Sam Harris, like other New Atheists, makes an appeal to the perceived atrocities of the Old Testament in order to undermine Christianity. He begins this not long after he starts the Letter to a Christian Nation. In my previous post, I explained the most important response the Christian has to an atheist who complains about the morality of the Old Testament. If atheists complain about the morality of the Old Testament, against which standard are they measuring the Old Testament? They are measuring it against their own moral intuitions or moral sentiments. In the last post we saw that moral sentiments are extremely fickle. They change from society to society, from culture to culture, and they change throughout history. There are very few moral rules which are universally recognized and they certainly could not sustain a fully-developed morality which grounds all that we care about and all that atheists care about. This makes all atheist complaints about the immorality of the Bible vacuous. Take a look at my earlier post for a more detailed treatment of this argument.
That, in itself, is enough to respond to an atheist appeal to Old Testament immorality. The second point is that the truth of Christianity is not dependent upon everything in the Bible, and especially everything in the Old Testament, being true. The truth of Christianity is dependent upon certain fundamental truths, contained, for example, in the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed being true. These contain the “broad strokes” of biblical truth and they are the real important things to believe if you are a Christian. Neither of the creeds contain a belief in biblical inerrancy, although they do contain some reference to the inspiration of the prophets. This is important to remember, because it means that any complaint about the immorality of the Old Testament does not imply the falsity of Christianity, only the falsity of a particular doctrine in Christianity (namely inerrancy). It is not necessary for all the laws of ancient Israel, nor all the actions of Israel that were declared to be divinely sanctioned, be true, in order for the doctrines of Christianity to be true.
Thirdly, we must also take a look at the circumstances the Israelites were in. They were in the middle of the desert. They were constantly on the move, and they didn’t have a lot of food and water. In such circumstances, it is difficult to retain order. They are surrounded by aggressive tribes who worship cattle, practice human sacrifice and all sorts of sexually deviant rituals. There are no prisons or internment camps where they can put troublesome individuals and very little way to create this sort of thing. These Israelites have already shown that they “like the style” of the nations around them – they like the idea of worshiping cattle as well, along with the other horrible practices that tend to go with this. These facts need to be borne in mind when the Old Testament seems very harsh and cruel, when we read how liberal it was with the death penalty. For example, Harris is scandalized by the injunction to execute fellow Israelites who try to get people to worship other gods. But when the “other gods” represent idols to which you sacrifice children and in whose honour you practice ritual bestiality, then I think the death is probably an appropriate penalty for engaging in this sort of religion.
Why were the ancient Israelites tempted to engage in these religions? It is not mysterious. People are tempted to do what their peers are doing. To young people today it is cool and hip to listen to certain types of music and to regard orthodox Christianity as homophobic or bigoted in some vague, generalized way. To people in Moses’ day, it was cool to worship cows and sacrifice your children to them. Moral sentiments – aren’t they wonderful? Historical facts like these are good evidence that the idea that every human being has an immutable moral conscience is completely false.
But let us get to other specific examples Harris mentions to undermine Christianity. He mentions that the Old Testament adjures us to “stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and wide variety of other imaginary crimes.” It is interesting that Harris calls these “imaginary crimes”, because that is where the weakness in his argument lies. It is clearly wrong to punish people for committing these things, if they were imaginary crimes. But what if they were not? Harris’s argument only goes through easily if he assumes that they are imaginary crimes. This would mean that the argument is circular: Christianity is wrong because the Old Testament punishes people for imaginary crimes, and they are imaginary crimes because Christianity is wrong. Obviously, the laws in the Bible would be wrong if God did not exist, because then they would be punishing people for dishonouring something that doesn’t exist. They would also be adjuring people to honor something that does not exist. But would the laws in the Old Testament be wrong if the God of the Bible did exist and the circumstances of the Israelites were as I described them?
 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (New York: Knopf, 2006) p. 8
 Ibid., p. 8