The offensiveness of Sam Harris

This is likely to be the first of many posts in which I will criticize the atheistic worldview provided by Sam Harris. Harris is the author of two recent books:

Letter to a Christian Nation and End Of Faith

In a recent article in Newsweek, A Dissent: The Case Against Faith, Harris offers some interesting insights into Christianity.

He mocks the faith of Christian believers by questioning some of the prophecy offered in the Bible. He calls it embarrassing. And he refers to the Christianity of his targets as nihilistic. Although he doesn’t cite any specific ministers in his article, I am sure that he can find some examples of Christian representatives that could back up his opinion. But that’s about as far as I think he could go with that… I think he would be hard pressed to find many Christians that loathe their current lives and that are just sitting waiting to die. In fact, I see plenty of activity coming from Christian Churches to help people live a better life in the here and now. That certainly goes against Harris’ claim, which he makes sound like a generalization, that Christians can hardly wait for the end times. Harris argues, “It should be clear that this faith-based nihilism provides its adherents with absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization—economically, environmentally or geopolitically.” Last time I checked, there are numerous Christian individuals, congregations and organizations that are dedicating their time to doing just what Harris says Christians aren’t doing… namely, helping the poor, the sick and the downtrodden. This equalization of the economic masses doesn’t necessarily follow the typical capitalistic ethic, but it does not sound like the actions of a nihilistic end-of-world fanatic to me.

Harris goes on to argue that “religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problems—such as gay marriage—where no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.” He then uses the example of stem cell research to back up his claim. His argument is frightening. In a nutshell, Harris diminishes the value of the beginning of human life, suggesting that early embryonic development does not necessarily constitute human life. His oversimplification of this debate is astounding. He criticizes Bush’s decision to veto stem cell research as a simple faith-based decision not to jeopardize the life of these early “souls”. Yet, Harris doesn’t feel the need to address the larger issue at all.

The bigger picture around this whole debate is around the value of human life in general and where one should draw the line when considering medical advances. One recent discussion I read (sorry… the source isn’t readily available to me, but I’m sure a quick google search would provide plenty of hits) tries to debate when a human fetus begins to feel pain and thus, which abortive techniques to use to minimize the suffering of a human fetus. Crazy… In this argument, there’s a clear recognition that a fetus does feel pain at some point, and that scientifically, it is important to determine the boundary around which that pain development occurs. Yet, no absolute method currently exists to identify when exactly a fetus does experience pain. Similarly, some have argued that a fetus can be aborted up until the point in time when it could be viable outside of the womb. That particular point in time is different for each fetus as well.

So the question becomes: at what point does a collection of cells become a human being. I don’t know about you, but I learned fairly early on that new life occurs when an egg is fertilized. I remember in elementary school watching a plant grow out of a small bean tucked against a glass with wet paper towel keeping it pressed against the glass. elementary school. Call me crazy, but would it have been ignorant or, to use Harris’ word, “embarrassing” to look at that sprouting bean and say it wasn’t a plant?
Would it be any less trivial to look at a newly fetus and say it wasn’t a person? Tell me Sam, at what point does a person not become a person? And how does that differ from a seed that has been germinated? The signs of new life are there, regardless of the current form.

Or maybe I’ve misunderstood… maybe it isn’t about this argument at all. Maybe it’s simply a utilitarian argument: we’ll use the weak for the betterment of society as a whole. In that case, how do you measure the worth of a newly germinated person, a fetus, a baby, a young child, a handicapped person, etc. against the worth of someone else in need of medical assistance? Are you suggesting that the murder of a few is worthwhile for the benefit of the many? In that case, would you be willing to sacrifice your life for “donate your body to science day” today so that the rest of society could benefit from the medical research that *might* result from your body? You’ve already told us that
Where do you draw the line, Mr Harris? And, who decides the worthy and the unworthy in this decision? I’m listening for your enlightened response, Mr Harris. Where is your “genuine wisdom and compassion” that you complain that religious dogmatism lacks?

The most curious part to me is the broad brush that Harris uses to paint Christianity. He generalizes, yet again, by arguing that Christians “safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history”. Yes, the Christian faith does look forward to the coming age of the Kingdom of God. But that doesn’t mean that we all look forward to fighting in the name of Jesus. Yes, some, maybe even many, Christians look to violence to solve their problems, but violence is far from the core message that Jesus offers in the New Testament. A better critique would be to suggest that Christians, in warfare, are going against Jesus’ expectations and that perhaps warfare should be reconsidered as an appropriate Christian response.

I find it as repulsive as Harris does that religion should lead to violence. But doing away with religion entirely will not get rid of the violence. If anything, trying to focus on the core message of Jesus (peace and love) would be a more appropriate response.

Consider Harris’ closing statement: “In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with religious myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which more religious faith is a remedy.”

I agree with the increasingly destructive technology, but I do not agree with the solution offered. I think that religious faith can be an important tool for reconciliation and peace. Consider the work of Jimmy Carter, the Mennonite Church, Christian Peacemakers, etc. in trying to make a difference even in the face of great danger.

In any event… I’m sure I’ll have more to say later. I think I’ve said enough for one night. Don’t take my word for this though. Do read Sam Harris. And I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusions I’ve drawn. His arguments are shallow, lacking in compassion and short on wisdom.

Todd Dow

Additional links pertaining to this entry:

Pro Sam Harris: The Atheist Manifestos I: Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)

Con Sam Harris: Letters: Morality and AIDS, Turkey and the EU, America’s vote

And I’m sure there are plenty of others… these are just two examples.

By Todd Dow

Author, Geek, CF fundraiser & Cancer Survivor. My family, baseball, infosec, privacy & devops are a few of my favorite things.

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