Culture At Large

Debating an atheist

Andy Rau

Over the last several months, Andrew Sullivan (a prominent political blogger who is both gay and Catholic) has been engaged in a formal blog debate with outspoken atheist Sam Harris about faith--specifically, about whether or not religious faith is more or less rational than the atheist worldview. That debate has now come to an end; you can read the full exchange at Beliefnet. If you don't have time to read through the entire debate, at least take a look at the final few exchanges and especially at the closing statements of Harris and Sullivan.

I suspect that most of you, like me, have a lot of theological differences with Sullivan, but I don't want to focus exclusively on that. I'm curious what you think about the approach each debater took in the exchange, and if you think one of them comes across more effectively than the other. A few things to ponder as you read through the (lengthy) debate:

  • Is Christianity "reasonable" in a way that can be expressed logically, in a debate like this? Or is something as personal as a relationship with Jesus Christ an experience that just can't be expressed in the logical and scientific terms that atheists like Harris demand? At times, each participant expresses a bit of frustration at the feeling that they're just talking past each other. Is that inevitable in a debate like this?
  • Put yourself in Sullivan's position. How would you have responded to Harris' opening salvo? (And if you're not a Christian, how would you have responded to Sullivan's opening shot?)
  • Sullivan's theology can be characterized as pretty liberal. Does that impact, positively or negatively, his ability to respond to atheist challenges? Would your theological perspective dictate a different type of argument to use in a debate with an atheist, or does Sullivan hit all the important points?
  • Do Sullivan's frequent references to the value of doubt, mystery, and humility in one's faith strike a chord with you at all? Or are they a bit of a "cop-out," as Harris seems to suggest?
  • Do you see value in debates like this, which tend to end on some variation of "well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree"?

It's not everyday that we see such a detailed exchange between a believer and a non-believer; so I think debates like this are well worth paying attention to even if we don't feel comfortable with the believer's theology. Having read the debate, what do you think?

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology