Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The end of irreligion

Along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris appears to be the superstar atheist du jour. He’s written a book, a few articles, and given a slew of interviews. But what does his argument amount to? Let’s take a representative sampling.

In his “Atheist Manifesto,” he spends a lot of time on the problem of evil in his opening gambit. But there are a couple of fundamental failings with this objection:

1.He never explains, from a secular standpoint, why the problem of evil is a problem. What is problematic about natural or moral evil?

From a secular standpoint, natural disasters are natural mechanisms by which the ecosystem equalizes certain imbalances in nature.

Likewise, from a secular standpoint, violence is a biological imperative, programmed into our genes by natural selection. It confers a survival advantage on the species, the way a young lion will oust an old lion from the pride, kill the cubs, and take over the harem.

If nature is all there is, or if human beings are the byproduct of evolution, then why is Harris so offended by the indifference of nature or the bestiality of human behavior?

His moral and emotional intuitions are at war with his worldview.

2.He never engages any of the theodicean proposals to deal with the problem of evil. Various answers have been given. But he makes no reasoned effort to show what’s wrong with these answers.

He then launches into a trenchant critic of theological moderates. A conservative could agree with this element of his argument.

He also takes issue with Pascal’s wager. However, it does look like he’s ever read Pascal. It’s just the usual, second-hand dismissal.

The wager is not the sum of Pascal’s apologetic. Pascal offers various lines of evidence for the Christian faith. The wager is merely a way of getting the apathetic unbeliever to look at the evidence. It was never intended to be a substitute for evidence.

Harris equates faith with fideism. But fideism is only one particular tradition. There are many other theological traditions in which the relation between faith and reason is not fideistic, viz. Thomism, evidentialism, Augustinianism, presuppositionalism, &c.

He then spends some time trying to explain away the atrocities of secular humanism, viz. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

He also argues that post-Christian countries are more charitable than the US. Among other things, this fails to distinguish between private charity and foreign aid.

In the final section he contends that religion in a source of violence. For example:

“The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews versus Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians versus Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians versus Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants versus Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims versus Hindus), Sudan (Muslims versus Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims versus Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims versus Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists versus Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims versus Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite versus Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians versus Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis versus Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last 10 years.”

i) But there are several flaws in this illustration, such as its basic failure to isolate religious motives from nationalism or ethnic identity.

Moreover, many Jews are secular Jews. Many Hindus and Buddhist are nominal Hindus and Buddhists.

ii) It fails to distinguish between aggression and self-defense.

iii) Notice, too, the common denominator of Islam.

Here’s another formulation of his argument:

“It’s quite simple and direct. And inevitable. If you truly believe that your neighbor is going to hell for his unbelief, and you believe that his ideas about the world are putting the souls of your children in peril, it is quite sensible to drive him from your community, or kill him.”

But this is only “quite simple, direct, and inevitable” if the religionist believes that nominal faith is saving faith.

Evangelicalism does not regard nominal faith as saving faith.

Here’s an effort by Harris to target Christianity in particular:

“Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, I have received thousands of letters and e-mails from religious believers insisting that I am wrong not to believe in God. Invariably, the most unpleasant of these communications have come from Christians.”

But there are a couple of problems with this allegation:

1.Harris himself has leveled many unpleasant accusations against the Christian faith. So why does he reserve the exclusive right to be unpleasant?

2.Harris has also said: “In fact, it's ironic that some of the most vituperative criticism I've gotten has come from atheists because, in the last chapter of my book, I talk about meditation and mystical experience.”

How does Harris square his sweeping statement about Christian critics with his opposing statement about the secular critics?


“Many who claim to have been transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”

Many Christians are “murderously” intolerant of criticism? Has Harris been murdered? He seems pretty articulate for a murder victim.

Can Harris cite any crime stats from the FBI on the number—remember, it’s “many”—of Christians who murder unbelievers due to their sectarian intolerance of the secular critics?


“Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you now have for being a Christian.”

Is that a fact?

i) To begin with, most devout Muslims live in closed societies where it’s a capital offense to leave the Islamic faith. Do Christian Americans suffer from the same disincentive?

ii) Harris is also assuming, without offering any comparative documentation, that the evidence for Islam is the same as the evidence for Christianity.

“And yet, you know exactly what it is like not to find these reasons compelling.”

We don’t find their reasons compelling because they either don’t give the same reasons, or because, when they try to give the same reasons, the parallel doesn’t hold up to rational scrutiny.

“On virtually every page, the Qur'an declares that it is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe. Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible's account of itself.”

This is not the only reason that Christians believe the Bible. If Harris spent a little time in the field of Christian apologetics, he would know better.

“There is a vast literature describing the life of Muhammad that, from the Muslim point of view, proves his unique status as the Prophet of God.”

Yes, dating to about 200 years after his death at the earliest.

“While Muhammad did not claim to be divine, he claimed to offer the most perfect revelation of God's will. He also assured his followers that Jesus was not divine (Qur'an 5:71-75; 19:30-38) and that anyone who believed otherwise would spend eternity in hell. Muslims are convinced that Muhammad's pronouncements on these subjects, as on all others, are infallible. Why don't you find these claims convincing? Why don't you lose any sleep over whether or not you should convert to Islam?”

Why don’t we find these claims convincing? For at least a couple of reasons:

i) They are uncorroborated by prophecy, prodigy, archeology, or multiple-attestation—among other deficiencies.

ii) As a Christian heresy, Islam claims to be verified by the Bible. But if you compare the Bible to the Koran, Islam is falsified by the Bible.

That’s just for starters.

“Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way every Muslim views Christianity.”

True, and that’s because most Muslims are ignorant of the Bible, church history, and Koranic lower criticism.

“Christians regularly assert that the Bible predicts future historical events.”

No, we don’t merely assert it—we argue for it.

“But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, "In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet." The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.”

1.Notice that Harris has done nothing to disprove the argument from prophecy. No attempt to deal with the actual prophecies of Scripture. Instead, he’s changing the subject.

ii) If a prophecy were too specific, it’s fulfillment could be thwarted. It would give people enough advance knowledge to frustrate the terms of fulfillment by doing something else—like tipping off a drug dealer that the cops are about to stage a raid on his base of operations.

“Take a moment to imagine how good a book could be if it were written by the Creator of the universe. Such a book could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight the earth has ever seen.”

That is not the purpose of the Bible.

“Instead, the Bible contains some very obvious mathematical errors. In two places, for instance, the Good Book gives the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter as simply 3 (1 Kings 7: 23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4: 2-5). We now refer to this constant relation with the Greek letter p. While the decimal expansion of p runs to infinity-3.1415926535 . . .-we can calculate it to any degree of accuracy we like.”

Several problems with this charge:

i) The Bible uses round numbers. Is a round number an error?

If so, is Harris in error when he rounds off Pi to the 10th decimal place?

ii) Since Pi has an infinite decimal expansion, it isn’t even possible, much less practical, to write down the exact ratio.

iii) Concrete objects approximate numerical ratios. No concrete object precisely exemplifies an abstract numerical universal.

“Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer?”

Why doesn’t the Bible have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies?

If God were benevolent, he’d want us to eat chocolate chip cookies. So either God is able, but unwilling, to give us an inspired recipe for chocolate chip cookies—in which case he’s evil—or else he’s willing, but unable—in which case he’s impotent.

“Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren't these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book.”

i) The Bible doesn’t offer a cure for answer because the Bible offers a cure for sin. The Bible treats the underlying cause of natural and moral evil, not the symptoms.

ii) It’s an example of how frivolous Harris is that he even comes up with this demand. Clearly he’s made no attempt to think through what it would mean to give an Iron-age people the cure for cancer.

