We’ll continue our stroll through the museum of atheist chic and fashionable blasphemy with Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. What shall we find today? While discussing his goal for the book, Harris does what the New Atheist Movement has become known for. He writes, “Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew.”[i] Harris is implicitly making people who adhere to different religions responsible for each other’s crimes. In this case, the “Christian nation” he addresses is implicated in the crimes of extremist Islam. The problem here is that religions are very different and have very different standards and percepts. This is a lot like getting food poisoning from a restaurant once, and then proclaiming that all restaurants are dirty and vowing never to eat out again.
Harris then complains about something that is constantly complained about by atheist activists– that many Christians don’t believe in evolution. “According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity.”[ii]
It is mysterious why atheist activists think that disbelieving one article of modern science is so significant, especially given how inconsequential it is to anyone’s daily life (unless you’re an evolutionary biologist). Most people do not understand, much less believe, everything that has gained consensus in modern science. Most people’s knowledge of modern science is limited to mostly forgotten high school lessons in physics, biology and chemistry, when they were pimpled teenagers much more interested in the people sitting with them in the class than what was actually taught there. I very much doubt that all this screeching about religious disbelief in evolution has anything to do with some noble concern for the intrinsic value of knowledge rather than a convenient avenue to attack religion. I’m sure it is just coincidence that all of the loudest advocates for the “public understanding” of evolution also happen to be loud advocates for getting rid our belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It must also be a coincidence that a fondness for evolution has become a way by which anti-religious activists identify themselves, for example through the “Darwin” sign, a mockery of the Christian Ichthys symbol, as shown in the photo tagged to this post.
Harris then denigrates the notion of intelligent design: “…nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.” There are compelling examples of intelligent design, including the fine-tuning of the universe and the existence of DNA. (Neither of these contradicts evolution, by the way, because evolution requires fine-tuning and the existence of DNA before it can function). Also, the existence of what we now think is suboptimal design does not mean that the design that is present doesn’t require explanation, anymore than the existence of flaws within a textbook of mathematics implies that it doesn’t require an author.
Harris tells us “Those with the power to elect our presidents and congressmen – and many who themselves get elected – believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.”[iii] Let’s leave aside the debate between young-earth creationists and evolutionists and the question of to what extent the Genesis account should be taken literally in order to be faithful to the text, and in order to interpret the text as its author intended. The main reason Harris finds these beliefs absurd is because he has an a priori conviction that miracles are impossible or irrational. This is just rhetoric. He gives no argument for his implied conclusion – that Old Testament miracles are absurd and those who believe them are stupid. But why are Old Testament miracles absurd? They are only absurd if you have already decided that miracles cannot happen. Also, notice that Harris does not offer a particularly compelling alternative – that the universe spontaneously started existing without a cause. Is a talking snake more absurd than that?
More importantly, Harris seems to be saying that disbelief in one or two theories about natural history renders one incompetent in any and every area that requires competence. As I said above, almost everybody including high-ranking politicians in every developed country do not know or understand many of the accepted theories in science, or the reasons for their acceptance. This does not render them incompetent in their fields. Why is a belief in evolution required in order to be a competent politician? This is completely irrational. In addition, most laymen who accept evolution do so uncritically, based merely on the fact that the experts say so ( and based on social pressure). So how is uncritical acceptance of evolution supposed to make one more intelligent than uncritical rejection of it? This is vacuous anti-religious propaganda. My suspicion is that religious disbelief in evolution is something opportunistically seized upon to say that young-earth creationists should have no meaningful impact on society, and not because atheists are afraid of their disbelief in evolution, but because they are afraid of their social conservatism.
Harris finishes off the “Note to the Reader” by contending that premillennial eschatological beliefs will hinder creating a good future, because “a significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ.”[iv] So Harris thinks that because some Christians believe that the return of Christ will involve earthly cataclysm, that these people therefore desire violence to be done to the world, and that they would not consequently care about creating a good future. This is baseless. Harris provides us no evidence that these people think in this way. It is emblematic of Harris’s modus operandi in general when considering religious beliefs – he interprets religious beliefs in the most uncharitable way possible and ascribes motivations to those who believe them which he could not possibly know. This is like me saying that because atheists believe that the universe is pointless, that suffering has no meaning, and that the weak and disabled have nothing better to look forward to, that therefore atheists are malevolent and really desire this to be the case.
I don’t believe in young-earth creationism, but young-earth creationists are my fellow Christians. I dislike the way they are slandered and smeared by atheist activists who apparently believe that their disbelief in evolution make them appropriate targets for whatever contempt and scorn they feel like mustering. Harris’s way of thinking – that if someone does not believe in evolution, and believes in specific miracles, they are for that reason incompetent in any and every endeavour – is prejudiced and irrational.
[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (New York: Knopf, 2006) Kindle Edition. Loc. 23
[ii] Ibid., Loc. 34
[iii] Ibid., Loc. 34 – 46
[iv] Ibid., Loc. 46