Sam Harris is Afraid of Religion

I’ve been asked by a friend to comment on these five segments of a talk by Sam Harris about the nature of faith and reason in the modern world. Let me start with a couple general observations from my time spent listening to atheists about faith etc. and then we’ll get into my responses to the video. I find that many times there is a general disconnect between theists and atheists because Christianity is a rather large and general category into which many pour everything from mild agnosticism to right wing politics and much of it having practically nothing to do with Christianity as a faith properly speaking. The faith itself is diverse and contains a variety of streams and nuances that is lost on most who are unwilling or simply don’t care to know the difference. A lot of times I read comments by atheists and I wonder what they are talking about because what they articulate is not Christianity. I applaud those who want to understand what Christianity says on its own terms, folks like yourself who are more open to actually learning about something before criticizing it. Now that the preliminaries have been dealt with, I’ll dive in to the videos.
Faith Vs. Reason in the Modern World (Aspen Ideas Festival July 2-8, 2007)
Video 1
My first impressions of the video are that I would agree with Harris that any belief is up for debate and discussion, religious or not, if it is worth pursuing. I pick up on an unnecessary dualism he is creating immediately where he positions modernity against religion as if the two have not existed throughout the same periods. I also think he is privileging technology to set apart our period in history as opposed to others which experienced the same if not more competition of ideas. The reason people continue to appeal to ancient traditions for their moral guidance is because they have proven themselves. Ideas that last thousands of years tend to have more credibility than those which were just said yesterday. When he says that his statement about the fact that we shouldn’t be appealing to these ancient ideas for modern problems needs no argument, he is really revealing a cultural bias that favors novelty over anything old. He is also begging the question with such reasoning. For Harris and many other atheists, Sept. 11 has been a watershed moment for reason’s need to triumph over religion. “Look at what can happen” is the thought behind this recent movement. The same thing happened after the thirty years war in Europe which brought on modernity as we understand it today. I wonder since we live in a world created by such reactions if the recent occurrences simply show the lack of modernity’s ability to deal with religious thought in general. Maybe the shift to the personal ghetto of individual religious piety was a bad idea?

Harris makes some logical fallacies in his discussion of the three types of responses of the defense of God. First, the three options is reductionistic. There are more than three options i.e. what if some part of some religions are true? Second, invoking probabilities as a way of writing off religious assertions is nonsense. It’s a red herring. As far as his reasoning for the attestation of Jesus’ life and teaching, he makes an incorrect claim about extracanonical references to Jesus. There are several. He also reveals a complete lack of historiography which tells us that documents that are centuries removed from their original periods are still considered reliable and trustworthy. A few mere decades is more than enough evidence of textual veracity.
Harris views miracles as an abrogation against the laws of the natural world. Christianity does not view miracles in this way. His view is the same as Hume. C. S. Lewis has an entire book devoted to this subject, On Miracles, which delineates these ideas. God does not use unnatural means to bring about miraculous events. These are my thoughts on the first video.
Video 2
As we set in to video two, it becomes apparent that Harris is fixated upon miracles as the main content of religious devotion. This is a huge misread of faith in general. The Christian faith is partially concerned with Jesus’ miracles or the miraculous events surrounding his life. However, these are only a segment of the faith tradition. Largely Christians worship and follow Jesus because of the demonstrable power of his ethical teachings and example of what God desires for humanity. Harris is wrong in his statement that Christianity believes God dictated the Bible. That is not the understanding of inspiration most Christians uphold. They believe God inspired the authors in such a way that their own personal thoughts and writing conveyed God’s words to humanity through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Also, the ten commandments were not set up in an order of importance so comments about their order are non-sequitor.
The usefulness of ideas is a pragmatic way of viewing knowledge. Harris is a rational, empiricist so he has no use for this category of knowledge but I think there is some correlation between usefulness and the truth of something in different areas of life. It’s a major factor for scientific discovery. This does not mean it is always the case that something useful is true, but it also does not mean that the opposite is always the case. To deny any correlation can be evidence is special pleading.
Here in the middle 7:50 we really see what Harris is driving at, reason as religion. He is concerned with certainty and he feels only reason can provide such knowledge. This is my major issue with the new atheists. They simply cannot escape the restrictions of their own assumptions to inquire into other forms of knowledge. If one is unwilling to be critical of one’s own assumptions in the pursuit of knowledge, then of course no other form of enquiry will be dubbed logical. That conclusion is demanded from the outset. This is special pleading.
Video 3
Harris paints a just so picture of ethics that I find particularly unconvincing. One need only look for the numerous atheist charities….in the world to see what I’m talking about. If ethics were so obvious, why is the world so bad? When people like Harris appeal to the ease at which we can teach our children about ethics and morality, I wonder how he can be so historically bereft of the traditions which he owes this state of affairs to. It’s very easy to benefit from the advancement of ethical thought from a tradition such as Christianity. I find it hard to believe that such would be the case if religions did not exist. Rose colored glasses indeed.

