Summer 2007

Atheism’s New Bulldog

Sam Harris thinks Christians are not only delusional, they’re dangerous. But is his bark worse than his bite?

By Holly Pivec

Sam Harris thinks you’re nuts. And he wants to save the world from you — and those who share your “foolish” and “dangerous” belief in God.

Armed with two New York Times bestsellers — The End of Faith (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) — Harris, a fortyish Stanford University graduate, has launched a media blitz to convince people that belief in God is as silly as belief in the tooth fairy — only much more deadly.

Harris believes religion, including Christianity, threatens civilization with its radical views on moral issues, like stem-cell research, and its geopolitical views on Israel, which many evangelicals believe was given to Jews by God.

Harris accuses Bible-believers of holding to unscientific myths, like the virgin birth and special creation. Worse, he says, these “fanatics” sway the American vote, a particular source of embarrassment for Harris, an American.

“The time for respecting religious beliefs of this sort is long past,” Harris told hundreds of applauding CEOs and scholars at a 2005 Canadian conference, called “Idea City.”

Harris — part of a post-9/11 movement Wired Magazine called the “New Atheists” — is kissing political correctness goodbye and believes religious tolerance only forces people to condone dangerous beliefs. Reason, in the form of atheism, he argues, should guide one’s decision-making, not religion.

In Letter to a Christian Nation Harris writes, “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

Sidestepping Arguments

Despite Harris’ show of logical force — brandishing words like “evidence” and “argument” — many Biola University professors have found that his case for atheism offers little of either.

Dr. Douglas Geivett, a Biola philosophy professor, called The End of Faith “the product of a bizarre logic.” And Dr. David Horner, a Biola philosophy and theology professor, said, “Harris is not a careful thinker.” Horner said Harris’ books are full of contradictions, conjectures and caricatures of religious people.

Many of Harris’ critics note that he glibly asserts that there’s no evidence for God without interacting with or acknowledging the traditional arguments for God’s existence.

Dr. William Lane Craig — a well-known Christian philosopher and research professor at Biola — said the evidence for God’s existence is “abundant,” including the beginning of the universe out of nothing, the fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of life, and the existence of a realm of objective moral values.

These arguments and more have been put forth for millennia by the greatest minds of Christianity, according to Geivett. Yet Harris’ books don’t address them.

Harris also ignores arguments for Jesus’ resurrection, Geivett said. And Harris has yet to debate any notable Christian philosophers.

Harris did agree to an informal debate with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, published in Newsweek April 9. But he hasn’t debated the likes of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland or any of the Christian intellectual heavyweights.

This makes Harris’ critics wonder if he’s avoiding such a match-up. Craig thinks there’s good reason for atheists, like Harris, to do so. During Craig’s own public debates with atheists — about 100 of them — he’s found that “they’re utterly incapable of defending their view persuasively or offering a cogent critique of Christianity,” he said.

Most of Harris’ attacks on God aren’t arguments, but mere allegations, according to Geivett. They amount to what he calls schoolyard “name-calling.” For example, Harris compares belief in God to a fictitious man’s irrational belief that a diamond the size of a refrigerator is buried in his backyard. The man keeps digging — without any evidence for his belief.

But this isn’t an argument, Geivett said.

“It’s not even a good analogy unless you can demonstrate that someone who believes in God is just as irrational as that,” he said, adding that Harris has failed to do this.

One of the few arguments Harris does make for atheism in The End of Faith is that a good God wouldn’t make a world with diseases in it. Harris rejects the common Christian response — that God gave human beings free will, which they misused, causing evil (including diseases) to enter the world. This response doesn’t work, according to Harris, because the concept of free will is “incoherent.”

Yet, Harris can’t deny free will, according to Geivett, since his goal of an atheist paradise is built on the assumptions that human beings can freely choose to believe or disbelieve in God — and that they can freely choose moral behaviors that promote a harmonious world.

Harris’ view is “hopelessly confused,” Geivett said.

Showmanship

But if Harris’ reasoning is so flawed, then how has he amassed such a following?

“Most people aren’t well-equipped to evaluate evidence and arguments,” Geivett said. He blames a materialistic culture that floods the media with celebrities and sound bytes.

“Harris can exploit that,” he said.

Harris — who looks more like Ben Stiller than Bertrand Russell — doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of an atheist: old, gray-haired and scowling. Rolling Stone magazine named him “Hot Atheist,” according to Harris’ Web site.

And Harris has a way with words. His sentences flow easily, like conversation. Yet they pack a punch — like when he describes God, in The End of Faith, as “one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”

But while Harris’ words are provocative, his voice and mannerisms in his speeches are mild and controlled. He projects a professorial air.

“It’s all very well packaged — from Harris’ persona to his presence with the media,” Geivett said.

Yet, Harris lacks a professor’s credentials. He has only an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford, where he enrolled at the late age of 30.

Before Stanford, Harris spent 11 years — at his mother’s expense — traipsing the world after Eastern gurus and reading hundreds of books on religion, according to the Washington Post. This spiritual search — Harris told the Washington Post — began at age 19 when, during his first attempt at college, Harris tried “ecstasy,” a psychedelic drug. The high altered his worldview.

