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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