Continuing my series on the Letter to a Christian Nation, we’ll take a look at Sam Harris’ criticisms of the Ten Commandments and his criticism of Christian morality more generally. He introduces his section of the Ten Commandments as follows:
“They are, after all, the only passages in the Bible so profound that the creator of the universe felt the need to physically write them himself – and in stone. As such, one would expect these to be the greatest lines ever written, on any subject, in any language. Here they are. Get ready…”[i]
Even before getting to his criticisms Harris already sets the stage with a number of false assumptions which he doesn’t attempt to defend. First is the idea that because it is written by God it will be the most profound “on any subject.” Why would you assume that? These are moral and legal commandments. You can say they should be the most profound moral and legal commandments, but it is not clear why you would consider them to be the best thing written on any subject when they only deal with one subject. That is incoherent. Since there are different standards of evaluation for different subjects, this doesn’t make sense. Secondly, this sarcastic introduction tacitly assumes that you and Sam Harris, indeed everybody, should immediately be able to recognize them as the most profound things ever written. There is also no reason to assume that. In fact there are many reasons to think that this is not true. Do people like being told what to do? No generally not. Do human societies, based on what we know from history and anthropology, have a good sense of right and wrong? I don’t know how you could look at history and think the answer to that question is yes. Do most people prefer the truth over lies? Only when it is in their interest to do so. So is there reason to assume that people will immediately recognize the commandments of God to be profound and worthy of following? There are many reasons to think that many will reject it vehemently and that many who accept it will not do so with much enthusiasm.
He then lists the commandments which I will do here also for easy reference ( Exodus 20:1-17):
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worshipthem; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lordmade the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Harris’s basic tact is to say that some of the rules are not about morality, others of them we wouldn’t need to be told, and others are not dealing with pressing enough concerns. He begins, “The first four injunctions have nothing whatsoever to do with morality.”[ii] This is another claim that Harris makes without argument, perhaps thinking that it would be self-evident. Clearly, if a personal God does exist, then honouring him would be a significant part of morality. Harris seems to have tacitly presupposed atheism here, meaning that if this is an argument and not just an unsupported claim, it is circular. If God does exist, refraining from invoking him in a disrespectful way, is a very basic form of respect toward the most holy and authoritative being in existence. He also says that the first four rules are under a death penalty, which I can’t find in the text here. Death penalties are later attached to some of these rules, but not all of them.
He continues: “Commandments 5 through 9 do address morality, though it is questionable how many human beings ever honored their parents or abstained from committing murder, adultery, theft, or perjury because of them. Admonishments of this kind are found in virtually every culture throughout recorded history.”[iii] So does this mean that these admonishments should have been left out? It is not clear what Harris means here. The fact that it agrees with other cultures doesn’t mean that it is not inspired and you do not have to independently show that every single individual line of the Bible is divinely inspired. Again, Harris seems to assume that every single word of the Bible should resonate overwhelmingly with him. Is it reasonable to think if the Bible were inspired by God it should agree with our prior convictions about morality? It is as though, if we read a book inspired by a morally perfect, omniscient being, we would have nothing new to learn about morality, and that it should conveniently confirm all we already thought we knew. So Harris dismisses some of the commandments because they are part of general moral apprehensions and dismisses other commandments because they are not part of general moral apprehensions. This is a good example of unfalsifiable skepticism. If God had something new to tell Sam Harris about morality, how would he communicate it? If it’s part of general moral apprehensions then Harris would already believe it, and if it is not, he would dismiss it for that reason.
