IS GOD REAL?
By: Jon Meacham
LATER, WHEN BLAISE PASCAL TRIED TO GET IT ALL DOWN ON PAPER, HE WROTE IN BURSTS, CAPTURING FLASHES OF WHAT HE THOUGHT HE HAD SEEN IN THE VISION — A VISION THAT, BY EMPIRICAL STANDARDS, COULD ONLY BE CALLED FANTASTICAL.
There was no doubt in Pascal’s mind, though, that it had happened, and happened in time and space, in a way his mathematically trained brain conceived of things as happening. Pascal remembered the exact time — between the hours of half past 10 and half past midnight on Monday, Nov. 23, 1654, the feast day, in the Christian calendar; of Saint Clement, pope and martyr. Jesus appeared to him; God was so real; the Christian story true: “Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy , peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God.”
In a collection of writings found after his death, published as “Pensées,” Pascal blended his two passions, mathematics and faith, to lay out what has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager.
It is rather simple: it is smarter to bet that God exists, and to believe in him, because if it turns out tha t he is real, you win everything; if he is not, you lose nothing. So why not take the leap of faith?
Because, atheists say, religious belief of any kind is irrational, and the faithful are living in a fairy-tale world. As Jews and Christians commemorate Passover and Holy Week in the coming days, the ancient debate over whether God exists goes on.
In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 91 percent report they believe in God, with 82 percent identifying themselves as Christians.
Yet half those surveyed say they “personally know” an atheist, and 47 percent believe the country is more accepting of atheism than it has been in the past—which suggests there may be closet atheists who do not believe but do not wish to say so to a pollster. Other cultural indicators are unmistakable: books making the case against religious belief are selling briskly, evidence that many Americans are entertaining arguments against God and what these authors see as the destructive effects of faith.
That such questions—they date back to at least Homer and Plato—are gaining fresh force suggests there is growing worry that religion has too much influence on the world around us, from inspiring terrorists to shaping federal policy on embryonic-stem-cell research. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, more than a third of Americans (36 percent) think the power of organized religion has increased in recent years, and a plurality (32 percent) say religion has too much influence.
There is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun. The term atheos (a- means without; tkeos means god or gods) can be found in antiquity. As the “modern era” took shape in the 16th century, Copernicus’ revelation that Earth was not the center of the universe inaugurated a new age of rising skepticism. By the 18th, Enlightenment thinkers celebrated (prematurely) the defeat of what Thomas Jefferson called “monkish superstition.” In the 19th, Charles Darwin published “Origin of Species,” and doubt was so pervasive that Matthew Arnold believed the “Sea of Faith” was in retreat. The tide was barely out before Nietzsche declared God was dead.
‘While debate over religion in America is not new, it is fierce. Broadly put, the left is prone to caricature the faithful as superstitious and power-mad, while the right can sometimes attack atheists and secularists with anything but Christian charity. Whether we believe or disbelieve, then, many of us would like to see a more measured conversation about faith, reason, and the role of religion in American life.
In that spirit, NEWSWEEK invited Sam Harris, the author of two best-selling books advocating atheism, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and the author of the worldwide best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” to discuss the ultimate question: is God real?
If you know anything about the two men, you will not find their answers surprising. The details of their arguments and the play of their minds, however, shed light on the nature of the clash about religion at this moment in America. Warren believes in the God of Abraham as revealed by Scripture, tradition and reason; Jesus is Warren’s personal savior and was, Warren argues, who he said he was: the Son of God.
Harris, naturally, takes a diffèrent view. “I no more believe in the Biblical God than I believe in Zeus, Isis, Thor and the thousands of other dead gods that he buried in the mass grave we call ‘mythology’,” Harris says. “I doubt them all equally and for the same reason: lack of evidence.”
There are many levels of argument between believers and atheists; Warren and Harris touch on many of them. Here are just a few.
There has to be a God, the religious say, for the Bible (or the Qur’an ) says so; this is the assertion of the literalist, and depends on an uncritical reading of Scriptures that some believers say were written (or dictated) by God. There is the moral-sense argument—there must be a God, the religious say, because human beings have an innate understanding of right and wrong, an understanding that God planted in every beau. There is the design argument—that the world is so complex and makes so much sense that there had to be a guiding intelligence at the center of it all.
