4/07/2007

Musings on the debate between Rick Warren and Sam Harris

I got this e-mail from a friend who is open to spiritual things, but would not count himself a full-fledged "believer" like I am one.

Bob,

Reading the latest issue in Newsweek, "Is God Real?", with a corresponding debate between Pastor Rick Warren and Atheist Sam Harris ("The God Debate"), I came up with a thought or two.

In the article, the author states: "As Mr Harris likes to point out, people who demand evidence for everything else in their lives are somehow all too happy to accept the word of long-dead Biblical authors in a corner of a long dead empire."

In the first place, I don't think people of faith demand evidence or proof of everything in their lives. No one does. Or at least has the time or knowledge to even try and gather evidence on everything, let alone have the training or intelligence to understand it or judge the truthfulness of it. Who knows everything? How the car works, what's holding up the bridges, how the universe works, how my toaster oven works, or what is the theory of relativity and what does it have to do with my toaster oven.

I would turn the argument around. The atheist takes so much for granted - on faith. Things he no more understands than God. Things that are above his intelligence, beyond his learning, bigger than his imagination, then he trusts that others know enough so that he can safely rely on their knowledge, and he can only too happy to accept this ignorance and go about his life.

And after accepting on faith most of what goes on around him, he then expects the biggest mystery of all should be made easy with simple explanations to his inexperienced, untrained mind until he is completely convinced. Me thinks he thinks too much of his understanding powers.

As a side bar, I would like to say that I think some on the religious right have the same problem. They want to be convinced with earthly proofs that their God is real.


Here's my reply:

I think you’ve got this right! I’ve been thinking about this myself, wondering what to write concerning this article on my blog. What you’ve said is very close to what I’ve been thinking.

On top of that, Harris is using the same-old-same-old arguments that have been used in the modern era against the existence of God – “we can’t prove his existence scientifically so he does not exist.” Ho humm.

We (at the CCO) are seeing that this is not what today’s college students are thinking. We are seeing that they have a new openness to spiritual things, an embracing of the mysterious. Not all things need to be proved in a test tube.

It’s a great time to be in campus ministry!

And you’ve got the religious right’s problem correctly too. They have made the mistake of falling into the same mentality—that if it’s not “proven” then it’s not true. And thus they fight the Harris’s of the world with arguments that seek to place God in a test tube. That’s a mistake, for God is bigger than that; God is more mysterious than that.

So it comes down to this:
God, who is quintessentially mysterious, does something about it: He appears in the form of a human being. He says that if you’ve seen him, you’ve seen the Father. He tells us that his intentions are for justice and peace in the world. And then he proves that the way to justice and peace is through sacrifice – suffering at the very hands of the oppressors. And then, to show that this is the way to victory, he arose victorious from the grave on Easter.

He says to humanity: You must follow me and my ways. This is the way of truth, the way of life, the way of peace, the way of justice.

God becoming flesh does not obliterate all the mystery (in fact it brings up new mysteries, like how could God come in the flesh??), but it does show that God is not completely leaving us on our own.

Harris, sadly, is on his own. His ethics are based on what he can conjure up on his own. His justice is based on what he can believe on his own. Harris is worried that people of faith base their societal lives on words of “long-dead Biblical authors in a corner of a long dead empire." I worry that our societal lives would be based on the capricious thoughts of people basing their ethics on the latest scientific analyses.

Both are based on faith.

15 comments:

Ted Gossard said...

Excellent thoughts here, Bob, and helpful. I couldn't agree more. And your thoughts get to the heart of what God wants us to hear and trust and learn to live in. Thanks.

Jared White said...

I've heard Sam argue for science/reason over "faith" because science "just works" -- it's the argument for practicality. Well, two can play at that game. :) When I put my trust and faith in Jesus Christ, I can see life clearly, live life morally, help people willingly, and know God intimately. When I stray from that path and give into my fleshly weaknesses, life turns into hell.

Therefore, in conclusion, I can say this with confidence: faith in Jesus Christ just works.

Bob Robinson said...

Jared,

Pragmatically speaking, you're right!

Table said...

Hi Bob

I trust all is well with you.

10 days or so ago, I posted a comment, asking some questions of you regarding your musings on the Warren Harris debate.

My post has not appeared - would you tell me if it will be posted, and whether you will be responding?

Having been brought up in an atmosphere of religious apathy at home, and lightweight Church of England at school, my interest in religion has been limited, but I have never found the supernatural aspects of religion very plausible. My feelings toward religion however, have tended to be broadly positive regarding morals, whilst the supernatural beliefs I regarded as benign.

However, a chance conversation with a priest led me to explore religion a little further. He recommended a book to me (The End of History). I never did read his recommendation, but whilst searching Amazon.com, I was tempted into buying (they're so clever!) "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, and "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris. As I am sure you know, these books take a strongly anti-religious stance - this was a new idea to me, and got me thinking.

