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Wednesday, January 24, 2007
A *real* exchange over atheism and faith
To me, there was something dissatisfying about many of the reviews of recent pro-atheism books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Many of them -- notably those by the literary critic James Wood and the philosopher Thomas Nagel, in the New Republic [both links subscriber-only] -- took the position that of course many of the literalist beliefs of religious Americans were absurd (belief that God cares about one's bank balance, that one has direct conversations with the deity, that God saved your grandmother because you prayed for her -- but oddly did not respond to the prayers of Grandma's roommate in the hospital).
Rather than dwell on such "obvious" false beliefs -- obvious to the reviewers and the authors under review, that is -- the reviewers directed their polemics against Harris's and Dawkins's purported arrogance and lack of imagination, for failing to concede that there might be, philosophically speaking, something superhuman and supernatural out there, however unlike the Christian God.*
However brilliant and literate, the reviews seemed detached from the debate the atheist authors were trying to start about the actual beliefs held by actual religious Americans.
This exchange is more satisfying. Beliefnet has asked Harris, author of "Letter to a Christian Nation," and the devout pundit Andrew Sullivan to exchange a series of email messages on the subject of faith and atheism. (Sullivan doesn't just believe it's philosophically possible a supernatural entity exists, but embraces the Holy Trinity, miracles, and the Resurrection.) They start out polite, but things really heat up here.
*Maybe it's a New Republic thing. Literary editor Leon Wieseltier took exactly the same approach in reviewing Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell," in the New York Times Book Review.