I am oversimplifying (some), but none of these is a particularly strong proof of a deity. Scriptures are the product of human hands and hearts, and have been translated and copied for generations upon generations; scholarship clearly shows us that the texts present historical and literary problems that would seem to rule out the possibility that they are perfect books. (And in the case of the Gospels, to take just one instance, the author of John explicitly says he is not writing history or biography in the sense the modem world thinks of such genres, but that he is offering his story “so that ye may believe.” At least he was not hiding the ball. ‘When it comes to morality, it is possible that empathy is a trait that developed in evolution as a desirable feature in forming communities that stood a better chance of thriving in the process of natural selection. On the question of design, there is no evidence, outside the Bible, to support the proposition that a Creator has been in the picture, though Darwin acknowledged that no one knows how things got started in the very first instance.
There are, of course, religious counter-counter-arguments to these counter- arguments; the debate goes on world without end. With the exception of explaining the origin of the physical law that brought the universe into being 14 billion years ago, atheists can easily mock the religious for believing in fantastical stories of ascending saviors, parting seas and burning bushes. With little trouble the atheists can pose devastating questions; if God is great, then why do babies get cancer? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do the religious kill in the name of their God, when their God is supposed to be love incarnate? Why did God stop performing miracles on a large scale a couple of months after the first Pentecost?
Excellent questions all. Believers reply that God made us with freewill, for love coerced is no love at all, only tyranny, and God wanted us to choose whether to love him or not, to obey him or not. Evil of human devising exists because we make horrible choices and have, as Saint Paul said, fallen short of the glory of God. Evil from nature or disease is a mystery; God has not told us everything, and has his own purposes beyond our understanding. What happens happens for a reason, even if we have no comprehension what that reason might be. If we knew everything, we would be God, not men.
To believe in any form of God requires, it is true, what Henry James called a “willing suspension of disbelief”; it is not especially rational to think, as so many Christians do, that a crucified Nazarene did what no other man had done before or since: rise from the dead and say that believing he had done so would wash you in the atoning blood of the lamb. As 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.
Yet it is not only Christians who know they are engaging in a leap from fact to faith. God, the great Rabbi Abraham Jacob Heschcl said in 1967, “did not make it easy for us to have faith in him, to remain faithful to him . This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment. The facts that deny the divine are mighty, indeed; the arguments of agnosticism are eloquent, the events that defy him are spectacular ...... Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel.” No final proofs—there it is, the ultimate caveat. Doubt and faith are not at war they are parts of the same whole.
History teaches that religion, too, is part of the whole story of humanity. The religious impulse, whether born of fear, or hope, or both, appears intrinsic. It is the atheist who is exceptional, not the believer, though believers are hardly unified in what they believe in except this: that there is an ordering reality beyond time and space, a reality that can include the possibility of salvation in the form of a blissful life after death. Some believers would say only the virtuous will enjoy such a reward, and others say that only those with certain religious beliefs will make it, and still others that we do not know enough to say who will be rescued from the darkness of death and perhaps eternal punishment and who will not.
Even Billy Graham, who, with the possible exception of John Paul II, has preached the Gospel to more people than any other man in human history, acknowledges that God’s will is unfathomable.
In the summer of 2006, sitting in his mountaintop house in North Carolina, I asked Graham whether a moral secularist or a good Muslim or good Jew would go to heaven. His reply: those decisions are for God to make, not men.
So is God real? It seems safe to say at least this much: he is real insofar as he is a force who influences human beings who believe in his existence. In his landmark Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1901, the American philosopher William James quoted a Bryn Mawr colleague on the matter : “The truth of the matter can be put in this way: God is not known, he is not understood; he is used—sometimes as a meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that.
Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many real irrelevant questions . Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfing life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.”