Harris embarks on the next phase of atheist pet projects these days, ethics in the Old Testament. I have no qualms with the description of absolutely terrible things happening in the OT. It is a cornucopia of human depravity. When you’re talking about ethics in the Late Iron Age, one wonders why it is so surprising. Atheists tend to retroject 21st century notions of ethics onto ancient peoples and point and say “look at how unethical.” Does this make sense when they stand on the shoulders of millennia of ethical development? Harris’ comments about ethics in the ancient Near East are completely wrong. Egyptian, Assyrian and other law codes in fact affirmed the killing of an adulterer as part of their cultural norms. The Bible parallels the cultures of its day in its presciptions for the breaking of laws for the community. Harris’ comments about slavery are ignorant as well. He uses an American notion of slavery and anachronistically positions it as the slavery talked about in the Bible. This is apples and oranges. In the first century roughly one-third of all people were in slavery as endentured servants or willing slaves of one form or another. This was a culture of patronage where only 1-5% of the population held 90% of all wealth. Being free actually could be a very bad thing when you had little access to resources. Most in slavery lived much more comfortably than those who were not. Yet, we also see Paul in the book of Philemon instructing Philemon’s slave owner to welcome him as a brother i.e. as a free person. So pictures of the Bible as supporting slavery like American slavery are naïve and uninformed about the first century world.
As far as the treatment of women is concerned, I agree with Harris that the church has unfortunately been a promulgator of certain notions about female personhood which largely have been due to the influence of Greco-Roman culture and its views about women. This is not so much the content of the bible as it is the traditions that developed after the New Testament ie. 3rd cent. onward. So when Harris points to Greek philosophers to show how ethics was so obvious for people in the 5th cent and then condemns Christianity for, what was largely Greco-Roman influences, we really are seeing some picking and choosing going on when Harris tries to paint a picture.
The Greeks viewed women as property and as dogs. In a culture dominated by reason, they showed no more ethical development in their consideration for women than the supposed counterexamples he tries to show us. So which is it Sam? Isn’t reason supposed to free us from these prejudices? It apparently did not for most of western civilization. One need only look to the teachings of Jesus and Paul to see that they were radically countercultural in regards to women. They let them learn, take positions of authority, and the early church protected women from harm of spouses. There are recorded letters of Roman magistrates complaining about Christian’s who are multiplying in number because they do not expose their children and treat their wives with respect as opposed to beating them. I will admit that the church has a bad record when it comes to women but I think the sources we have in the Bible stand as a counterexample to some of the behavior that developed at a later time due to other cultural influences. This is one of the reasons I am not Catholic. They rely too heavily on the early church period traditions which were problematic in this area.
Video 4
I think in this next video we have the possibility of convergence. Human beings are described as being created in the image of God in the Bible. This means we have the capacity to make moral choices. Evolution shows this to be the case. I believe on this point we have both positions describing different sides of the same coin. What Harris fails to discuss is the fact that virtue ethics are developed in the brain through a variety of factors and the example stories provided in the Bible, both good and bad, are ways to inform our brain of virtue and ethical content development. This is essential for understanding why people still see the Bible as a way to inform our ethical behavior. Clearly context and time periods dictate our interpretive process and no Biblical theologian will disagree with this. The problem with people like Harris is that they make no room for the meaning making process and interpretive analysis that is inherent in any faith tradition. He posits a fundamentalism which says you must accept everything at face value, or you are somehow being inconsistent. I think this is ludicrous. If you are unwilling to allow the faith community to speak for itself and describe why they adhere to the interpretive methodology they employ, then you are in fact inventing a religion that is not the one you are talking about. Harris responds to and criticizes a fundamentalist view of the bible that few Christians uphold. He also has no clue or is not willing to admit that he is in fact upholding a dogma, empirical rationalism. The denial of such a commitment truly baffles me. He spends all this time critiqueing religious claims to truth, rationatlity etc. and yet cannot admit that he himself is committed to a form of enquiry concerning human knowledge. I would agree with his comments about creationism, which is an American phenomenon, but again this is a fundamentalist concern, a small segment of the otherwise larger Christian world.
Video 5
In this video, Harris makes a major misstep. He describes religious experience as purely the phenomenon that corresponds to religious devotion, yet he is unwilling to allow for God as a possible source for this material. In his words, such claims are “unjustified” and “unsubstantiated.” I find this restrictive form of dialogue the most disturbing. In essence it states that human experience cannot be used as a form of enquiry concerning the search for truth. If there is one thing current science has taught us, it is that our expectations influence our experiences. If one is priorly committed to atheism, then it is small wonder an atheist would not interpret their experience in light of theistic categories. They have predetermined a bias against that interpretive mode of description. What if that bias was wrong? What if our experience can inform our judgments about the nature of reality? The pie in the sky atheistic ethics Harris talks about here at the end is truly maddening. His attempt to create distance from atheistic regimes that committed mass killings and untold devastation is laughable. One of the curious things I’ve witnessed in these collections of videos is that Sam Harris is making these statements largely based on fear. He is afraid of what religion will do to society and wants to pre-empt that future fate. I wonder if Harris is actually creating a form of fascism through his rhetoric rather than making a case for atheism. He wants to rid the world of what he believes are dangerous ideas. Ideas have consequences. That is reality, religious or not. It seems rather peculiar to me that he tries to set religion apart from other ideas as if they are in some separate category. I question the prudence of doing anything out of fear even if for what are perceived as good reasons. Can fear affect our reason in ways we cannot anticipate? I believe it can. Fear is a dogma and that appears to be what Harris adheres to in these videos.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What I find interesting about Sam Harris, is how he claims science has an answer for ethics and morality. He asserts it -and wants us to make the leap with him- though his backing argument is weak.

