Coup de Grace

April 25, 2007

Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, and Andrew Sullivan, author of The Conservative Soul, have been conducting an Internet cage match on religious belief over the past few months.

My sympathies, intellectual and emotional, lie with Harris, so maybe it’s not surprising that I find his concluding argument to be as lethal as a matador’s final sword thrust above the exhausted bull’s horns:

You want to have things both ways: your faith is reasonable but not in the least bound by reason; it is a matter of utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt; you are still searching for the truth, but your belief in God is immune to any conceivable challenge from the world of evidence. I trust you will ascribe these antinomies to the paradox of faith; but, to my eye, they remain mere contradictions, dressed up in velvet.

If God loves the world, he has a terribly noncommittal way of showing it. Why rig a silly game in which only the poorly educated and mentally unbalanced are perfectly tuned to glimpse the truth of your existence, while smart, well-adjusted, and well-educated people (like yourself) must wrestle with doubt, barricade themselves behind euphemism, and cling to spurious “mysteries” to keep from tumbling into unbelief? You beckon me to a world in which George Bush and James Dobson have an effortless bead on the deepest conceivable truth; meanwhile, 93 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences may well be doomed for eternity by their skepticism. It’s hard for me to imagine that this scenario seems even remotely plausible to you–but this is Christianity at a glance. I am not the first to notice that it is a strange sort of loving God who would make salvation depend upon a person’s ability to believe in him on bad evidence.

Finally, let me say that there is something tragically unnecessary about all of this. I do not doubt the consolations you get from your faith. But faith is like a pickpocket who loans you your own money on generous terms. Your resultant feelings of gratitude are perfectly understandable, but misplaced. You are the source of the love that you attribute to Jesus (how else can you feel it?). Realizing this, what need is there to feel certain about ancient miracles?

Sullivan has been a spirited debate opponent but his position is undermined by his own tendency to treat Catholicism as a spiritual buffet table from which he can take the most appealing items and leave the rest. This tendency was noted in a recent piece in The New York Review of Books:

He reveres the antiquity of his church, loves the mystery and beauty of its rituals, cherishes the play of nuance and paradox in its theology, but is engaged in a running battle with the present occupant of the Episcopal Palace in Vatican City, Benedict XVI, over the issues of abortion, homosexuality, and, crucially, the role of individual conscience. His Catholicism is so personal and selective that it amounts almost to a kind of Protestantism, specifically Anglo-Catholicism, or High Anglicanism, in its affectionate retention of the forms of the old church while rejecting its authority . . . what he wants, he takes, and what he doesn’t want, he doesn’t have. He emphatically does not want to submit to the rulings of the man he calls “the fundamentalist pope,” whom he effectively excommunicates from his version of the true church. His point is that his beliefs, founded as they are on personal conscience, personal interpretation, shades of meaning, and a necessary embrace of contradictions, are entirely compatible with pragmatic, Oakeshott-style conservatism, while “fundamentalist” beliefs, Catholic or evangelical, are inimical to liberal democracy. It’s an argument worth following, even as one notes the amount of special pleading that goes into its construction.

Bearing that in mind, you should read the entire Sullivan-Harris debate.

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2 Responses to “Coup de Grace”

  1. geoff Says:

    Sullivan’s Catholicism is hardly unique. No Christian in my vast acquaintance with the species has eluded the tendency to pick and choose the most personally edifying tenets of the faith, leaving the rest behind. That’s why fundies mine the Old Testament for gay-bashing scriptures, but ignore the dietary restrictions or assurances that giving your daughter to a houseguest for sexual pleasure is hospitable.

    I also enjoy the fundy demand that scripture be read literally. I don’t know too many fundies who are giving away their possessions and living like little children. And I know a lot of fundies who make heroic arguments against reading “It is more likely that a camel will fit throuh the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” literally.

    A strange breed indeed.

  2. Rix Says:

    I don’t get it. Sullivan is not welcome in RC Church with the freedoms he demands & conditions the church sets.


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