Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More from Andrew Sullivan

In The Unclean Glass, Sullivan responds to Harris.
So let me put this in a context that might appeal to you, as a rational, empirical person. How do you explain Christianity's enduring power? Is it all a terrible, ugly blight on the human mind that must be thrown out in favor of "truly honest, fearless inquiry"? But wouldn't "truly honest, fearless inquiry" into religious faith begin by asking how Christianity came to exist at all?

Consider the evidence. I do not believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth as God Incarnate. We have no evidence of a flying spaghetti monster. But we have solid evidence of Jesus' existence. We have a handful of independent historical artifacts that attest that a minor Jewish rabbi in first century Israel was executed by the Roman authorities. We have many Gospels that date from the period after his death testifying to the power of his message. Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way - and not just remembered but worshiped over two millennia later in the most advanced civilization the world has ever known. Does this not intrigue you? Have you never asked in the spirit of "truly honest, fearless inquiry": How on earth did this happen?

As a simple piece of historical inquiry, it's an astonishingly unlikely turn of events. Within a short period of time, not only was an obscure, failed Jewish rabbi remembered, his teachings became the official religion of the empire that had executed him. In the ensuing centuries, his life and teachings inspired many of the greatest minds, souls and talents humankind has ever produced. The collapse of the empire that elevated him did not lead to the disappearance of Christianity. It led to its eventual re-emergence as a vibrant, beautiful, rich experience for millions. Only Muhammad and the Buddha rival the story of this man - a fact that leads me to ask questions of both (particularly Buddhism), but which prompts you to condemn and anathematize all religious claims of any kind.
I think that Sullivan misunderstand probabilities. This reminds me of the football betting scam.

On the first weekend of the football season the scam artist sends out email messages to millions of people predicting the results of one of the games. In half the messages, he predicts team A will win. In the other half he predicts team A will not win.

On the second weekend, he send out messages to those who got the correct message the previous weekend.

He repeats this weekend after weekend until after a string of "correct predictions" he proposes to sell his final prediction to his remaining message recipients. Of course these people, having received a string of correct predictions will be hard pressed to resist.

One can make a similar case for Sullivan's story. As he points out, "Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way." Given the human inclination to believe, it's not unlikely that humanity will have adopted some religion. The particular religion it adopted (and it adopted a number of them) does not argue for the correctness of that religion. It does argue for a propensity of human beings to adopt beliefs. But that's not Sullivan's argument.

Elsewhere in the same piece, Sullivan attacks science as follows.
Science, your preferred mode of human understanding, is not contingency-free either. I know of no scientist who would claim so. It is shot through with contingency. It is the consequence of millennia of human thought, logic, experiment, argument, discovery, thesis, antithesis, synthesis - propelled by human curiosity, pride, obsession, and error. What science knows at any given moment is a function of everything it has ever known. And it is built and unbuilt by human minds with human weaknesses.
Of course he's right. As Richard Feynman, has said, "Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is." Science is not a doctrine, it is a search for understanding. It is a significant misunderstanding of science to portray it as comparable to religion as a way of viewing the world. Science is a commitment to do the best we can to understand the world, wherever that journey leads. Sullivan's religion appears to be a decision not to ask certain questions but to accept certain positions "on faith." These are not different doctrines or different bodies of knowledge, they are different kinds of approaches to examining one's life and one's understanding of nature.

Of course Sullivan may reply that his religion does not deny the truths of science. (He has said something like that elsewhere.) But in that case what is he claiming other than that the truths he argues for are beyond the scope of human reason and understanding. (He has said something like that elsewhere also.) But that brings us back to the position that everyone can accept. Sullivan is arguing for a position that has no intellectual consequences for the world in which we live. The only real consequences for religious beliefs with no implications about the natural world are the actions taken by believers as a result of holding those beliefs. Sullivan and Harris can then argue about the overall positive or negative effect on the world of religion.

It seems to me still open to debate whether religion has been a force for good or ill in the world. It's unlikely that this will be settled soon. To settle this question we will have to identify the distinct effects of religion and separate them from the way that human beings act without religion. Since we human beings seem to be built to construct and hang onto religious beliefs, I suspect that it will be extraordinarily difficult to characterize what a fully non-religious human being would act like. Perhaps it is a person who is open to questioning everything, if that is possible. Since there have probably been very few such human beings, a study of their effect on the world vs. the effect of everyone else is unlikely to yield much insight. The Buddha may be taken as prototypical of the person who is willing to question everything. How would one compare the effect of Buddhism to the effect of faith-oriented religions? Even that isn't a fair comparison since many Buddhist traditions have developed their own faith-like belief doctrines.

But all that is a completely different argument from one about whether religion includes anything comparable to what we would normally refer to as facts about nature. If both sides agree that religion does not assert any claimed facts about nature, then the two sides can agree on this common position. Those who find comfort in holding such beliefs may do so. Those who don't need not. Let there be peace among them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But of course institutional Christianity does make many claims about how (not merely why) the physical universe operates.

I like the betting-scam comparison. The other thing that works like this is mutual funds, where your broker can always find some that have way outperformed the market index over X years, because of course some always will. That language about past performance not being an indicator of future returns, which always seemed to me just a lawyerly hedge, I now see is probably quite true. There are probably some studies that track continutiy of success, and there are things like Berkshire Hathaway that have done well enough for long enough to be convincing, with Warren Buffet in place, but other firms have managers who come and go, and who happen to like a kind of investment that works in one market climate and fails in the next.