27 January 2007

Debating religion

Andrew Sullivan has been engaging in an internet debate with Sam Harris on the merits of religious belief. He has also been posting e-mails and quotes from other writers in defense of religion. What is striking about these testimonials (for typical examples see here, here, and here) is that they ultimately depend not on any hard evidence supporting the truth of religion, but rather on the emotional need to believe, as an antidote to despair in the face of the inevitability of death, or of the supposed meaninglessness of life which some people apparently feel follows from the absence of a deity. The following is typical of the spirit of these offerings:

There came a point in my life when I just chose to believe, because living without faith, hope, and love was something I just couldn't do. Was it psychologically weak? Intellectually dishonest? Maybe, but I don't care.

This is a standard of evaluation which Sullivan, like any intelligent person, rightly rejects when any type of belief other than a religious one is under discussion -- he has regularly denounced other writers for believing what they wanted to believe about politics or the Iraq conflict, when those beliefs were contrary to the evidence.

Here is a clarifying and well-written response from an atheist blogger.

I have a lot of respect for Andrew Sullivan; he is his own man and doesn't slavishly follow any party line, and on issues other than religion he always has solid reasons for taking whatever position he does, even if I disagree with him. But like many people, he somehow manages to set religion off in a separate compartment in which it is exempted from evaluation by the standards of evidence and logic which apply to everything else.

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