Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Harris versus Sullivan, the battle continues

Andrew Sullivan's latest response to Sam Harris, called "The Unclean Glass," is up.

Andrew begins, of course, by distorting Sam's position because if he didn't Andrew's head would explode. The longer this goes on, the more insane moderate Christianity seems. Andrew Sullivan does a great job on politics, he seems clear and rational, but when it comes to his faith we can begin to see how his thoughts have been befogged.

Sam asked Andrew to "Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is." Andrew distorts that into being "completely contingency-free" (meaning contingency in an absurdly ultra-broad way) rather than "as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is." There's a difference, because, as Andrew correctly notes, science is not "completely contingency-free." Science, is however, far more free of contingency than any religion is. Everything in science is open to question. There is, contrary to creationist claims, no dogma in science and "dogma" is the word Sam should have used.

Sam slipped. He didn't specify the kind of contingencies science is free from (it is dogma you meant, Sam. Don't throw Andrew's language back at him, it's loaded). Normally Sam wouldn't have to bother with such specificity and it should be obvious from context. However, when you talk to someone as deeply in denial as Andrew is, you have to speak with so much specificity that one's language becomes leaden and dull.

Andrew then goes on and on to preach to Sam things I'm pretty sure Sam already knows, such as about David Hume and faith in our own senses and memory. That helps Andrew feel superior to the assumed ignorance of the atheist. However, having faith in my senses isn't the same as having faith in dogma, and by dogma I mean stories passed down for generations that can't be checked on. My senses are me and what I seek to explain (even if they're the known illusions of itchy phantom limbs) the Christian dogma is a hand me down (I was raised Christian and rejected it).

Andrew, yet again, avoids answering Sam's questions about this dogma/contingency simply and directly. This was Sam's question: "...the specific beliefs that would make you a Christian and a Catholic, as opposed to a generic theist. Do you believe in the resurrection and the virgin birth? Is the divinity of the historical Jesus a fact...?" As I said, dogma is the contingency that Andrew's previous post was avoiding and Sam was asking about the clearest cases of Christian dogma. Andrew continues to avoid being direct about this. However, the implied answer is that, yes, Andrew believes in the resurrection and the virgin birth of Jesus as well as the divinity of the historical Jesus. (Why does Andrew avoid saying it directly? Does just saying it sound too dogmatic even for him?) Andrew's "rational, empirical explanation" for his belief in that dogma is that those whom saw Jesus saw something "so astonishing, so utterly unlike anything that had ever occurred before, that they became on fire with this new truth."

Hmmm, if Andrew saw David Blaine levitate off the ground, handle a few poison snakes and turn water into wine would he think it logical to assume Blaine was born of a virgin? Would he believe anything attributed to Blaine? If Criss Angel seemed to teleport out of a locked chest and then guessed Andrew's card would it mean that Criss Angel was the son of God? If Penn and Teller could do the cups and balls trick with clear plastic cups would Andrew have to conclude Penn and Teller were divine beings? Born of virgins? Would he get on fire with whatever Penn and Teller told him?

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.

Andrew points to the "many" Gospels (including Gnostic gospels Andrew? The gospels of Thomas, Judas and Mary?) testifying to the "power of his message," noting that only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way…" (well, two if you count Spartacus are remembered by name by me, scholars might come up with more names) and not just remembered but "worshiped over two millennia later…" Andrew then asks: "Does this not intrigue you?" Have you never asked how on earth did this happen? He then says: "As a simple piece of historical inquiry, it's an astonishingly unlikely turn of events."

It's not really astonishing if we look at the bigger picture of human history, not just Christian history. Andrew is impressed because Jesus is not just remembered but worshiped over two millennia later. Let's compare that with Egyptian religion, with how long Isis, Osiris and Ra were worshipped. It kicks off sometime before the "Archaic Period" (3414-3100 BC) when there is the unification of all Egypt. By 3000 BC at the very least, people had already been worshipping Isis, Osiris, Ra, and the Amen but now it's big. Further south, the Kushites seem to have also worshipped them. This religion lasts for more than 2,000 years as a state religion, closer to 3,000 years, and that is longer than Christianity has lasted. It sort of, but not quite ends, as a state religion with the Persian Period (517-425 BC) I think. But if being a state religion is the rule, Christianity died after the Enlightenment (perhaps its own Persian Period?) and that makes Christianity's life span significantly shorter than that of the Egyptian religion. In some ways, however, Isis, Osiris and Ra get incorporated into some forms of Gnostic Christianity and they continue far into the first centuries of AD.