“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively,” Harris told the Washington Post. (He didn’t respond to a request for an interview with Biola Connections.)

Now Harris is a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, according to a bio on his Web site, though it doesn’t say which school he’s enrolled in. Some critics think his bio is misleading — that the wording makes it sound like Harris earned a graduate degree (instead of just an undergraduate degree) from Stanford and that he approached his study of religion as a seasoned scholar rather than a novice.

“If he respected the value and importance of earning his stripes as an intellectual, he might be less strident in his style and more aware of the limitations of his arguments,” Geivett said.

Yet, Harris’ fans don’t seem to mind his resume. His logic, they believe, is irrefutable. An endorsement from The Economist on the back cover of The End of Faith reads, “Even Mr. Harris’s critics will have to concede the force of [his] analysis.” And noted secular scholars like Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006), have endorsed Harris — lending him credibility in the minds of his readers.

But Harris’ critics beg to differ — pointing out what they feel are fatal flaws in his arguments. Horner says one of Harris’ main arguments, for example — one that props up his entire movement — is that religion is intolerant; so, it shouldn’t be tolerated.

“This argument is obviously self-refuting,” Horner said. “My freshmen students learning logic are able to see that in an instant.”

Atheist Paradise or Pipe Dream?

One of the lures of Harris’ crusade is his dream of an atheist paradise. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris writes that only when people abandon belief in God “will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”

But Craig points out that whenever atheism has gripped a nation, atrocities have followed.

“Look at Albania. Look at the Soviet Union. Look at the French Revolution. The reign of terror sent thousands of people to the guillotine,” he said.

During the 70-year socialist experiment in Russia, millions were killed.

“That’s what happened when atheism took over a society,” Craig said.

Harris answers such concerns by saying his atheist revolution won’t use weapons, but reason. He points to Scandinavian countries as model atheist nations.

Yet, Geivett dismisses these countries as marginal in their geopolitical influence and stifling of religious freedom. He thinks they owe much of their continued existence to the stabilizing force of the United States — a democratic superpower — where belief in God is held by a majority of citizens.

“In my experiences traveling in Sweden, religious believers are not tolerated very well, and that should be one measure of a healthy democracy,” Geivett said.

Geivett doubts that religion can be rooted out of a major democratic society, like America, without the use of force. He thinks Harris hasn’t ruled out that possibility and wonders how Harris can persuade people that belief in God is unreasonable if he believes religious people won’t respond to reason.

“If they won’t respond to reason, then how does he propose to implement his ideas?” Geivett said, adding, “In The End of Faith, Harris is noticeably shy about discussing this dimension of his proposal.”

Scientific progress would also suffer in an atheist world, according to Dr. John Bloom, the director of Biola’s master of arts program in science and religion. Despite Harris’ portrayal of Christians as unscientific, Bloom said they were the driving force behind modern science because they expected to find regularities in a world created by a law-giving God.

Also at risk in an atheist world would be people’s mental health, according to Dr. Peter Hill, a Biola psychology professor. Hill said research shows that religious belief gives people a sense of life purpose, an optimistic outlook and coping skills. Most of these studies have been conducted in the United States and Great Britain, where Christianity is the major religion.

“Christianity, more than other religions, emphasizes a sense of hope through the concept of the afterlife. We believe there is something after death and a blissful relationship with God. That uplifts and encourages,” Hill said.

Similar studies have yet to be conducted in atheist societies, but Hill speculates they would find higher rates of depression.

“My guess is there would be a corresponding hopelessness and negativity that affects the entire being,” Hill said.

Even Harris sees benefits to spirituality. At Idea City, he said he supports spiritual experiences and practices, like meditation, as long as they don’t involve any type of “religious dogma.”

Geivett believes the attraction of Harris’ crusade is due in part to the growing popularity of “vague” spirituality. But he sees this interest, partly, as positive.

“It shows that people, like Harris, don’t want to go fully materialistic because they understand that’s a dead-end street and that it gives no meaning to human existence,” he said.

Bible-Bashing

Harris’ most scathing criticisms of Christianity are directed toward the Bible. He thinks it’s barbaric and outdated — promoting violence, slavery and homophobia.

“The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, given the contents of the book,” he writes in Letter to a Christian Nation.

Like Islam, Christianity has used violence to convert, according to Harris. Jesus taught violence, he claimed at Idea City, quoting Luke 19:27: “But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”

But Harris neglects to tell his audience that this verse is from one of Jesus’ parables, not an order to his disciples to slay those who reject him. Examples like this cause critics to accuse Harris of cherry-picking the Bible to support his view.

Nevertheless, the claim that Jesus told his disciples to kill is absurd, according to Kevin Lewis, a professor of theology and law at Biola. The method of conversion used throughout the Bible is always preaching, Lewis said — adding that, even in the Old Testament, God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to the Ninevites. He didn’t send in an army.

The Old Testament wars weren’t about religion, according to Craig, but were about God’s judgments on wicked nations.

