Oh dear, I have got Andrew Sullivan’s knickers in a twist. His original attack of me for conceiving of all religion as “fundamentalism” was uncharacteristically intemperate, and forced me to respond with equal vigor.
(For a very strong critique of both Sullivan’s piece and Ross Douthat’s similar views in the New York Times, see Jason Rosenhouse’s superb response at EvolutionBlog. Jason shows that there’s no support for Douthat’s view that the Adam-and-Eve story was part metaphor and part truth, and he completely demolishes Sullivan’s claim that hardly anyone ever took that story as gospel over the whole history of Christianity).
Anyway, Sullivan is clearly ticked off and just as intemperate as before. He’s come back at me at the Daily Dish in a piece called “Must the story of the fall be true? Ctd.” He repeats his views that he “can agree with Coyne on this [the sad state of modern Christian apologetics] and still find him crude and uninformed about the faith he has such contempt for.”
His response is notable for two things. First, he doesn’t really respond, but merely reproduces, without much response, several comments made by readers on this site. So he’s been reading the posts and comments here, but is too cowardly to respond—and of course he doesn’t allow any comments at his own site.
Second, he tries to defend Original Sin in a bizarre and incoherent way. I reproduce below his full defense, a lovely piece of obfuscatory apologetics:
I would argue that original sin is a mystery that makes sense of our species’ predicament – not a literal account of a temporal moment when we were all angels and a single act that made us all beasts. We are beasts with the moral imagination of angels. But if we are beasts, then where did that moral imagination come from? If it is coterminous with intelligence and self-awareness, as understood by evolution, then it presents human life as a paradox, and makes sense of the parable. For are we not tempted to believe we can master the universe with our minds – only to find that we cannot, and that the attempt can be counter-productive or even fatal? Isn’t that delusion what Genesis warns against?
The answer to his last question is “no.” Saying that we are creatures with evolved and culturally-derived morality (yes, Andrew, that’s where our moral imagination came from, not from God), and can be both good and bad, is hardly a “paradox”. And how is it “fatal” to try to master the universe with our minds? We’ve done a pretty good job of it so far. We sure haven’t mastered it with our nonexistent “souls”—or with a belief in baby Jesus.
He goes on:
The Fall and the Resurrection are the bookends of that paradox. It could well be, as my lapsed Catholic reader believes, that we have become morally better over 200,000 years, that gain is possible, that our better angels can progressively master our raging beasts within. But part of that was fueled by religious evolution, as Bob Wright has brilliantly laid out. So it’s possible that the Fall does indeed lead to the Resurrection, but that it is only finally fulfilled by humankind’s ultimate, universal embrace of a loving God through the aeons of time. Doesn’t Christian eschatology strongly hint at exactly such an ultimate resolution? You just have to let go of certain neuroses when you read and ponder texts about profound mysteries rendered into stories. That’s why doubt fuels faith. It prevents you from fixating on a particular pattern of thought that blinds you to the richness of other interpretations of the same, basic truth.
First of all, Wright certainly does not show that humans have become morally better over the last 200,000 years. He gives no data on that point, asserting only that scripture has become more moral since the early days of polytheism. But even if Wright is correct (and I don’t think he is), that says nothing about whether such putative moral improvement has anything to do with validating the Christian myth. In fact, if we’ve become progressively better over time, then why do we think there was a “Fall”? And even if there was a Fall, why does that give evidence for Sullivan’s belief in God, Jesus, and the Resurrection?
All Sullivan is doing here is confecting a post facto story to justify his Catholic beliefs. But the story is unconvincing. He has not come close to answering my main question: how does he know that certain parts of the Bible—like Adam and Eve and the Fall—are to be taken metaphorically, while others—like the existence of God, Jesus, the Resurrection, and the expiation of sin “through the universal embrace of a loving God”—are true. Once again, he’s cherry-picking, and he’s plenty mad that I called him out on it. And like many “sophisticated” believers, he absolutely refuses to divulge what he believes.
I have little more to say to this superstitious bully. I would gladly have commented on his site had he allowed comments, and he’s too lame to comment on my site. He defends himself at a place—his blog—where he’s impervious to criticism.
We see in Sullivan what we see so often these days: a smart person who completely loses it when it comes to defending his faith. Rather than give up his untenable Catholicism—after all, he’s a vocal gay man who belongs to a Church whose official policy condemns gays—he simply makes stuff up to explain why the Catholic myth is okay. He’s one of those people who wants to appear progressive and down with science, but can’t bear to abandon the superstititions that give him so much comfort. This is a fundamental reason for the rise of accommodationism.
In a way I feel sorry for Sullivan. But I’m more angry than sorry, for he obstinately fails to deal with the elephant in his room: that the Church he so ardently defends says that he’ll go to hell for his brand of sexuality. He should not be a Catholic.