But which God is it — God the Father of Christianity , the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of Judaism, or the God who spoke to the Prophet in the cave in the founding moments of Islam or some other God, known only to a few, or even just to you? The pragmatic believer of any tradition, it seems, is on safe ground by saying that though we may hope to know, and though we may think we know, we cannot know who God is—or if he is—until what William Faulkner called “the last red and dying evening.”
The debate over God is necessarily abstract, but religion, obviously, has profound real-world implications. To base one’s behavior on a blind acceptance ofwords put down long ago, however revered those words are, is an abdication of reason and responsibility—and reason and responsibility are, for many believers, gifts from God.
Does a Christian in our time really think that, as Saint Paul argued, slavery is divinely ordained? Do the vast majority of Muslims actually believe their duty is to kill the infidel? In both cases, the answer is no. But the holy books can be read to say these things, which is why reason and interpretation have led many believers of great faithfulness to sec such passages metaphorically, or to consider them to have been superseded by historical and cultural changes . “If it happens that the authority of Sacred Scripture is set in opposition to clear and certain reasoning,” said Saint Augustine, “this must mean that the person who interprets Scripture does not understand it correctly
It is not the meaning of Scripture which is opposed to the truth but the meaning which he has wanted to give to it.” Augustine’s point allows Christians to take ad vantage of scientific and social advances without surrendering the ultimate authority of revelation. The Christian intellectual tradition, in other words, enables believers to negotiate just about anything short of the critical contention of the faith, that Jesus is Lord and salvation is on offer through belief in him. Still, there are many Christians who hew to a literal interpretation of Scriptare, and say with sincerity and conviction that any one who does not accept Jesus as his personal savior will be cast into the fires of hell.
Ah, say the atheists, see, we told you exclusivist faiths like Christianity are forces for evil. So let’s get rid of faith, replace it with rationality and science, and all shall be well, or at least vastly better.
But the atheist solution has its own problems . In “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris likens himself to an abolitionist and religion to slavery, but who is to say that a wholly scientific world would not itself soon produce dogma and strife over the findings, interpretations and applications of experiments and research? It is very possible, even probable, that science would become a kind of religion, with creeds and convictions and arguments over the nature of reality. Labs would replace cathedrals, brain scans holy books . It would be different, but would it necessarily be better?
I doubt it, and the question is largely rhetorical, for humankind is not on the verge of replacing a religious world view with a scientific one. In its most practical form, the argument between atheists and the faithful is about public life and private belief. When you press many atheists, you find they are at their most ferocious and passionate when they think religion is playing too large a role—or any role in politics or the classrooms or the labs or the courts.
They have a point. Theocracies that is, governments organized around religious dogma—are not conducive to the cultivation of the kinds of societies many Americans value. But history teaches us that religion need not be entirely barred (as if it could) from public life in order to build a culture of liberty and freedom of inquiry and conscience. The key is how a culture manages the different factions contending for influence in a given time and place. The brilliance of the American experiment lies in its creation of a republican arena in which all manner of forces — religious, economic, geographic, what have you — can take their stand within the confines of a system in which checks and balances limit the possibilities of radicalism of any kind. Our government is slow, cumbersome and resistant to reform — by design.
Liberty and republican values are the guardrails against extremism, either religious or secular. Religion should not dictate education or science policy, for example, but there is nothing wrong—and there is much right—with its being one voice among many in the shaping of our public lives. One cannot be for one group’s right to speak out and exert influence and he against another group’s right to do so. The battles must be fought on the merits, and religion should be one force on the field, not the only one.
This moderate solution pleases neither the atheists nor the fervent believers, which may recommend it even more. The more conservative faithful think centrists are squishy, and some atheists argue, as Harris puts it, that “religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others ... all we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of Scripture imposes on us.”
Experience suggests, however, that the centrist approach tends to be the most pragmatic and is, to paraphrase Churchill on democracy, the worst possible answer, except for all the others. Atheists would expel God from the debate, but what of the rights of the religious to execute the duties of citizenship? And the most fervid believers would drive atheists from the arena in a fit of fear masquerading as scorn, but what of the rights of the atheists to play a frill and unimpeded part in the story of the nation? Neither side should be frightened of debate; both have every reason, if they are as confident as they say they are, to be intellectually open to the other.
Which brings us to the exchange in the following pages. To say the least, Rick Warren did not lose his faith in the middle of the debate; nor did Sam Harris fall to his knees in a moment of sudden conversion.
But they talked—civilly, coolly, even with a laugh here and there. The fact that such a conversation can take place between two men who would—and probably will—spend a lifetime opposing what the other stands for is a small ray of light in the gloom of the culture wars.
In the end, Warren says that he has “thrown the dice,” gambling that Jesus was not a liar, that he was what he said he was in the Gospel accounts. Harris is betting otherwise: “In the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose. ” And so four centuries on, a world away from Pascal’s France, two men are undertaking his old wager. Who will win? No one can say. At least not yet.
RICK WARREN IS AS BIG AS A BEAR,
WITH A BOOMING VOICE AND EASY GOING CHARM.
SAM HARRIS IS COMPACT, RESERVED AND, DESPITE THE POLEMICAL TONE OF HIS BOOKS, FRIENDLY AND MILD.
WARREN, ONE OF THE BEST-KNOWN PASTORS IN THE WORLD, STARTED SADDLEBACK IN 1980; NOW 25,000 PEOPLE ATTEND THE CHURCH EACH AND EVERY SUNDAY.
Harris is softer-spoken; paragraphs pour out of him, complex and fact-filled—as befits a Ph.D. student in neuroscience . At NEWSWEEK’S invitation, they met in Warren’s office recently and chatted, mostly amiably, for four hours
Jon Meacham moderated. Excerpts follow:
* * * * * * * *
JON MEACHAM: Rick, since you’re the home team, we’ll start with Sam. Sam, is there a God in the sense that most Americans think of him?
SAM HARRIS: There’s no evidence for such a God, and it’s instructive to notice that we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom now nobody worships.
Rick, what is the evidence of the existence of the God of Abraham?
RICK WARREN: I see the fingerprints of God everywhere. I see them in culture. I see them in law. I see them in literature. I see them in nature. I see them in my own life. Trying to understand where God came from is like an ant trying to understand the Internet.
Even the most brilliant scientist would agree that we only know a mere fraction of a percent of the knowledge of the universe.
HARRIS: Any scientist must concede that we don’t fully understand the universe. But neither the Bible nor the Qur’an represents our best understanding of the universe. That is exquisitely clear.
WARREN: To you.
HARRIS: There is so much about us that is not in the Bible. Every specific science from cosmology to psychology to economics has surpassed and superseded what the Bible tells us is true about our world.
Sam, does the Christian you address in your books have to believe that God wrote the Bible and that it is literally true?
HARRIS: Well, 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 Our’an are just books, written by human beings. There 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—where do I start?
Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and First and Second Kings and Second Samuel—half of the kings and prophets of Israel would be taken to The Hague and prosecuted for crimes against humanity if these events took place in our own time.
[To Warren] Is the Bible inerrant?
WARREN: I believe it’s inerrant in what it claims to be. The Bible does not claim to be a scientific book in many areas.
Do you believe Creation happened in the way Genesis describes it?
WARREN: If you’re asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don’t. believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man’s nose? If you believe in God, you don’t have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it’s fine with me.
HARRIS: I’m doing my Ph.D. in neuroscience; I’m very close to the literature on evolutionary biology. And the basic point is that evolution by natural selection is random genetic mutation over millions of years in the context of environmental pressure that selects for fitness.
WARREN: Who’s doing the selecting?
HARRIS: The environment. You don’t have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain the complexity we see.
WARREN: Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions. I’m
willing to admit my presuppositions: there are clues to God. I talk to God every
day. He talks to me.
HARRIS: What does that actually mean?
WARREN: One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer . I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He’s an intern at this church, and so I said, “God, I need you to help me with this,” as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, “I’m an immigration attorney; I’d be happy to take this case. Now, if that happened once in my life I’d say, “That is a coincidence:’ If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence.
There must have been times in your ministry when you’ve prayed for someone to be delivered from disease who is not—say, a little girl with cancer.
WARREN: Oh, absolutely.