I have become very interested in hearing "the other side" of the debate - I have searched the web for leading apologists, and only been disappointed. Specifically, I have read and listened to the thoughts of William Lane Craig and Alister McGrath.

On the one hand I can see that religion tends to propose a moral framework, which sounds positive, but at the same time I don't understand why that moral framework should need to have the belief in a supernatural being to justify it.

You seem to be a man of very strong faith, and one who is interested in engaging in discussion.

I sincerely hope to hear from you - or perhaps your other readers may be able to answer some of my questions?

Table said...

Bob - it seems in my haste at the time, I did NOT post my initial comment 10 days ago! Apologies.

Let me try to remember my questions....

Firstly, would you tell me what "the atheist takes so much for granted - on faith"? (para. 4 of your friends letter) I read it that atheists have to have faith in what scientists tell them about the world. Is that how you understand it, and can you give me examples? Would they be the ones from the previous paragraph? If so, then surely this is not the same kind of faith as the faith in God? We all know toasters work because they successfully cook bread, just as we would expect - just as science would predict.

Secondly, would you summarise your argument against Sam Harris's argument that you charaterize as “we can’t prove his existence scientifically so he does not exist.”? This would appear to be a version of Bertrand Russell's "Flying Teapot" argument. This is a line of argument that I have not heard a satisfactory rebuttal to. I do not understand the idea that having faith in the certainty and perfection of something without any evidence is a defensible position. Would you include the bible as evidence? Though we may disagree at the margins, the bible provides extremely lightweight (and highly contested) evidence. In addition, other gods could claim to have as much evidence.

In my previous posting I made the point that I cannot see why morals need any form of belief in a supernatural being. If Jesus had so many good ideas, which I understand were extremely radical and advanced for his age, then that would seem reason enough to use them as a basis of a moral philosophy. The subsequent 2,000 years would then give us plenty of time to develop them and make some improvements, as circumstances change and ideas progress. Would you explain the relevance of the supernatural belief in the set of ethics supported by your religious conviction. And also, to your knowledge, does Sam Harris regularly behave in an unethical way?

Table said...

Bob

I've just reminded myself of the final question from my original post:

I was astonished to read Rick Warren invoke Pascals Wager as a defence of his religious beliefs in his closing comments - I had understood that there was some consensus that this line of argument was without merit. Am I wrong about this consensus? Would you agree with Warren that Pascals Wager forms a coherent basis on which to defend one's faith?

Bob Robinson said...

Table,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and complex questions. I fear that the context of a blog will fall way too short in answering. But I will say this:

More often than not, people have an innate belief in God. I presume that you are asking these questions and reading these apologists (both Christian and Atheist) because you are in quest of a deeper understanding of divinity.

The problem with any Christian trying to debate an atheist is that God cannot be proven to exist in any scientific way. You mentioned William Lane Craig. He is probably one of the best of the modern Christian apologists (along with J.P Moreland and Alvin Plantinga). If you are in search of reasoned arguments for God’s existence, then you might want to read Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, J.P. Moreland’s books Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity or his Does God Exist?: The Debate Between Theists & Atheists, and Alvin Plantinga’s excellent book Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (I’m partial to Plantinga).

But let me suggest, instead, another tactic: Read a small paperback book called Finding Faith: A Search for What Makes Sense by Brian McLaren. This little book helps the reader work through some of the real questions surrounding faith issues.

In the following comments, I’ll discuss some of the things you raise.

Bob Robinson said...

Table,
You wrote, “On the one hand I can see that religion tends to propose a moral framework, which sounds positive, but at the same time I don't understand why that moral framework should need to have the belief in a supernatural being to justify it.”

This way of framing it seems backwards to me. I am not a Christian because it offers a moral framework; I work out of a moral framework because I am a Christian. Everybody lives out a moral framework based on whatever that person’s worldview is. I do not seek to justify my belief in the existence of God in the fact that I have a Christian Ethic, or vice-versa.

The purpose of Christianity is not primarily to create a moral framework. If that were the case, then why is grace and mercy such huge things in it? Man-made religions are usually much harder on people than Jesus Christ is.

Bob Robinson said...

Table,

"the atheist takes so much for granted - on faith"

The person who wrote that letter was basically saying, I think, that Harris probably does not know everything about everything. He has to trust, at some point, the testimonies of others and what they have experienced. Yet, he scoffs at people like me and my testimony of God in my life.

“I do not understand the idea that having faith in the certainty and perfection of something without any evidence is a defensible position.”