  2. I totally agree. He appeals to sentiment as if it’s some kind of argument. Weak sauce. Thanks for commenting!

  3. It was really nice of you to do such an in-depth review like this on request.

  4. Thanks Spencer. I tried to fit it in before a trip we took. Hope it wasn’t too brief. Will you guys be posting the facebook comments you responded with?

  5. Christ, it must be uncomfortable to make these arguments.

    To want Christianity to have been the forbearer of something like the scientific method or humanistic morals you have to know what it is about the scientific method and humanistic morals that is admirable. Then, having to suspend your understanding of the power of reason and evidence, you have to praise magic voices in people’s heads, and alleged corpse reanimation as a serious precursor to physics, biology and the recognition of women as people.

    I feel your pain. Having realized how comfortable it is to explain our world through science and reason, it really sucks to have to reconcile the ”fact” that all human and animal species died off a smidge over 4000 years ago (except for the stuff we saved on a big boat an 600 year old alcoholic made). It hurts to even think of the inner turmoil involved in defending such things, and I do not envy your Sisyphean project of stapling Lazarus and virgin birth onto otherwise elegant concepts which are constitutionally opposed to such nonsense.

    I can also see where you often have to deal with the inconsistencies among biblical thinkers, and why this may be your default rebuttal against atheists and humanists like Harris. For you, this question of social order is a matter of whether God did a very good job of transmitting his ideas into brains of self-interested people, and because gods like the Christian one claim perfection, it is more than a bit awkward when they mess things up. When your preferred man-in-the-sky says through his servants that gays should be murdered indiscriminately, it’s God’s word ringing through the ages, and He is not to be contradicted. Massaging such an atrocious idea for modern audiences is no small feat. It deserves recognition even.

    Humanists and atheists have no such problem. They can admire smart things Greek people did, even if ancient societies were as depraved as you can imagine. They do not have to claim that everything the Greeks said was true or false, or that their society reflected the best means by which to support human flourishing. They do not even need to establish that they treated women well or not, fully half of their population; all they have to show is that there were some positive things in that society and that people flourish better under some circumstances than others.

    It would be no simple thing to convince oneself that because we like democracy we have to accept that the gods are hanging out on Olympus. If anything, you have it harder. Acknowledging an historical relationship is a much simpler problem to solve than the concept that every smidgen of God’s work be incontrovertible fact, that it must be invariably good and just – lest it be shown an opinion and not truth.

    If you are willing to accept that Christianity’s importance in building a better society is much the same as the Greeks, the Phoenicians, Taoists, the Druids, the comet suicide people, the Buddhists or whomever, than I think this conversation will fizzle out pretty quickly into one of agreement. But I do not think you are going to do that. I think you are probably going to defend the idea that facts and human well being do not matter as much the select ideas in your book which you prefer to live by are accepted as true—and that the real yardstick of our success was scrawled on a few leaves between the stoning of adulterers and the massacres of unbelievers by sexist, homophobic men several thousand years ago.

