The Case Against Christianity

For those unaware of Sam Harris, his bestseller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason established him as the American atheist laureate, the Yankee counterpart of the Brits’ Richard Dawkins. Now comes the inevitable follow-up: Harris has composed a Letter to a Christian Nation for our edification.

Sam Harris, Knopf, $16.95, 112 pages
For those unaware of Sam Harris, his bestseller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason established him as the American atheist laureate, the Yankee counterpart of the Brits’ Richard Dawkins. Now comes the inevitable follow-up: Harris has composed a Letter to a Christian Nation for our edification.
Harris is no H. L. Mencken. He is not even in Dawkins’s league. But, I confess, I like him anyway. Unlike many of our culture’s atheists who pretend to be friendly to religion — and speak to believers in soothing, patronizing, avuncular tones — Harris is brash and honest. Bless his heart, he will have none of half-heartedness, especially from his own side.
A stunning example: Harris chastises "most nonbelievers, liberals, and moderates" precisely because "they don’t know what it is like to really believe in God." As a result, they dismiss the reality that Islamic "jihadist violence" comes from Islam itself, from religious beliefs, and instead put it down to other causes, so that 9/11 and other atrocities can be boiled down to "a matter of education, poverty, or politics." Quips Harris, "It is worth remembering that the September 11 hijackers were college-educated, middle-class people who had no discernible experience of political oppression."
As the title makes clear, however, Harris is not aiming his barbs at Islam in this book, but at the Christians of his own nation — not the mushy ones, the amorphous silt swirling in mainstream denominations, but those who actually believe. His challenge is simple and accurate and hence refreshing: "If one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not . . . . If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell."
Ah!, a breath of fresh air indeed. Harris is eminently disagreeable, and that is a true virtue. Here is a person with whom it is worth disagreeing, someone who takes Christianity more seriously than most Christians. Far better to spar with a clear-headed atheist who agrees that we disagree than a muddle-headed Neville Chamberlain type who declares sharp disagreements impossible because sharpness itself is an illusion. On to battle!
A battle needs a battleground, and that must be common ground. All too many Christians who pick up Harris’s book will make the tactical error of trying to defend everything he attacks, especially his continual jabs at the Bible. But as St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Christian jouster of all time, rightly stated, it is a foolish waste of time and effort to argue about the Bible with someone who does not believe that it is indeed revealed truth. To be effective, the Christian apologist must move from supernatural ground to common, natural ground, and engage his adversary in regard to things that he holds as true. The best argument to pit against Harris is his own.{mospagebreak}
Harris’s complaint against Christianity is not only that it is false, but that it is morally pernicious. Thus, for Harris, it is quite possible (and indeed, far more likely) for an atheist to be moral; or to put it with a sharper edge, Christianity leads to immorality rather than away from it. To what view of morality, then, does Harris’s confident atheism lead?
Claims Harris, "We can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a lawgiving God." But what Harris offers up is a very vaguely defined rehash of Benthamite utilitarian hedonism, served on rather brittle platitudes. To have "objective moral truths worth knowing," Harris confidently intones, "there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in the world." For example, "Everything about human experience suggests that love is more conducive to happiness than hate is. This is an objective claim about the human mind, about the dynamics of social relations, and about the moral order of our world."
That is, to say the least, not very concrete. It is the kind of statement that is rightly shredded in freshman philosophy because "love" is a door so wide that any truck can drive through it. To have moral tread, it must be defined in terms of definite acts and goals. Love undefined is a flag any side can fly.
So as not to be accused of vagueness myself, let me be very exact in my criticism of Harris’s allegedly objective account of morality. First of all, Harris’s assertion that his atheistic version of morality is objective is based on the future discovery of psychological laws: "If there are psychological laws that govern human well-being, knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality." That is a big and questionable "if." That iffiness is supposed to ground his "objective claim" that love is conducive to happiness.
But what if we find no such "psychological laws"? Or what if we do, and in conformity with Harris’s own scientific creed, they confirm that happiness consists (as Darwinism would suggest) in victory in the struggle for self-preservation or the preservation of one’s immediate kin?
That’s no small gibe. Since Harris rejects the need for a supernatural basis for morality, he must embrace a merely natural one — i.e., one according to his view of nature, that of an atheist who believes that evolution displaces the need for a Creator. But this view creates unpleasant contradictions that Harris seems to miss.
Early in the book, for example, he argues that "while we do not have anything like a final, scientific understanding of human morality" because we do not, as yet, know the "psychological laws" of human happiness, "it seems safe to say that raping and killing our neighbors is not one of its primary constituents." Yet, later on, he informs us that "there is, after all, nothing more natural than rape." Why? Because it paid benefits in the Darwinian struggle for survival. But, he avers, "No one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors."{mospagebreak}
The obvious retort: Why not? If rape conferred an evolutionary advantage under certain conditions, then whenever and wherever those conditions pertain, the advantage pertains, and rape is good. According to Darwinism, "good" can only mean "whatever allows me or my near kin to survive and spread our genes against our neighbors."
And so the dominoes start to fall. On Harris’s account, "love" and the desire for "happiness" can only mean (at its widest circle) some kind of passionate concern for my tribe and our well-being, and the alleged "psychological laws" are then revealed as merely strong feelings of concern and kinship that have themselves been naturally selected. They aren’t laws at all; they are evolved "brain states" linking particular behavior (which has proved beneficial in the struggle for survival) with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. As with all things evolutionary, they have no permanent status. The ground for morality is continually shifting as the conditions change, and when new traits and hence new brain states prove beneficial for survival, old traits and brain states are mercilessly culled by natural selection.
This failure of Harris’s moral account is indicative of a more comprehensive failure on his part. To use his own words against him: Sam, my friend, you don’t know what it is like to really dis-believe in God. A sure sign of this is his painfully glib treatment of the obvious counterexamples of 20th-century atheists who have, in their combined efforts, killed more human beings in the name of godlessness, and with more elaborate brutality, than have been slain by all religions in all centuries combined.
The problem with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the rest, Harris informs the reader, was not that they were atheists but — prepare yourself — that they were dogmatic atheists. That is, such folk "are never especially rational." What Harris means here he never explains. But one thing should now be clear: Harris’s case against Christianity is in great part only as strong as his case for atheism, and that is, for all his boldness, not very strong at all.

Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and with Discovery Institute. His most recent book is A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (InterVarsity Press).


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