So, parse that. God gave you an immigration attorney, but God killed a little girl.
WARREN: Well, I do believe in the goodness of God, and I do believe that he knows better than I do. God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait. I’ve had to learn the difference between no and not yet. The issue here really does come down to surrender. A lot of atheists hide behind rationalism; when you start probing, you find their reactions are quite emotional . In fact , I’ve never met an atheist who wasn’t angry.
HARRIS: Let me be the first.
WARREN: I think your books are quite angry.
HARRIS: I would put it at impatient rather than angry . Let me respond to this notion of answered prayer, because this is a classic sampling error, to use a statistical phrase.
We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations.
You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God re-grow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. [Warren is laughing.]
I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.
WARREN: That’s a misstatement there.
HARRIS: Let’s go back to the Bible. The reason you believe that Jesus is the son of God is because you believe that the Gospel is a valid account of the miracles of Jesus.
WARREN: It’s one of the reasons.
HARRIS: Yeah. It’s one of the reasons. Now, there are many testimonials about miracles, every bit as amazing as the miracles of Jesus, in other literature of the world’s religions. Even contemporary miracles. There are millions of people who believe that Sathya Sai Baba, the south Indian guru, was born of a virgin, has raised the dead and materializes objects. I mean, you can watch some of his miracles on YouTube. Prepare to be underwhelmed. He’s a stage magician. As a Christian, you can say Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories are not interesting, let’s not pay attention to them, but if you set them within the prescientific religious milieu of the first-century Roman Empire, suddenly miracle stories become especially compelling.
Sam, wha t are the secular sources of an acceptable moral code?
HARRIS: Well, I don’t think that the religious books are the source. We go to the Bible and we are the judge of what is good. We see the golden rule as the great distillation of ethical impulses, but the golden rule is not unique to the Bible or to Jesus; you see it in many, many cultures—and you even see some form of it among non-human primates.
I’m not at all a moral relativist. I think it’s quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism . I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing, for example, is unambiguously wrong—you can use the word evil. A society that kills women and girls for sexual indiscretion, even the indiscretion of being raped, is a society that has killed compassion, that has failed to teach men to value women and has eradicated empathy.
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.
Rick, Christianity has conducted itself in an abjectly evil manner from time to time. How do you square that with the Christian Gospel of love?
WARREN: I don’t feel duty-bound to defend stuff that’s done in the name of God which I don’t think God approved or advocated. Have things been done wrong in the name of Christianity? Yes. Sam makes the statement in his book that religion is bad for the world, but far more people have been killed through atheists than through all the religious wars put together.
Thousands died in the Inquisition; millions died under Mao, and under Stalin and Pot Pot . There is a home for atheists in the world today—it’s called North Korea. I don’t know any atheists who want to go there. I’d much rather live under Tony Blair, or even George Bush. The bottom line is that atheists, who accuse Christians of being intolerant, are as intolerant—
HARRIS: How am I being intolerant? I’m not advocating that we lock people up for their religious beliefs. You can get locked up in Western Europe for just denying the Holocaust. I think that’s a terrible way of addressing the problem.
This really is one of the great canards of religious discourse, the idea that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were perpetrated because of atheism. The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism.
There’s nationalism, there’s tribalism, there’s racism, there’s chauvinism. And there’s religion . Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith.
WARREN: You don’t feel atheists are dogmatic?
HARRIS: No, I don’t.
WARREN: I’m sorry, I disagree with you. You’re quite dogmatic.
HARRIS: OK, well , I’m happy to have you point out my dogmas, but first let me deal with Stalin. The killing fields and the gulag were not the product of people being too reluctant to believe things on insufficient evidence. They were not the product of people requiring too much evidence and too much argument in favor of their beliefs. We have people flying planes in our buildings because they have theological grievances against the West.
I’m noticing Christians doing terrible things explicitly for religious reasons—for instance, not funding [emhryonic] stem-cell research. The motive is always paramount for me. No society in human history has ever sufféred because it has become too reasonable.