If Andrew is going to accept long endurance, great numbers of worshippers and huge temples as indicators of "truth" rather than "truthiness" he'll have to start believing in Isis, Osiris and Ra. He'll also have to consider Hinduism and believing in Zeus. The point there is that it's not just the Egyptians, it's the Babylonians, Sumerians, the ancient Chinese, Indian Hinduism and other religions that have had, and continue to have, long lives and that have shaped their cultures with their own dogma. Is Andrew going to have to give them equal belief?

Looking at the bigger picture we can see that religion evolves and dogma like that about the names of specific saviors and what they did to save us is the most ephemeral part of religion. The part that continues through all of them, from Sumerian sun gods to the Islamic Koran to L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, is a belief in a life after death, belief in magic and of powers beyond man's feeble abilities.

Andrew also asks, "...if Jesus wasn't nothing, … what was he in your eyes?" What Jesus was to me (I don't know about Sam) was a man who twisted an old religious meme into a new and more viral form. I explained my views in two essays over a decade ago, those are here:

Also here:

"What secret did he hold that so many others haven't?" The secret was that into those gospel stories about Jesus got weaved the greatest religious mind-fuck yet invented. And also because his followers would kill and die for the religion because they got so mind-fucked. Read my essays and future entries in this blog for more detail on all that.

"That is an empirical question. And it merits an empirical answer." And there are such answers. But even if I'm wrong about Christianity being rooted in a mind-fuck we just have to consider that if you flipped a few million coins and get a specific number of heads up, the odds against the number you got would be millions to one. Only one number can come up on one throw and that's the way it is with state religions. One religion wins, the others die, and Christianity became a state religion that then persecuted others as they were persecuted for believing the wrong religion.

Andrew then goes on to cut his nose off to spite his face. He says; "No human society has ever functioned without the large faith that underpins all the little faiths: religion." Yes, Andrew, and prior to the Enlightenment no secular societies had ever existed. America was one of the first. Before then they all had state religions. You don't want that, do you? Your fundy friends would like it.

Andrew says; "No society has ever existed without the mature human acceptance of what we do not know and what is greater than we are. No civilization has ever been atheist at its core." America comes pretty close to being agnostic to its core by introducing freedom of religion and the two biggest competitors in governing the largest masses of people are officially atheistic, Russia and China. Are they somehow not atheistic to the core? What is the core here? If it's about what the majority believes I think Sweden is more than fifty percent atheist.

Andrew says; "No polity has ever been constructed in the absence of faith, or in the absence of a tradition of faith that makes belief in the present possible at all. Earth to Sam: Does this not tell you something?" It should tell Sam that Andrew is losing it. A lot of things have happened that have never happened before. Secular states, walls of separation between church and state, end of slavery, gay rights, women voting and this internet we're all using. We are certainly moving in a direction in which there will be a polity constructed in the absence of faith.

Andrew asks; "Or is it plausible that human beings tomorrow will become something that in all of human history and pre-history they have never, ever been?"

Yes! Andrew, yes! We are becoming something different; we already have become something that never existed before. If we hadn't changed and become secular gays wouldn't have any change of getting married and America would have a state religion. Already a majority of the worlds top scientists are atheists – can you account for that Andrew?

Andrew even commented on another aspect of it in his blog. Here:

Faith and the Universe

Andrew quoted Carl Sagan on the intersection of science and faith and said that what our generation has internalized is the utter insignificance of this planet and human beings, in the context of what we have come to know about the universe. Such knowledge was not only unknown to those who wrote the Bible, it was unknown to every human being before. It is brand-spanking new and it has changed everything. Andrew only noted, via Sagan, Galileo's push into the new ideas about our universe. What about Darwin, Freud and Turing?

Andrew says this new knowledge alters his faith. Alters it? It should have demolished it.

