Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sullivan and Harris on magic, miracles, love, and compassion

In their continuing debate, Andrew Sullivan writes
For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.
Sam Harris responds that this sort of position—the claim that negative evidence is positive evidence—illustrates how the religious faithful fool themselves about what they know.

Sullivan wants to focus on issues of love and compassion. Most of his reply—the extract above was not a representative sample—is in that vein. But with statements like the above, he keeps opening the door to Harris' complaints about claims about truth. Sullivan and Harris are clearly talking about different things.

What I don't understand is why Sullivan keeps playing Harris' game — and necessarily losing. Why doesn't he stick to love and compassion and stop claiming to have proof of an impossible physical event? He is willing to give up other literal interpretations of Biblical texts. As he says, the Bible is not without factual error. Why can't he leave it at that and stop insulting the intelligence of those who don't believe in magic or miracles? It seems to me that this is at the heart of what's not really a debate.

It didn't occur to me to ask this question until writing the preceding paragraph, but I now wonder how those who believe some but not all of the supernatural events described in the Bible decide which to believe and which not to believe. After all, most modern religious adherents don't take the Bible literally. How do they decide which parts to take literally and which parts to read metaphorically?

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