11 April, 2007

Said the Pot to the Kettle...

Sam Harris (Author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Andrew Sullivan (Former editor of The New Republic and author of The Conservative Soul) have been having an extended online dialogue regarding faith (or, "God, faith, and fundamentalism" as Beliefnet explains it). If you're interested in such things and haven't yet read their postings, I recommend doing so; good points have been made on both sides.

However, in a posting at his blog earlier today, Sullivan responds to a reader's question regarding statements made by other readers on their perception of Andrew's "inability" to answer some of Sam's questions. The reader writes:

I've been catching glimpses of your conversation with Sam Harris. But what's caught my eye have been the e-mails from your detractors like this one and this one and this one. The last one in particular, which asks,

"Do you think God knows that you won't have very good answers to the points Sam Harris brings up at the end of his last reply?"

got me thinking that this obsession with "good answers" points to something close to the heart of this frustration with faith, something you touched on in your last post to Sam - the concept of mystery. Not the Colonel-Mustard-in-the-library-with-a- candlestick kind of mystery, but the awe-and-humility-before-truths-and- experiences-greater-than-we-are-and-deeper-than-we-can-grasp kind of mystery. Seekers like you and I aren't afraid of it, and find our lives are invigorated by it. Some, however, seem allergic to it.

Huh? Wuzzat? Non-believers are "allergic" to mystery while believers embrace it?

The reader goes on to say:

Maybe this is the fundamental disconnect between believers and non-believers - that the latter insist on answers, and if the answer appeals in any way to mystery, then the answer must be wrong. But practical human experience shows us that mystery is all around us, and that answers to even the simplest questions often cannot be found or must bow, at least somewhat, to mystery - not as a cop-out or a catch-all explanation, but as a humble acceptance of the limitations of human understanding and the possibility that the answers are more than we can know.

Sometimes, instead of finding answers, we just have to live the questions. And we do. We all do. Every day. This is the real world and our experience of it: no matter how much we know, most of the important stuff is steeped in mystery. Strange that some athiests, who fashion themselves realists, cannot accept that simple reality.

To which Sullivan replies:
This reality is, in my view, the core basis of all true religious faith and the only solid philosophical foundation for political conservatism. It's also why I find agnosticism far more persuasive than atheism.
To which I say: Holy Crap.

If this isn't just a most egregious case of the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is. In reality, it's believers, not non-believers, who reject mystery by attempting to bottle it up inside the label "god". The questions that Sam posed for Andrew (alluded to by the reader) are not the "ultimate questions" the answer to which (at least for the time being) may well indeed be "mystery", but questions about exactly why Andrew chooses to label these mysteries "god". Non-believers don't withhold belief because they're looking for some specific answer, they withhold belief because the given answer ("god") doesn't seem like a good one. And we ask believers to justify why they settled on that particular answer, not demand that they provide answers to all of those "ultimate questions".

I mean, really, let's look at the questions for which Sullivan's reader thinks non-believers are requiring definitive answers and compare our responses with those of believers:

Who am I?

Non-believer: I don't know, who do you want to be?
Believer: You are a child of God.

What do I want?

Non-believer: I don't know, what do you want?
Believer: You want whatever God wants you to want.

Why do I love this person?

Non-believer: There could be many reasons, some of them based on chemical attractors and some based on emotion. In the end, it's because both of you have characteristics that attract the other, but no one knows precisely why we love any particular person other than the reasons that might be revealed by our preferences.
Believer: Because God wants you to love and be loved.

What is the meaning of this experience?

Non-believer: It has whatever meaning you invest in it.
Believer: Whatever God intends.

Where did I come from?

Non-believer: Simplistically, your mother's womb. Metaphysically speaking, the "I" is a psychological construct created by the mind which is in turn a product of the brain. But exactly how self-awareness develops is currently a mystery.
Believer: God created you.

Why am I here?

Non-believer: That is a question only you can answer, if at all. There may be no answer available.
Believer: God has a purpose for you and in time you may discover it.

Of course, all of these answers are simplistic and a little "tongue-in-cheek", but I think they are representative of the general types of responses one will actually get from both sides of this debate. So, please tell me again who is "allergic" to mystery?

Now I fully agree with Sullivan that epistemological humility is absolutely essential to a liberal democracy (he specifically says conservatism, but I think he'd agree with my broader application), but such humility is not likely to be found in anyone who believes that God exists and occasionally whispers in her ear, elucidating the difference between right and wrong.

Sullivan also mentions that he finds agnosticism "...far more persuasive than atheism." But that assumes that they are incompatible. In fact, they're not. Agnosticism is a position on knowledge (from the Greek gnosis) while atheism is a position on belief. One can be both agnostic AND atheist at the same time. Such a position is often referred to as weak atheism, wherein one recognizes that while one doesn't know whether or not a god exists, one finds no reason to believe that it does.

"God" is the believer's way of wrapping mystery up in a tidy package so they can pretend that it doesn't matter. Don't worry about all those "big questions"; Someone knows the answer so you can just rest easy. Far from being allergic to such questions, it's simply the belief that "god" represents a real answer to them that we find difficult to swallow.

We don't reject mystery. We're not allergic to it. . We reject attempts by believers to explain away mystery by covering it with a sheet and calling it "god". And when we're asking for "answers", we're asking why we need our own sheet instead of just being satisfied with the mystery until we find a better answer. One that actually makes sense. That is the question Andrew's readers are suggesting he has not yet answered. And they're right.

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