He says; "Denial of evolution, in my view, is a sign of weak faith, not strong faith. It's a function of terrible fear, not the confidence of a loving God." Evolution is somewhat compatible with some deistic notions of God, but evolution is not something a "loving God" would do to his creatures. Evolution needs a thousand dead failures for every incremental move forward. Evolution isn't going to stop because man arrived, so stop thinking of yourself as the crown of creation.

Christianity has some other core doctrines, like that of original sin, like that of "the fall," that evolution demolishes. If Darwinian evolution is true then there was no original sin, there was no fall after which man is thrown out of paradise. Murder, theft, deception, rape and more existed long before our first ancestors walked onto land. Man didn't fall into these sins because they were part of the survival strategies of prehistoric fish. God would have had to have invented and injected sin into the world before man emerged and that contradicts the core message of Genesis.

Evolution means there was no Garden of Eden and no original sin and no fall. Now, some would say that this Eden and original sin are being read too literally. They come up with allegorical meanings for Genesis' first chapters, like how man's original sin, really eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was about man first becoming conscious. Oh, sooo, Jesus will save you from consciousness? Are you sure you like that interpretation?

Andrew then, poseur alert, poseur alert, writes: "Religion at its deepest is the attempt to reconcile this profound human predicament: that we exist in bodies but dream beyond them, that we are caught between the irrational instinct of beasts but endowed with the serene hope of angels. This paradox of humanity - which you would erase into a clean slate - is what religion responds to and has always responded to…" And this is from the guy who likes to expose others as poseurs. Then from some guy called Oakeshott; "…in the poetic quality, humble or magnificent, of the images, the rites, the observances, and the offerings (the wisp of wheat on the wayside calvary) in which it recalls to us that 'eternity is in love with the productions of time' and invites us to live 'so far as is possible' as an immortal."

Doesn't that narcissistic interpretation of religion sound grand! He calls it humility. He has the "serene hope of angels," and the gullibility of a child that believes in Santa Claus. He lives 'so far as is possible' as an immortal because he doesn't want to face his own imminent death. He writes so glowingly, so poserly, in wonder of his religious superstitions. What utter mush!

Sam, don't give this guy the clean glass, he is obviously the guy who shit in the last one.


Wax-Q said...

You seem like an intelligent writer most of the time, so it's a shame you had to lump the Church of Scientology in with Ouija boards and Elvis sightings. You may choose to dislike Scientology, but unlike Ouija boards, at least it is recognized as a religion. And Voodoo is also a religion that means a lot to hundreds of thousands of people out there and probably shouldn't be ridiculed so lightly either. They definitely don't belong in the same category as penis enlargement hoaxes!

normdoering said...

Scientology, Ouija boards, Voodoo and penis enlargement hoaxes all have one thing in common that puts them all in exactly the same category; I don't believe in any of them and thus they are examples of that. I doubt if Andrew Sullivan believes in any of those things either and yet they are all believed by others.

I do not give religion a pass, BS is BS.

Gary said...

Nice analysis (despite the caustic rhetoric). I fully expect Harris to bring up some of your main points and others. I feel like Sullivan is arguing himself into a corner.

386sx said...

Nice analysis (despite the caustic rhetoric). I fully expect Harris to bring up some of your main points and others. I feel like Sullivan is arguing himself into a corner.

What choice does he have? He has nothing. All that Josh McDowell C. S. Lewis crap is about as good as it gets when one is trying to defend the specifics of whatever particular religious sect. And yeah, Harris is going to jump all over him next time around. Oh man.

g.k.bijl said...

Sullivan is getting weaker and weaker. Unfortunately other faithheads will disstantiate themselves from Sullivan, once Sam Harris has 'won'. It seems that tearing religion apart goes one believer at a time. But now the process appears to gain some momentum (or am I too optimistic ?) maybe we will cause an avalanche.

OccamsAftershave said...

man's original sin, really eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was about man first becoming conscious. Oh, sooo, Jesus will save you from consciousness? Are you sure you like that interpretation?

Playing the pedant here, the interpretation is not "becoming conscious", it's acquiring the cognitive ability and language to practice cognitive morality, as opposed to instinctual, emotive, authoritarian/imprinted morality. Postulate principles and derive, etc.
Course, I don't see why we should be saved from that either.