WARREN: We’re in exact agreement on that. I just happen to believe that Christianity saved reason. We would not have the Bill of Rights without our Christianity
HARRIS: That’s certainly a disputable claim The idea that somehow we are getting our morality out of the judeo-Christian tradition is bad history and bad science.
WARREN: Where do you get your morality? If there is no God, if I am simply complicated ooze, then the truth is, your life doesn’t matter, my life doesn’t matter.
HARRIS: That is a total caricature of -----
WARREN: No, let me finish. I let you caricature Christianity. If life is just random chance, then nothing really does matter and there is no morality—it’s survival of the fittest. If survival of the fittest means me killing you to survive, so be it. For ycars, atheists have said there is no God, but they want to live like God exists. They want to live like their lives have meaning.
HARRIS: Our morality, the meaning we find in life, is a lived experience that I believe has, to use a loaded term, a spiritual component. I believe it is possible to radically transform our experience of the world for the better, very much the way someone like Jesus, or someone like Buddha, witnessed.
There is wisdom in our spiritual, contemplative literature, and I am quite interested in understanding it. I think that meditation and prayer affect us for the better. The question is, what is reasonable to believe on the basis of those transformations?
WARREN; You will not admit that it is your experience that makes you an atheist, not rationality.
HARRIS: What in your experience is making you someone who is not a Muslim? I presume that you are not losing sleep every night wondering whether to convert to Islam. And if you’re not, it is because when the Muslims say, “We have a book that’s the perfect word of the creator of the universe, it’s the Qur’an, it was just dictated to Muhammad in his cave by the archangel Gabriel,” you see a variety of claims there that aren’t backed up by sufficient evidence. If the evidence were sufficient, you would be compelled to be Muslim.
WARREN: That’s exactly right.
HARRIS: So you and I both stand in a relationship of atheism to Islam.
WARREN: We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God. In 1974, 1 spent the better part of a year living in Japan, and I studied all the world religions. All of the religions basically point toward truth.
Buddha made this famous statement at the end of his life: “I’m still searching for the truth.” Muhammad said, “I am a prophet of the truth.” The Veda says, “Truth is elusive, it’s like a butterfly, you’ve got to search for it.” Then Jesus Christ comes along and says, “I am the truth.” All of a sudden, that forces a decision.
HARRIS: Many, many other prophets and gurus have said that.
WARREN: Here’s the difference. Jesus says, “I am the only way to God. I am the way to the Father.” He is either lying or he’s not.
Sam, is Rick intellectually dishonest?
HARRIS: I wouldn’t put it in such an invidious way, but
Let’s say Rick’s not here and we’re just hanging out in his office.
HARRIS: It is intellectually dishonest, frankly, to say that you are sure that Jesus
was born of a virgin.
WARREN: I say I accept that by faith. And I think it’s intellectually dishonest for you to say you have proof that it didn’t happen. Here’s the difference between you and me. I am open to the possibility that I am wrong in certain areas, and you are not.
HARRIS: Oh, I am absolutely open to that.
WARREN: So you are open to the possibility that you might be wrong about Jesus?
HARRIS: And Zeus. Absolutely.
WARREN: And what are you doing to study that?
HARRIS: I consider it such a low-probability event that I—
WA RREN: A low probability? When there arc 96 percent believers in the world? So is everybody else an idiot?
HARRIS: It is quite possible for most people to be wrong—as are most all Americans who think that evolution didn’t occur.
WARREN: That’s an arrogant statement.
HARRIS: It’s an honest statement.
Rick, if you had been born in India or in Iran, would you have different religious beliefs?
WARREN: There’s no doubt where you’re born influences your initial beliefs. Regardless of where you were born, there are some things you can know about God, even without the Bible . For instance, I look at the world and I say , “God likes variety.” I say, “God likes beauty.” I say, “God likes order,” and the more we understand ecology, the more we understand how sensitive that order is.
HARRIS: Then God also likes smallpox and tuberculosis.
WA\RREN: I would attribute a lot of the sins in the world to myself
HARRIS: Arc you responsible for smallpox?
WARREN: I am responsible to do something about it. No doubt about it. I am responsible to do something about the 500 million who get malaria every year and the 40 million who have AIDS, because I will be accountable for my life. And when I say, “God, why don’t you do something about this?” God says, “Well, why don’t you ? You were the answer to your own prayer.”