“Biblical Judaism and biblical Christianity have never used violence as a means of conversion,” Craig said.

Harris repeatedly ignores biblical genres — not just parables — claiming that Jewish laws about slavery found in the Old Testament apply today.

“Harris clearly hasn’t done his homework,” Geivett said. “But he knows he can get away with it because people are biblically illiterate.”

Old Testament law was for the nation of Israel — a particular people group in a particular geographical region, according to Dr. David Talley, an Old Testament professor at Biola. He said God allowed for certain ancient Near Eastern cultural practices, like slavery. But God also gave laws to protect slaves from oppression, Talley said.

“God has always worked within cultures,” Talley said. “God speaks into the culture, but He also speaks against the culture.”

According to Old Testament law, Jewish slaves — who often were working off debt — were to be treated as hired hands and be freed after a maximum of six years, according to Talley. And even foreign slaves were to be loved and treated well, including having one day off a week.

But Harris also claims the Bible has rules against what he calls “imaginary crimes,” like homosexuality, rather than rules that would end human suffering. The Bible’s teaching about the soul causes Christians to oppose embryonic stem-cell research, which promises lifesaving cures, according to Harris.

“One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering,” Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation.

Yet, Christians are concerned about suffering, according to Horner, an ethicist. God’s laws were given to prevent suffering and promote human flourishing, he said, adding, “That’s why, when God gave the law, he repeatedly said, ‘Do this so you will flourish in the land.’”

Where Christians disagree with Harris, according to Horner, is they don’t believe that killing a person — even an embryo — to end someone else’s suffering is morally justifiable.

Plus, Harris fails to see that Christians have done more to end suffering than any other group, Horner said. He said Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor” along with Jesus’ definition of neighbor — which includes anyone who needs help, not just one’s friends or family members — is essentially a Christian teaching.

“Historically, the moral vision of helping the world comes through Christianity,” Horner said.

So, it’s no accident that Christians invented hospitals and leper colonies, ended child labor laws, began universal education and abolished slavery, Horner said.

For Harris to claim that atheists are more concerned about human suffering than Christians is ironic, Horner said, adding, “Harris is helping himself to Christian capital.”

Unlike the Bible, atheism can’t even provide a basis for morality, according to Craig. If God doesn’t exist and people are animals — or if they are just highly evolved machines for replicating DNA, as Dawkins and Dennett claim — then there aren’t such things as right and wrong, Craig said. Animals and machines don’t have moral duties, he added.

And this means the things Harris calls “barbaric” — like religious intolerance and rules against homosexuality — can’t be wrong, according to his own beliefs.

“There’s a terrible contradiction at the heart of these fellows’ views. It’s bizarre to me they don’t see this contradiction,” Craig said.

The Waging War

Despite the chinks in Harris’ armor, he continues to recruit troops for his war on religion.

But he admits — in Letter to a Christian Nation — that “the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good.”

Still, Harris remains hopeful, saying that slavery, like belief in God, was once an entrenched institution.

But Geivett points out that emotions and personal biases can always cloud people’s judgments, even smart people like Harris.

“Serious-minded intellectuals are just as susceptible as others to their gut reactions and their preferences,” Geivett said, “and they build a rationale for how they would like the world to be.”

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  • George June 20, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    This is off topic, I know, but I am posting here because I started a new advice site/blog and was looking for Christian college students interns for writing articles and blogs about back yards; gardening, pools, spa or anything related to back yards. Please contact me if you can help.

  • Arpit Chauhan May 28, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    I concede that some atheists have not responded abundantly to the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. But, I think others like Dennett, Stephen Law etc. have.

    If for a moment we keep those three arguments (first cause, objective moral values and fine-tuning) aside, the other arguments given in this article seem to be fallacious. e.g. embracing atheism leads to sheer destruction of society. Whether objective moral values exist or not, a person can still grant the premise of universal well-being of conscious creatures as morally good and be "moral." The mention of communist regimes is just a red herring. The burden of proof is on theists to show that atheism causally links to violence and destruction in society. And even if it's proved, it does not show that God exists, because as Dr Craig notes, the truth of a proposition can't be decided by its social impact. Then why do you explicitly go against this?

    And, the idea that Christians care for suffering. I am not going to blame Christians for hating gays, as the sophisticated ones that I know (like Dr Craig) do not endorse that. But, the problem is the emphasis Christians put on preventing abortion, while not caring for animals they eat. (Please don't respond with "Jesus told us to eat animals and use earth as per our wish") The fetus hasn't developed a nervous system and so is incapable of feeling pain, yet you are so eager to save it. You might say the embryo possesses a soul, but on my view that isn't so and therefore "Christians try to avoid suffering" doesn't seem to hold given that you don't care for live, breathing animals capable of feeling pain when they are slaughtered or inhumanely raised in factory farms. How do you care for suffering in any other sense than that provided by the narrow outlook of the scripture?

  • Michael June 24, 2013 at 3:42 PM

    If Christianity is so passionate about ending slavery, why isn't there a single line in the bible abolishing the practice?

    Christians have also been benefiting from secular humanist liberal ethics from the enlightenment era.

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