He claims that it is a “scientific fact that moral emotions – like a sense of fair play or an abhorrence of cruelty – precede any exposure to scripture.”[iv] I doubt this is a scientific fact. The only fields of science where ideas like these are supported are sociobiology and evolutionary psychology which are highly speculative fields filled to the brim with evolutionary just-so stories that have no empirical corroboration. As I’ve emphasized in previous posts on Harris, if you take a look at history, it is astounding how many established practices there are in societies all over the world which were horrifically cruel and this is still to a great extent true in many places in the world today. How can it be plausibly said that the people in those societies at those times all felt a strong instinctive “abhorrence” to cruelty? It makes sense that there are certain moral emotions which are universal, but there is a great deal of variance in how those emotions are manifested and prioritized in different societies, and they certainly could not support everything that Harris and other Westerners take as self-evident. Harris appeals to the presence of altruism, sexual fidelity, a dislike of theft and murder among chimpanzees to support the notion that our moral emotions precede scripture. Firstly, conclusions of this sort are often made very hastily. For example, say you see one chimpanzee snatching some food from another chimpanzee. The chimpanzee who had been stolen from reacts violently. Have we witnessed moral disapprobation of theft or have we simply witnessed a chimpanzee who got angry that his food was taken away from him? We must be careful about superimposing human values on interactions that can just as easily be explained in terms of pure, mindless self-interest. If a group of chimpanzees gang up on another chimpanzee is that moral disapprobation or does it have more to do with violated power hierarchies? Is the focus on the act itself or the fact that it disadvantages someone important? There has also been a study in which infants watch a doll show of some kind with one doll doing something oppressive to the other doll and the other doll doing something nice. They are then given a choice about which doll to play with. The fact that the infants always reject the “oppressive” doll was taken as evidence of an innate moral sense. Once again, this is a hasty conclusion as it can just as plausibly be explained by the fact that the infants are merely afraid of the aggressive or exploitative doll. We must also be careful about what we call “moral” behaviour. Is all behaviour that looks altruistic necessarily moral? Not if it comes from instinct or social conditioning and involves no actual concept of right and wrong. Moral behaviour is knowing right and wrong and then choosing the right action even when you are inclined to a different course of action. That is not what these chimpanzees are doing. Arguably, moral approbation and disapprobation requires a concept of morality. You can only say that moral behaviour is present among chimpanzees if you change our concept of morality beyond what anyone would recognize as morality. When mothers protect their young in the animal world, that is also an obvious example of altruism, but this was not thought of as an example of moral behaviour, because we understand how instinctive it is.
Regardless, the presence of some moral behaviour among animals is far from supporting the idea the modern Western ideals are based upon basic intuitions that everybody has. If that were true, then all societies and cultures would have the same collection of moral beliefs as Westerners. If that were true then the earliest humans right up to today should not have had any established practices which seem clearly immoral to us and should have had basically the same ideas about morality that we do. Is that what we find? That is (very dramatically) not what we find. Moral intuitions has a worse track record than the Bible in encouraging wrong action. Think of all the times when someone did something terrible from the absolute conviction that it is right. What about the person who is severely wronged and whose moral intuitions tell him to commit a violent vengeance against the perpetrator? Think about the atrocities that communist atheists committed during the 20th century from the conviction that what they were doing was right? The set of universal moral values is small. It is true that pretty much everyone would show some altruism, but more interesting is the enormous amount of variance in the application of the value. Many societies apparently thought it was compatible with copious amounts of cruelty or that it should be limited your own family or tribe, that it is only appropriate in certain circumstances, to certain people, and that it can be suspended in other circumstances. Altruism may be present but is its prioritization over other values and its application to all people, present in every society? Definitely not. Just look at our own society and how easily our thinkers justify lying for the mere reason of sparing someone’s feelings. It is clear that if these moral feelings are universal, they are very weak, fickle and easily manipulated through social conditioning. In order to influence behaviour on any significant level they require very strong reinforcement by social sanction. Moral emotions are competing for attention among many other interests and emotions and human beings need to be given a reason to follow them over their own desires. Moral emotions are part of the general jumble of thoughts and emotions that pass through consciousness. The emotions themselves might be universals but what is there to tell us that these emotions take priority over the other contents of our consciousness? Just think about the fact that civilized society is impossible without law enforcement. We have lived for so long in societies built upon good government and rule of law that we don’t even recognize the astounding and rather disturbing fact that we human beings cannot live in relative harmony without the threat of violence by someone stronger than us constantly over our heads. That is, after all, what government is. Think about that for a second.
