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Monday, May 07, 2007

Andrew Sullivan v. Sam Harris: Andrew erects a straw man at close

In the final installment of his "blogalogue" about faith with militant atheist Sam Harris, Andrew Sullivan mischaracterizes Harris' relentless rationalism as "fundamentalist atheism," a logical monstrosity that bears no relation to Harris' arguments. Here's a third-party response to Mr. Sullivan:

Let's begin with your slippery use of the word 'toleration.' You claim that Harris is attempting "to end the toleration for religiously-rooted argument.' But Harris is only refusing to 'tolerate' religious arguments intellectually. By a neat elision, your attack on 'fundamentalist atheism' raises the specter of religious persecution as practiced by Nazis and Communists.

Harris' atheism bears no resemblance to these ideologies, which it would be more accurate to call atheist fundamentalism than fundamentalist atheism. Communism in particular was a secular religion that brooked no deviation from the scriptures or lack of faith in the promised end of history. The focal point was not atheism per se, but a utopian promise guaranteed by an infallible scripture. Harris is attempting to impose no such faith. He is taking from believers nothing that they would not give up willingly.

Why should we worry about beleaguered, non-fundamentalist believers like yourself becoming "convinced that the choice is solely between fundamentalism and atheism"? Do Harris' arguments render you "trapped perforce in the fundamentalist camp"? If so, what a tender plant you are-- and what a tender plant your faith is. Not surprisingly, since throughout this dialogue Harris has uprooted your arguments one by one.

Plainly Harris and his ilk are seeking to break the religious spell by force of argument alone. They're trying to pull the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. If they succeed, it will likely be a process of centuries. If they can't succeed -- if you're right that "atheism will never occur spontaneously among humans in large numbers"--then their effort can't "make the problem [of fundamentalism] worse."

But how do you know that they will fail? You assert, "Atheism will never occur spontaneously among humans in large numbers." Another clever elision: why "spontaneously"? Why might atheism not predominate by gradual force of argument and experience- as democracy and belief in human rights are predominating? Or as religious tolerance -- once as unthinkable as atheism -- took hold after centuries of religious war in Europe?

Speaking of democracy and human rights: your faith in God is counterbalanced by a rather surprising (or unsurprising, if you buy the Christian bit about fallen humanity) lack of faith in humanity. Call it an a-humanist complement to your theism:

In my more realistic moments, I have come to accept the inevitability of large-scale global destruction in my lifetime. The odds against it aren't great. Islamist countries already have nukes; a particularly extreme faction in Iran may soon have access to them; Islamists are not only capable of inflicting Armageddon, they clearly want to. They are not subject to intimidation, which is what makes religious faith at its most intense so powerful. They cannot even be stopped by force. We have learned that in Iraq. Bullets cannot change hearts. It is so easy to destroy; it is so hard to build.

Human society always poses great risks to itself. But are those risks greater now than thirty or forty or sixty years ago? As a terrific TNR article recently pointed out, death by war and other violence has been dropping precipitously for decades -- indeed for centuries and millennia. Human health and wealth improve steadily. Yes, we could derail ourselves, wholly or partly, by terror or environmental depredation or some other unforeseen pitfall. But the general movement is in the other direction. Indeed, while radical Islam is scary and the prospect of Islamists getting and using WMD is real, it is essentially a rearguard action against modernity. And while I think that your disillusionment with Bush's transformative fantasy was brave and important, I also think you still buy into an alarmist, monolithic frame for the so-called "war on terror" or war against Islamofascism, a term that I understand you coined and that sloppily lumps together disparate movements and threats, just as anticommunists did with the various communist regimes throughout the world. Perhaps even your humane faith has an apocalyptic tinge?