    You say that atheists are scared of a religious world, and that lots of atheists have killed people. I assume this is to call attention to the fact that a non-religious world would not necessarily be one which supports human well being. Good point!

    Just a first knee-jerk reaction to that line of reasoning though; negative association is usually a poor measure of a person’s attributes. I hope that you believe that the fact that I am not from Botswana does not mean that all of my beliefs are directly responsible for the numerous bad things that happen outside of Botswana, and the fact that I do not believe in your god does not mean I am responsible for all bad things which have occurred outside of Christian organizations.

    But don’t get me wrong, you are obviously not responsible for all the terrible shit Christians do and have done either. I think it is better to hold individuals responsible for their actions, not based on a religious ideology of what is right or wrong, but what we consider to be the most just response given direct observation. It is not your fault that “god” inspired a book which told people to do terrible things and that they follow through on it – it is not your job to deal with the problems caused by other people believing in mystical rites which you also believe.

    I that it is a pretty marginal favor to ask that Christians make it clear that they do not valorize old-testament genocides, or that they think Jesus’ mind-controlled transcribers didn’t really mean that part about ‘the gays,’ but I do not see that as being strictly necessary. As I said, you should be responsible for your own actions. You should not be responsible for the bad things done by even the people you choose to associate with.

    Atheists are capable of killing millions of people, and people in general make lots of mistakes about what justice is – I merely contend that basically anything is better than making decisions in reference to an unobservable spirit being, most often channeled by some bearded male shaman sporting funny clothes, who is deeply concerned with my marital, reproductive and dietary choices. Purist Christians claim that my mere disagreement is sufficient to burn eternally in a lake of fire, so I feel like the bar is set pretty low here after all.

    If you have read my ramblings thus far I am very glad. I will subject you to one more of my thoughts though; that you do not need to keep trying to hold this rickety framework together.

    You already know that no magic man is rewriting the laws of physics for the sake of the vain hopes you mutter under your breath. No group of illiterate goat herders, dead two thousand years now, is more trustworthy than any current group with similar modern credentials – and you do not believe the next fad cult any more than I do. You are just as critical of any other crackpots taking power on the basis of killing gays in Uganda or burning out the sin from the unbelievers during the of the Inquisition.

    So stop it. The only person forcing you to keep up the juggling act is you. Stop trying to explain away beliefs which you know are corrupt, dishonest and deadly. You yourself can identify exactly what is wrong with them, which means even you do not need god to tell you right from wrong.

  6. Hey Will,
    I pick up on a slight sarcasm pervading your post 🙂 Yes, in some sense I think you are right, it would be quite easy for me to simply concede your points and skip along my merry way proclaiming “God is dead, God is dead…” Yet, I would be lying to myself. No matter how clever I think atheists get, they never really seem to convince. It’s far easier to be satisfied with disproving something you’ve never experienced, the contrary is something else entirely. So it seems to me, the weaker choice is to discredit those experiences I once knew to be divine and explain them away as purely subjectivist groupthink or doe eyed optimism. Alas, I’m stuck to the tried and true path of trudging through the muck to figure it out. Is it full of detours and wrong turns, walking in circles and sometimes getting lost? Inevitably, I must admit that this is the nature of the trek. Yet, it’s promises exceed what the brochure only alludes to and I count myself lucky to happen upon such majestic vistas and seldom trod paths. What doesn’t inspire me is shoddy snake oil salesman promising ethics without commitment and logic without truth. All reductionisms aside, do you really think this atheist revisionism really holds a candle to the beautiful and tragic results of history? You know better Will. Someone like Harris is a dime a dozen. I can make up stories with the best of them, that doesn’t mean I assemble a press kit and try to sell my wears to the masses as if I’m offering something no one has ever heard before. Sisyphean indeed.

    Whats worse in my opinion is failing to find the silver thread that weaves through all these various topics and settling instead for a harvest of straw men extending into the horizon alongside the yellow brick road of Enlightenment. No thanks. That doesn’t inspire me. To me the human experience is far greater than the myopic conclusions of scientific epistemologies that like to tell us what we can and cannot say. I’m enough of a non-conformist to say “that’s bullshit.” Is it more murky and tentative than an amoeba in a petry dish, certainly. Why would life be anything other? In closing, my response to your entreaty will be to simply decline your suggestion and offer a reprisal. Stop settling for worldliness and the aura of being intellectually “right” and strike out on your own. It’s far more satisfying than the half-truths and illegitimate conclusions such “experts” seem so eager to provide. I think you know more than you say in these things and its gotta be nagging at you. Why waste your time to post such a loquacious comment? Are you really trying to convince me or yourself?


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