Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation begins in earnest with a small summary of orthodox Christian beliefs: “You believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true.”[i] This is an accurate depiction of what most evangelical Christians believe. Every now and again, Harris shows insight into a religious community that he has never been part of. In realizing the exclusivity of religious claims, Harris does much better than many in our intellectual and cultural elite. Harris realizes that Christian claims are exclusive and that they are either true or not, barring all sorts of obfuscation by liberal theologians.
Harris contends: “Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling. The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe.”[ii] This is a typical atheist claim and it can be understood in two different ways. It can be understood as a metaphysical or an epistemological claim. It can be understood that most evangelical Christians do not themselves have any better reason to believe than Muslims, which may be true. Or it may be a metaphysical claim that Christianity has the same amount of evidence as Islam. The epistemological claim may be true but is irrelevant. The truth of Christianity has nothing to do with how well-informed ordinary Christians are and the evidence for Christianity has nothing to do with whether the average Christian knows about that evidence. New Atheists like to reduce Christianity to it’s lowest intellectual common denominator, as though the evidence for Christianity is determined by what the average believer knows.
The idea that Christianity and Islam has the same amount of evidence (or that both have no evidence) is probably false even if both religions are false. Furthermore, Christianity has a miracle at the center of its doctrine (the Resurrection) for which an impressive historical case can be made. Islam does not have something that corresponds to this. The New Testament is more credible than the Koran in that it was composed much closer to the events it records than was the Koran. But apart from this, Harris and other atheists have to make a case for the claim that all religions have equal evidence or that Christianity and Islam have no evidence. This is not something that can simply be assumed without justification – and that is exactly what Harris and other atheists do.
After making a fairly standard appeal to inconsistent revelations, Harris starts attacking the wisdom of the Bible. He asserts at the beginning of this section: “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks. To the extent that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.”[iii] Notice that this is pure assertion. Harris provides no defense of the view that this is morality. Perhaps he will say that it is self-evident and requires no defense. It may be self-evident that questions of happiness are morally relevant or part of morality, but it is not self-evident that morality is only about questions of happiness. That is certainly not self-evident. Also, I want to question this notion that there are self-evident truths with regard to morality. Consider that the concept of human rights, which seems “self-evident” to Western middle-class suburbanites, is a very recent appearance on the world stage. According to the latest scientific understanding of human history, homo sapiens have existed for 100,000 – 200,000 years. And we have only had human rights for maybe the last 200 years ( at the most) and limited to a few cultures ( arguably only western culture, then disseminated to other cultures through colonialism and diplomatic influence). In fact, a fully developed concept of human rights that includes every race and gender is only about a 100 years old and originated only in one culture. The number of universally accepted moral principles are very few and could certainly not sustain all the things we typically regard as morally relevant. This is definitely not what you would expect if moral principles are self-evident.
So human rights and many of the other “self-evident” truths about morality that we take for granted has only been fairly influential ideas among human beings for an extremely small, infinitesimal, period of their existence on earth. Think about the many tribes and societies throughout history, including European history, that practiced human sacrifice, that practiced every manner of human cruelty. Reading about this today horrifies us, but to those who practiced it, it seemed right and just. Or will you contend that they all actually knew it was wrong, but just chose to ignore their moral intuitions? This is extremely implausible. Someone who thinks that our moral sentiments and intuitions are reliable indicators of morality either doesn’t know any history or have not truly taken in what they do know.
This is what makes the moral critiques of the Bible that follow so irrational. Harris can claim that the practices and laws in the Bible are immoral, but from what standard is he making this judgment? From the standard of his moral sentiments? Moral sentiments and intuitions seem largely to be a function of whatever is accepted practice in our society, or whatever laws are established in every society. Moral sentiments are very fickle and change based on whatever everybody else is doing. Let me put it this way. Whatever crimes you can lay at the feet of claimed divine revelation in terms of cruelty and violence, you can lay twice that, in quantity and degree of atrocity, at the feet of moral sentiment and intuition. Think about all the things that people and societies have felt are right and good during the past few thousands of years. Many, many of the things that would have seemed indubitably right to those in past societies make us cringe and gag, and I’m sure some of the things that we think are right would make them cringe and gag. How do we decide who is right based purely on moral sentiment and intuition? This is the main reason why atheist moral complaints against divine revelation are so irrational, because the standard according to which these judgments are made is fickle and very unreliable.
But let us look at Harris’s specific claims about the supposed immorality of the Old Testament. We are told that “God’s counsel to parents is straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod.”[iv] The actual verse in proverbs says “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” Proverbs 20:30 is not about parental discipline. Proverbs 23:13-14 contains a similar message. We must remember that this is a shepherd’s culture, and the rod was used to guide and direct the sheep, and yes, perhaps with the threat of force. The main point however, is that children require discipline and there does seem to be an implication that this should be physical to some degree. What is the problem with that? Why is Harris convinced that judiciously exercised corporal punishment is wrong? More moral sentiments created by the social conventions of secular California. You are free to believe that these conventions are the content of morality, if you wish, but then your moral character will change as frequently as social conventions do.
I will continue with Harris’s comments on Old Testament laws and events in the next post.
[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (New York: Knopf, 2006) Kindle Edition p. 3-4
[ii] Ibid., p. 5
[iii] Ibid., p. 6
[iv] Ibid., p. 8