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Wednesday, April 04, 2007
(1:30 PM) | Stephen:
God Debate

Recently, Newsweek called Sam Harris and Rick Warren together to have a debate of sorts over the issue of whether God is real or not. I tried to have an open mind about it, but I was pretty irked to see Rick Warren as their choice to represent Christianity; he's not a theologian and in fact has been rather unhappy with people who have described him that way. But Newsweek did crown him as "America's Pastor," so I suppose they couldn't really go with N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson or even William Willimon.

It actually starts off pretty well. Harris is mostly accurate when he points out that
there's clearly a spectrum of confidence in the text. I mean, there's the "This is literally true, nothing even gets figuratively interpreted," and then there's the "This is just the best book we have, written by the smartest people who have ever lived, and it's still legitimate to organize our lives around it to the exclusion of other books." Anywhere on that spectrum I have a problem, because in my mind the Bible and the Qur'an are just books, written by human beings.
The spectrum actually goes all the way to those who don't believe that the Bible was "written by the smartest people we've ever had." I would say that it's more to the opposite end. But I can understand that Harris would be worried about people who would organize their lives and ethical systems around one particular book to the exclusion of all others.

As he develops this line of reasoning, though, he moves into the typical territory for those who wish to eradicate religion, which is to take a caricature of the worst type of thinking and then use that as their foil.
[H]ere are sections of the Bible that I think are absolutely brilliant and poetically unrivaled, and there are sections of the Bible which are the sheerest barbarism, yet profess to prescribe a divinely mandated morality
There are many places in the Bible where what is described is not actually "divinely mandated morality." Gideon and Samson are two characters in particular that we are not to emulate. The entire book of Judges is presented as a history of why the Israelites were out of God's favor. Most of Israel's and Judah's kings are evil, and even the good ones have their bad behavior highlighted as negative examples.

Perhaps Harris' most devastating critique is when the subject moves into miracles. Warren brings it up as one of the reasons that he believes there is evidence for God. Harris counters with the times that believers pray for miracles yet receive no response at all, even proposing a controlled experiment to have 1 billion believers pray that one amputee receive the miracle of a regrown arm. "This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God," said Harris. It's funny - Warren was laughing by the end of it - and Harris knows it. I believe he fully understands that few Christians believe that we can demand a miracle from God, or that there is some critical mass of prayer that needs to be achieved before a miracle can occur. But no one really knows how the miracle thing works, so to speak, and bringing up miracles as evidence for the existence of God creates more problems that it solves. If miracles really do play that big a part in Rick Warren's faith, I'm surprised he has any faith at all, for no matter how many miracles he's seen, there are certainly far more times when a miracle was "deserved" and nothing happened.

The conversation moved on from there to morality, whether those who do not believe in God can actually be moral. Harris did a good job of pointing out that of course secular people can be very moral, that Atheism does not presume a relativistic ethic. He went on to mention the Golden Rule and how that type of thinking is present in many different religions and systems of thought.
Empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses, and we can even teach the golden rule without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people.
The emphasis is mine. There is a common misconception about lying in this culture. We tend to view any mistake we make while speaking is a lie. "What time is it?" we're asked, and we answer "2:30pm." Then we check our watches and say, "oops! I lied. It's 2:45pm!"

That's not a lie. There was no malicious intent in saying that the time was 2:30pm. It is that malicious intent, that goal to deceive which makes a lie a lie, no matter how small or large the falsehood may be.

This is the most irritating line of criticism from Atheists, this idea that believers are lying to themselves and their children about the Sky Fairy or whatever pejorative is fashionable to apply to God. I've no doubt that the ranks of Christianity are filled with those who lie about many things, especially among pastors who live personal lives quite different from their public personas. I even believe that there are pastors and others in prominent positions within American Christianity who don't even personally believe the doctrines they preach and teach.

But the average Christian, while he or she may be wrong about one belief or another, is not lying to anyone. They actually believe. They consider what they believe to be the truth. Until there is solid evidence otherwise, I have no reason to think that Rick Warren is anything but utterly sincere in his beliefs. I disagree with many of them, I don't like the way he uses the Bible, but within his setting he is trying to approach the Bible and his faith with integrity. Sam Harris had no reason to attack Warren's integrity other than it is the default characterization for Atheists to make about believers.

Warren, on the other hand, did not ascribe malicious intent to Harris' words or lack of belief in God. Even when he brought out the tired old nonsense about Harris being "intolerant," Warren didn't accuse Harris of intentionally trying to deceive people into accepting something he himself doesn't believe.

If progressive believers and secularists are going to work together, and we must, we need to change the terms of our debates. We need to notice the ways that we undercut each other, deride and insult each other. Most importantly, if we can't even assume goodwill from each other, then any attempt to work together is doomed.

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