and sculpture.

Maybe this will give you a little taste of the human side: What do you see when you look at Michelangelo's David? Do you think about the fact that he's not circumcised as the real David probably would have been if he really existed and that he has a rather modern haircut for a biblical figure? And why is he nude -- did biblical figures walk around without clothes? Do you ever think maybe the old Greek and Roman scupltures were better? What was that statue to Michelangelo? A biblical figure or a pretty boy? A pretty boy that Michelangelo spent a lot of time on lovingly smoothing out those muscles? What makes that statue religious besides the name and the fact it was commissioned in 1501 by the Cathedral Works Committee?

When I was religious I might have accepted the idea that Michelangelo was trying to depict a biblical figure, but he couldn't have really tried hard to do that. Now I see something else.

And to make Sam's point perhaps, the picture below is an ancient classic marble sculpture, the Trojan priest Laocoon is attacked by a sea serpent sent by the goddess Athena. It's not Christian, does that make it any less marvelous than Michelangelo's work? Michelangelo would have grown up around such ancient imagery and so his influences were pagan, in part. If you can respond to the art of a religion not your own, then why would atheists like your art less than you like ancient Greek art?

Wait a minute... "why would atheists like your art less than you like ancient Greek art?" What am I thinking?! Not all Christian art is classic sculpture and classical music. Have you heard Christian rock? Have you seen those sappy pictures of clouds and sunsets that Andrew Sullivan heads his religion posts with? I hope people's tastes change.

And, I'm not sure, but I suspect Sam may have stumbled into his own straw man with this comment: "Your [Andrew's] comments seem to invoke a stark opposition between reason and emotion that I do not believe exists (and which now seems quite implausible at the level of the brain)." Well, if I read Andrew right, he doesn't think so either. Maybe I missed something.

A bit of what Sam wrote is baffling. For example, Sam says: "I did hear some bomb-blasts in the distance. They were magnificent." Huh? What exactly are "bomb-blasts in the distance"? Could he mean things like my previous blog entry? I don't even know if either of them know I exist.


The Barefoot Bum said...

Your comments about both Sullivan and Harris are spot-on, especially about Harris. I just don't think Harris is used to debating someone of Sullivan's rhetorical talent and gift for doublethink.

Harris may be used to serving up softies to cretinist fucktards who "didn't bring a racket", but that kind of slackness won't cut it against Sullivan. Harris has brought a knife to a gunfight.

normdoering said...

According to my post, he brought a pillow to a "play dirty" gun fight.

AtheistAcolyte said...

I actually think that Harris is debating very intelligently, and in a manner I hope to really 'try out' someday against a theist. Harris is employing a rhetorical 'bait-and-switch' on Sullivan: First, he baits Sullivan into anger, making him very belligerent. This primes Sullivan for a paradigm shift. Then, when Sullivan is good and fiery, Harris switches tacks and defuses him, confusing him (subconciously, perhaps) and making Sullivan more receptive to rational thought. This can be considered analogous to a "Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine, or (in a far more metaphorical way) annealing. I am very interested to see how Sullivan reacts to this latest letter. You'll notice that he has made no mention of it beyond the initial "He wrote me back" posting.

Amicus said...

I've read some of the comments over at Dawkins "oasis" and quite a few think that Sam is doing killer. Yet, that seems to be a summary judgement, not anything they want to back up.

As for your post here, quite a lot of doctrine or dogma can win the form of rationality. Atheists seem to rely so much on making religion out to be wholly arbitrary, but that's a strawman - not fully, but to a large enough degree that reasonable people cannot recognize it as such.

Sam's opening note tries to make the case that religion is the problem in the world today, and Andrew has yet to ask him for proof that athiest ideologies are somehow *inherently* less violent. What's more, Sam seems simply to ignore the larger number of religious people actively working for peace and prosperity. His arguments on this score are the thinnest.

The most compelling question, IMO, that Sam has raised is whether the interfaith dialogue can somehow benefit from having an atheist perspective at the table, so to speak. Perhaps, but not on the questions he puts forward about Islamist extremists - in the places he would like to have influence, non-believers do not make it to the discussion table, but moderates can.

What is not true, however, is Sam's idea that we can approach ethics like we might science.

normdoering said...

Amicus wrote:
"... quite a lot of doctrine or dogma can win the form of rationality."

Excuse me? Can you explain that statement and provide evidence for it.

If it can win "the form of rationality" (whatever that means) then it's not dogma.