HARRIS: I totally agree with Rick: it is our responsibility to help bridge these inequities, but I think you become more motivated, potentially, to help people when you realize there is no good reason, certainly not a supernatural good reason, for the fact that I have so much and my neighbor has so little.
Do you think that religiously motivated works are actually harmful?
HARRIS: The thing that bothers me about faith-based altruism is that it is contaminated with religious ideas that have nothing to do with the relief of human suffering.
So you have a Christian minister in Africa who’s doing really good work, helping those who are hungry, healing th.ose who are sick . And yet, as part of his job description, he feels the needs to preach the divinity of Jesus in communities where literally millions of people have been killed because of interreligious conflict between Christians and Muslims.
It seems to me that added piece causes unnecessary suffering. I would much rather have someone over there who simply wanted to feed the hungry and heal the sick.
WARREN: You’d much rather have somebody—an atheist—feeding the hungr rather than a person who believes in God? All of the great movements forward in Western civilization were by believers. It was pastors who led the abolition of slavery. It was pastors who led the woman’s right to vote. It was also pastors who led the civil rights movement. Not atheists.
HARRIS: You bring up slavery---- I think it’s quite ironic. Slavery, on balance, is suported by the Bible, not condemned by it. It’s supported with exquisite precision in the Old Testament, as you know, as Paul in First Timothy and Ephesians and Colossians supports it, and Peter ------
WARREN: No, he doesn’t. He allows it. He doesn’t support it.
HARRIS: OK, he allows it. I would argue that we got rid of slavery not because we read the Bible more closely. We got rid of slavery despite the profound inadequacies of the Bible. We got rid of slavery because we realized it was manifestly evil to treat human beings as farm equipment. As it is.
Rick, what is your role as a pastor in encouraging reformation of other faiths?
WARREN: All of the great questions of the 21st century will be religious questions. Will Islam modernize peacefully? What’s going to happen to the influx of Muslims into secular Europe, which has lost its faith in Christianity and has nothing to counteract this loss in religious terms? What will replace Marxism in China? In all likelihood it’s going to be Christianity. Will America return to its historic roots, will there be a Third Great Awakening, or will America go the way of Europe?
HARRIS: I think the answers, in spiritual and ethical terms, are going to be non-denominational. We are suffering the collision of denominations, specifically the collision with Islam. Whatever is true about us isn’t Christian. And it isure isn’t Muslim. Physics isn’t Christian, though it was invented by Christians. Algebra isn’t Muslim, even though it was invented by Muslims. Whenever we get at the truth, we transcend culture, we transcend our upbringing.
The discourse of science is a good example of where we should hold out hope for transcending our tribalism.
WARREN: Why isn’t atheism more appealing if it’s supposedly the most intellectually honest?
HARRIS: Frankly, it has a terrible PR campaign.
WARREN: [Laughs] It’s not a matter of PR.
HARRIS: It is right next to child molester as something you don’t want to be. But that is a product, I would argue, of what religious people tell one another about atheism.
Sam, the one thing that I find really troubling in your arguments is that I am guilty, to quote “The End of Faith, ” of a “ludicrous obscenity” when I take my children to church. That is strong language, and it doesn’t exactly encourage dialogue.
HARRIS: To some degree the stridence of my writing is an effort to get people’s attention. But I can honestly defend the stridence because I think our situation is that urgent. I am terrified of what seems to me to be a bottleneck that civilization is passing through . On the one hand we have 21st-century disruptive technology proliferating, and on the other we have first-century superstition.
A civilization is going to either pass through this bottleneck more or less intact or it won’t. And perhaps that fear sounds grandiose, but civilizations end. On any number of occasions, some generation has witnessed the ruination of everything they and their ancestors had built. What especially terrifies me about religious thinking is the expectation on the part of many that civilization is bound to end based on prophecy and its ending is going to be glorious.
WARREN: I believe that history split into A.D. and B.C. because of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection is not only the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is the hope of the world: it says there’s more to this life than just here and now.