Harris goes on: “And what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of the universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock.”[v] The desire for the possessions and relationships of those around us is a great cause of immoral actions and misery. It is the basis of malcontent, theft, adultery, envy, jealousy, many instances of murder, rebellion and revolution. Covetousness is the origin point of many evils and causes a great deal of misery. This is especially true of those in poorer circumstances. To people who know what it is to want, covetousness may poison their lives in profound and far-reaching ways. So, it is not clear why Harris thinks this is something that doesn’t deserve special attention.
Harris says that one Jain injunction is better than the Ten Commandments: “’Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.’ Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed enslaved insulted tormented, tortured and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.”[vi] Harris wonders what would happen if this were the central precept of the Bible. The Bible does contain a principle which implies this Jain principle and Jesus calls it one of the two most important commandments (Mark 12:28): Love your neighbour as yourself. Abuse, torture and mistreatment are never advocated in the Bible. Oppression is a vague term but the Hebrew prophets often condemn oppression of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. Whether someone has insulted is very subjective. People take offense even if they have not really been wronged or anything false said to them. Yes people have been killed in the name of God, but people have also been killed in the name of good government and rule of law, and Harris would think this has been legitimate. A few pages back, Harris said that the value that slavery is wrong “had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South…”[vii] In other words, Harris is fine with values being spread at the point of a bayonet as long as he agrees with the value. It is significant that Harris says that it is “Christians” who have done this, because Christian theology has always maintained that the Old Covenant legal penalties are inapplicable today and, in the New Testament, the worst that could happen to heretics or unbelievers is excommunication. This means that it is not defensible from a Christian point of view to oppress or to kill in the name of God. We also know that loving your neighbour as yourself is said by Jesus to be one of the two most important commandments, implying that if any other part of the Bible appears it contradict it, it should take precedence. The meaning of “neighbour” here is also made universal by Jesus’s explanation of the law. When asked “who is my neighbour” (Luke 10:29) he tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan, showing clearly that loving one’s neighbour should cross religious and nationalist lines, because the Samaritans were heretics from the Jewish perspective and were not Jews in a national sense either. So the Samaritans were not Jewish either theologically or nationally. You can only call the killing of unbelievers and heretics theologically defensible if you ignore the New Testament. If you consider the New Testament, it actually becomes quite indefensible.
Moreover, it is interesting that he accuses Christians of doing all these things “based on a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.” What replaces the Bible as the source of morality and truth on atheism according to Harris? Moral sentiment and human rationality. To turn Harris’s point against him, a philosophically defensible “interpretation” of human rationality in light of atheism, is that moral nihilism is true. In fact, that is what a large proportion of the most influential atheist thinkers have argued very convincingly. If moral nihilism is true then all evil is fine, which means that moral nihilism is a morally abominable position to hold to if morality is objective as Harris believes. Also, some moral intuitions may be universal, but human beings have “interpreted” them very differently and in ways that justified terrible cruelties for thousands of years. In other words, whatever problems Harris wants to lay at the feet of the Bible, his own chosen sources of authority ( moral intuition and human rationality) is in a much more precarious position when it comes to what has been plausibly justified in their name. Harris might reply that those things are not plausible. But this would prove the point I’m making. His ideas about what is plausible and not is very different apparently from the 20th century communists who committed genocide, showing the unreliability of the things he wants to enshrine as the new authorities in a secular culture.
[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006) Kindle Edition.Loc 207
[ii] Ibid., Loc 220
[iii] Ibid., Loc 220-224
[iv] Ibid., Loc 224
[v] Ibid., 229
[vi] Ibid., 234
[vii] Ibid., Loc 196 -201