Faith is not the same as certainty. They are two different things, right? For me, I have enough evidence, and then I have gone beyond the evidence and have faith. I see evidence of God in the beauty and complexity of the creation, in how amazing people really are, in sacrifice and in the love of people. In Christ, I have met the person who epitomizes it all. No, I was not there when he died and resurrected. Yet, I have chosen to believe it has happened. Just like historians believe in the events recorded in history books, I believe in the events recorded in the Bible. The arguments not to believe that these are historical accounts do not weigh as heavily, to me, as the arguments to believe that this is, in fact, history.

And, above all else, I have experienced the love of God personally, in a real relationship with the living God. This is my testimony, and Harris has no right to call it any less legitimate that any other testimony that he does not have intimate knowledge of.

“Would you agree with Warren that Pascals Wager forms a coherent basis on which to defend one's faith?”

No, I wouldn’t. I want a faith that is based on more than Pascal’s Wager. In fact, anybody who says they are a Christian because they might as well, since the alternative is worse, really doesn’t have true faith, does she?

I think the better thing is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s better to go all out than to have a half-hearted wager.

Table said...

Great to hear from you Bob. I appreciate the time you have spent in responding to my queries. With the help of your responses I am gaining insight, but at the same time my views on religion are as far away from yours as they have ever been. You will see that the idea of religious faith is still quite beyond me.

Thanks too, for those recommendations. I'll try Brian Maclarens book first. I struggled with Alvin Plantinga but on your advice I'll give him another go though. However, William Lane Craig lost my respect after reading the transcripts of some his debates, most notably that with Bart Ehrman, so I shant follow him up.

You wrote “The problem with any Christian trying to debate an atheist is that God cannot be proven to exist in any scientific way.”

Doesn't Christianity make claims which are scientifically testable? The virgin birth and the resurrection go against the current laws of nature. To believe these claims we need some really compelling evidence. Sam Harris cites the virgin birth of Sathya Sai Baba, and the many miracles thousands have witnessed him perform. I don’t believe these miracles. Do you? If not, why not? Are the witnesses lying?

I wrote, “On the one hand I can see that religion tends to propose a moral framework, which sounds positive, but at the same time I don't understand why that moral framework should need to have the belief in a supernatural being to justify it.”

You wrote " This way of framing it seems backwards to me. I am not a Christian because it offers a moral framework; I work out of a moral framework because I am a Christian. Everybody lives out a moral framework based on whatever that person’s worldview is. I do not seek to justify my belief in the existence of God in the fact that I have a Christian Ethic, or vice-versa "


Your answer makes a lot of sense, and I can see that the way I framed the question may well be indicative of our different perspectives. Would you clarify your position regarding other religious moral frameworks? You seem to be accepting of other moral frameworks being based on whatever a person's worldview is.
However, we are still left with the damning words you use to describe Sams ethical position. "Harris sadly, is on his own. His ethics are based on what he can conjure up on his own ". Does this mean you dismiss his ethics? If so, on what basis? To dismiss the ethics of a non-believer just because he is a non-believer is, on one (trivial) level, insulting, and on another level, positively dangerous. The implication is that if you do not have Christianity as a moral base you are inevitably going to have inferior morals. What do you think about the moral frameworks of Humanists or Hindus? Are they as good as yours?

Dawkins argues that the act of extrapolating morals from the bible makes it an inherently human, non-religious act. I imagine you disagree. What is your view?

"the atheist takes so much for granted - on faith"
You wrote " The person who wrote that letter was basically saying, I think, that Harris probably does not know everything about everything. He has to trust, at some point, the testimonies of others and what they have experienced. Yet, he scoffs at people like me and my testimony of God in my life ."


I think we can agree that Harris would not claim to "know everything about everything”. Instead, where available, he relies on reason and testable evidence - this doesn't include personal testimony.

Would you accept the personal testimony of a believer of another faith? If not, on what basis do you dismiss their testimony? If you do accept it, then does that invalidate your testimony? Would you side with Sam Harris with regard to the beliefs of Mormonism?

This brings us to your point that "For me, I have enough evidence, and then I have gone beyond the evidence and have faith ". Putting to one side my view that the magnitude of the beliefs you are accepting is inversely proportional to the meagre evidence available, why would you go beyond the evidence at all? This amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking. Not only that, but what is it about "the beauty and complexity of creation" that implies the existence of your particular god over someone else's god? Have you always believed in god? Were you brought up to believe in god? Is there any evidence that would make you change your mind about your belief in God?

You wrote “ I have chosen to believe it has happened. Just like historians believe in the events recorded in history books. I believe in the events recorded in the bible.”

