Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Faith and Reason

As many of you know, this is apparently the time of the aggressive atheist. We have been flooded with recent books that take a very assertive attitude toward faith--and the conclusion is simple: religious faith is inconsistent with reason. One of the best examples of this new phenomenon is Sam Harris.

But do not be afraid--faith has a champion--and that champion is Andrew Sullivan, the noted gay conservative Catholic blogger. (Yes, since you ask, I do greatly enjoy the irony that Andrew Sullivan has become this generation's blogging C.S. Lewis). For the past few months, Andrew and Sam have been engaged in a very civil debate, that is well worth a read. It is quite rich. Here are excerpts from the opening comments.

From Sam:

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence-prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, "have faith in yourself." There's nothing wrong with that type of "faith."

Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

From Andrew's response:

As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth. So I am perfectly happy to believe in evolution, for example, as the most powerful theory yet devised explaining human history and pre-history. I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe - since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator. I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith - since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.

But just because that Truth may be beyond our human understanding does not mean it is therefore in a cosmic sense unreasonable. As John's Gospel proclaims, in the beginning was the Word - logos - and it is reasonable. At some point faith has to abandon reason for mystery - but that does not mean - and need never mean - abandoning reason altogether. They key is with Pascal: "l'usage et soumission de la raison." Or do you believe that Pascal, one of the great mathematicians of his time, was deluded into the faith he so passionately and simultaneously held?


Read it all (warning, it is a lengthly dialogue). I would be interested in your views on who gets the better of this quite interesting debate.

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