That doesn’t mean that I do less, it means that this life is a test, it’s a trust and it’s a temporary assignment. If death is the end, shoot, I’m not going to waste another minute being altruistic.
HARRIS: How do you account for my altruism?
WARREN: You have common grace. Even in people who don’t believe in God, there is a spark God has put in you that says, “There’s got to be more to life than just make money and die.” I think that that spark does not come from mere evolution.
Sam wrote that without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable.
WARREN; Because we were made in God’s image, we were made to last forever. That means I’m going to spend more time on that side of eternity than on this side. If I did not believe that there is a Judgment, if I believed Hitler would actually get away with everything he did, that would be a reason for great despair.
The fact is, I do believe there will be a Judgment Day. God is not just a God of love. He is a God of justice. So death is a factor. On the other hand, even if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful satisfactory, significant way to live.
HARRIS: How is it fair for God to have designed a world which gives such ambiguous testimony to his existence? How is it fair to have created a system where belief is the crucial piece, rather than being a good person? How is it fair to have created a world in which by mere accident of birth, someone who grew up Muslim can be confounded by the wrong religion? I don’t see how the future of humanity is in good care with those competing orthodoxies.
Rick, let’s be blunt. Is Sam’s soul in jeopardy, in your view, because he has rejected Jesus?
WARREN: The politically incorrect answer is yes.
HARRIS: Is that the honest answer?
WARREN: The truth is, religion is mutually exclusive. The person who says, “Oh, I just believe them all,” is an idiot because the religions flat-out contradict each other. You cannot believe in reincarnation and heaven at the same time.
Sam, lets be blunt as well. Has Rick, in your view, wasted much of his life on behalf of a Gospel that you think is a first-century superstition?
HARRIS: I wouldn’t put it in those stark terms, because I don’t have a rigid view
how someone should spend their life so as not to waste it.
WARREN: What’s you r politically incorrect answer?
HARRIS: I think you could use your time and attention better than organizing your life around a belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and the best book we’re ever going to have on every relevant subject. How would the ideal world work, in the Sam Harris view?
HARRJS: Right now, we have to change the rules to talk about God and spiritual experience and ethics . And I’m denying that that is so. You can have your spirituality. You can go into a cave and practice meditation and transform yourself and then we can talk about why that happened and how it could be replicated.
We may even want, for perfectly rational reasons, to say we want a Sabbath in this country, a genuine Sabbath. Let’s realize that there’s a power in contemplating the mystery of the universe, and in reminding yourself how much you love the people closest to you, and how much more you could love the people you haven’t met yet.
There is nothing you have to believe on insufficient evidence in order to talk about that possibility.
WARREN: Sam, do you believe human beings have a spirit?
HARRIS: There are many reasons not to believe in a naive conception of a soul that kind of floats off the brain at death and goes somewhere else. But I do not know.
WARREN: Can you have spirituality without a spirit?
HARRIS: You can feel yourself to be one with the universe.
WARREN: : OK, then why can’t you just take the next step? Because right now you’re talking in extremely nonrational terms.
HARRIS: There’s nothing irrational about it. You can close your eyes in your meditation and lose the sense of your physical body, totally. Many people draw from that the metaphysical conclusion that “I’m just spirit, and I can transcend the body’
That’s not the only conclusion you have to draw from that experience, and I don’t hink it’s the best conclusion.
WARREN: You’re more spiritual than you think. You just don’t want a boss. You don’t want a God who tells you what to do.
HARRIS: I don’t want to pretend to be certain about anything I’m not certain about.
Rick, last thoughts?
WARREN: I believe in both faith and reason . The more we learn about God, the more we understand how magnificent this universe is. There is no contradiction to it. When I look at history, I would disagree with Sam: Christianity has done far more good than bad. Altruism comes out of knowing there is more than this life, that there is a sovereign God, that I am not God. We’re both betting. He’s betting his life that he’s right. I’m betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he’s right , I’ve lost nothing. If I’m right, he’s lost everything. I’m not willing to make that gamble.
April 9, 2007 (Pgs. 58-63)
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