I am certainly no expert, but Bart Ehrman, the eminent historian, makes a compelling case that the historical evidence simply is not good enough to support the idea of the resurrection. What makes you believe the bible is historically accurate? Do you think the bible is literally true?
If you are interested in the debate between Bart Ehrman and Craig, you will find it here http:www.holycross.edu/departments/crec/website/resurrection-debate-transcript.pdf

You wrote “ the arguments not to believe that these are historical accounts do not weigh as heavily, to me, as the arguments to believe that this is, in fact, history”

I read this as saying you only believe the arguments that support your innate beliefs, and effectively dismiss arguments that contradict them. Am I right? If so, I hope you can understand why I find your position less than persuasive. If I was trying to be polite I might let that pass, but this is an important debate, and so I shall be clear – I think you are being intellectually dishonest, and you should not be surprised if people do not respect your beliefs.

I wrote “Would you agree with Warren that Pascals Wager forms a coherent basis on which to defend one's faith?”

You wrote " No, I wouldn’t. I want a faith that is based on more than Pascal’s Wager. In fact, anybody who says they are a Christian because they might as well, since the alternative is worse, really doesn’t have true faith, does she?
I think the better thing is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s better to go all out than to have a half-hearted wager. "


We agree on something!
However, I have the sense that your experience of " the love of God personally " is currently an irresistible force which repels all contradictory evidence.
John 8:32 “the truth will set you free”. These are profound words, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Do you? If so, then I invite you to give equal weight in your consideration to contradictory arguments. What use is faith without truth?

Table said...

Hi Bob

Well, I'm most of the way through Brian McLaren's book - he really is a charmer isn't he!?

It’s a very easy read, but finding time to read for more than 5-10 minutes at a time is challenging for me at the moment, and not conducive to properly comprehending a book. For that reason, I will keep my comments brief.

BM explains that he is trying to present both sides of the debate in a balanced way (quite successfully IMO), but coyly admits that he will also express his own preferences. I can't help feeling that this is in fact partly a rhetorical device, to gain credibility by appearing impartial(ish). I can see why Brian's avuncular tone would be brain massage for those suffering doubts about faith. So far though, as refreshing as it is to see 2 sides of the debate so clearly presented, I haven’t read anything that fundamentally changes my view. But then I haven’t finished the book! I was particulalry unimpressed by his "good faith"/"bad faith" distinction. For me this only serves to highlight the weakness of the faith position.

We live in hope. (that’s not controversial is it?!)

Oliver

PS what are your views on the Gay clergy debate in the Anglican Church? My perspective on the matter is summarized by this excerpt from a letter to the Times newspaper here in the UK:

“ The Archbishop of Canterbury has been off to America to persuade his colleagues there to be more, not less, bigoted in order to save the integity of the Anglican Communion. The idea that the organisation of the Church is more important than the principles behind it is not a surprise..it is a system built to sustain itself before anything else. But if you observe this bigotry and self serving behavior of the Church and still think it has anything to offer 21st Century society then I fear you are wrong.”

Table said...

Hi Bob

I've heard no response from you to my posts submitted in mid-September. I hope you haven't abandoned our conversation.

Just to update you, I have made enquiries to join an Alpha Course near my home in London. You may not be familiar with this course. It is run by the Church of England and as I understand it, takes the form of a series of meetings to discuss and explore Christianity and how Jesus' teachings are applicable to modern life.

As I implied in one of my earlier posts, I am interested in Jesus as moral philosopher, and whilst I do clearly have problems with the supernatural claims of Christianity (and all religions for that matter), I hope that I can learn something from this course.

I would also like to continue our conversation, as I anticipate that your answers to my questions would prove enlightening.

Many thanks in anticipation

Oliver

Bob Robinson said...

Oliver,
I apologize for dropping the ball on that. It's been a while!
Welcome back.

You write that you're interested in learning about "Jesus as moral philosopher."

Jesus is certainly that, but much more than that. I think you've caught that this is my take on it all. I teach an Ethics course at a local Christian college. Many ethical systems have a lot to commend them. And that is well and good for what that accomplishes. The question that a Christian should raise (but does not often do so) is how a Christian worldview should influence all of our ethical choices, not just the choices of personal piety (or, how to manage our sinfulness). What Christian ethical discussion reduces to, very often, are items we can identify as sin and how we must label it as such.

I hope that the leaders of your Alpha course deal more with the holistic worldview that Christian theology offers to all of life!

Table said...

Hi Bob

Whilst it's good to hear from you, you have deliberately not "picked up the ball". Does this mean you wont be answering any of my questions? I understand you are under no obligation to me but I do hope you will, or failing that, provide an explanation as to why you wont. An answer along the lines of "I can't really answer those questions to your satisfaction but I'm happy with my Christian worldview despite what you see as contradictions and inconsistencies" would at least have the benefit of being honest on one level.

I, too, hope the Alpha course provides me with some holistic worldviews that I find useful.

Oliver

Bob Robinson said...

Oliver,

Please e-mail me at vanguardchurch at neo dot rr dot com, and we can continue our conversation that way. If I can help in any way, I certainly will give it my best shot!