"Atheists seem to rely so much on making religion out to be wholly arbitrary,..."

But the arbitrary, unsupported and absurd are the only perts we want to get rid of. What's left can't be called religion. I don't think you know how deep the insanity of religion goes.

Amicus said...

Warning: this turned out a LOT longer than I anticipated, but such as it is:

First, let me say that I don't think that I can "prove" to you the existence of God, generally conceived, which seems to be the starting point for much atheist argument. It's up to individuals to believe what they would believe, and we can only share with others what we find to be valuable.

Second, I'm not a religious scholar nor a Biblical expert, and the arguments of atheists no longer hold the intellectual interest for me as they once did. That's just to say that, unlike Sullivan, I wouldn't have had the passion to take on a challenge that religious scholars have many times before him on the years.

I'd answer your question by asserting a conclusion to shorthand things a bit, which is that I think agnostics have a more defensible position than do atheists, because atheists actually posit a truth that ultimately looks like a religious truth - a belief IN something, i.e. "no God" - rather than agnostics, who don't go so far, but just recognize the limits of rationality on the matter.

For me, the "insanity of religion", as you phrase it, is too broad a characterization (and unbalanced because it ignores the ideological excesses of non-religious 'insanity'). If Islamic Jihad is Sam's yardstick (first letter), then that "insanity" is de minimus compared to the large number of self-describe religious people who are NOT involved in that. If Sam wants other terms than Jihad, I'd concede that people have been misled into believing things about the earth's age, but we might part ways on the consequences of that, one a case by case basis. Specifically do I really care if my neighbor believes the earth is 6,000 y.o. anymore than I really care if he can explain the science of black holes?

As for winning the form of rationality, I'd probably use three examples to explain myself, but I'd start first with a question to you (Sullivan isn't very aggressive with Sam in that regard).

As an atheist, how do you reject murder (homocide) on an exclusively rational basis?

That would be one example, one of a 'moral truth' that might be evidenced *both* by rationality (whatever your own atheist argument might be), but also by dogma/doctrine (derived solely from various religious texts thought to hold the truth on such matters).

Second, I might pick an example of a spiritual truth, one that has echos across religious belief, as some evidence, at least, that the speghetti monster argument is cariacature. Without much thought as to whether it is a good example, I'd say at Christ said "let the dead bury their dead" (Matthew 8:22), which can be interpreted, in my unrefined way, to mean that if one is trying to carve out a time/place to be 'spiritual' that's a misconception. One sees similar teachings from the Vedas, I think, and the list probably goes on.

Third, I might offer faith as a viewpoint, a perspective, not altogether arbitary in the way Sam (and Dawkins) suggest, but as ways of ordering the world as far as individual ethical questions. Arjuna, at the opening of the Gita, as best I recall, learns about duty, amid the mind-numbing destruction of war. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have an injunction to Honor they Mother and Father. This is a viewpoint, one on which moderates, extermists, and atheists might all have widely different interpretations, but, notwithstanding, it is a general point of departure that pure rationalists (or "truth now" people) do not have, arguably.

Fourth, I might try to find an example of the promise of faith, the wisdom in the wisdom literature, so to speak. There is a teaching in many traditions for people not to lose their balance in the face of certain types of injustice, because people cannot hide their bad deeds forever. As a young man or woman, you might have no reason to believe that is true and really no basis in experience from which to inform a "truth now" opinion. However, as you get older, you start to see how true that can be.

normdoering said...

Amicus you're such a perfect example of religious brainwashing I did a whole post on you.

Look for:
First came the brain dead, now come the brainwashed

Amicus said...

Well, I'm happy to read your new post and its assorted links, which are numerous, so give me a little time to do so.

Really, I have no fear of doing so, no trepidation or worry about it. I'm not really "frightened" by Pentecostals and neither am I "scared" of ... "Hellians", if one takes your blog title at its word.

Truth be told, I liked the pillow-fight picture at the top of your post, that's why I engaged.

I have no idea, honestly, why so many atheist feel that they must assert their intellectual superiority at the outset and throughout the debate.

It suggests that perhaps their "religion" truly is to kneel at the alter of a rationality for which they presuppose too much (if it were so evident, why the stridency?), if only because the the sheer contempt, condescension, and disregard for any who seem to them not to have the intellectual capacity, the rationality, to understand them and their superior viewpoint.

normdoering said...

Congratulations Amicus, you've inspired a second post.

Look for:
The Problem with Stupid People is…

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