The technicalities of a scientific explanation would be unintelligible to an Iron-age people. There wouldn’t even be a preexisting vocabulary to express the idea.

And even if it could be expressed, the technology would be absent to implement the explanation.

Let’s take one more example of his reasoning:

“I defy anyone to come forward with the evidence that puts the Biblical God or the Quranic God on fundamentally different footing than the gods of Mt. Olympus.”

This is alike a man who stands in front of Niagara Falls and dares anyone to find a source of water.

“Water? What water? I don’t see any water?”

There’s a vast body of apologetic literature in which abundant evidence is given to distinguish one religious claim from another.

Harris trumpets his ignorance in the face of the evidence, not in the absence of evidence.


  1. Good post. I love the part about chocolate chip cookies.

    If I recall correctly, in The End of Faith Harris simply asserts that a good theodicy can't be achieved. He dismisses is with a "magic" pen--and makes all attempts go away without engaging them. Nobody denies the problem of evil is difficult. But to simply dismiss an answer altogether is naive--or dishonest.

    Thanks for taking this on.

  2. I don't know who he is, but does Harris show any evidence of familiarity with the Calvinistic theodicy to the POE? Doubtful. Most atheists I know only grapple with the free will defense, if they bother to do their homework at all.

    And Harris displays only his own ignorance and lack of willingness to read Christian literature when he digs up the tired chestnut of the "pi" problem from Kings/Chronicles. In case those such as Harris don't want to be bothered with books, here is a link:

    The 30 cubit circumference is measured at the inner diameter, the 10 cubit diameter is the "brim to brim" OUTER diameter.

    I believe the technical term for this simple error on Harris' part is "being stupid on purpose."

  3. Here is an interview with Doug Geivett on Sam Harris

    Part 1 (begins 35:51) and Part 2.

  4. 1.He never explains, from a secular standpoint, why the problem of evil is a problem. What is problematic about natural or moral evil?

    The "problem of evil" is not a problem for the naturalist.

    You are quite correct that natural disasters and illness and violence are to be expected in the natural world, and the natural world does not care about what individual humans think about how "evil" or "unfair" something seems to their social primate brains.

    The problem of evil only exists when theists start postulating all kinds of supernatural, personal, caring gods, that are the patrons of faithful humans, and allegedly care and watch over these humans and respond to their prayerful petitions.

    Yet there is nothing to suggest from human history that any god of any religious tradition favors anyone, or prevents any evil from happening.

    I don't think anyone has summed it up better since Epicurus:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”

  5. The problem of evil only exists when theists start postulating all kinds of supernatural, personal, caring gods, that are the patrons of faithful humans, and allegedly care and watch over these humans and respond to their prayerful petitions.

    Typically, however, theists postulate a god whose caring is manifested by a willingness to allow evil to happen.

  6. > "most devout Muslims live in closed societies where it’s a capital offense to leave the Christian faith"


  7. And Epicuras got it wrong. This has been asked and answered so many times its really sad that anyone would bring it up. Please see this:
    and this:

  8. Likewise, from a secular standpoint, violence is a biological imperative, programmed into our genes by natural selection. It confers a survival advantage on the species, the way a young lion will oust an old lion from the pride, kill the cubs, and take over the harem.

    Nice straw man dude. Violence is not a "biological imperative". If you don't see a difference between the limited mental capabilities of a lion and the advanced reasoning skills of human beings then you are a bigger dumbass than I give you credit for. I guess you have never heard of the benefits of altruism and cooperation in the evolutionary process? Why the fuck do you think human beings live in societies instead of hermits in caves?

    I know, I know, it is impossible for you to believe that someone who doesn't believe in your god can still have morals. If you absolutely require a god to keep you from killing, then please, I beg you, keep believing.

  9. To the cowardly anonymous atheist above,

    Noting that human minds are more "advanced" than a lion's does not justify a system of morality. That would entail a quantitative difference in complexity of intelligence, not a qualitative difference in values and morality.

    And "altruism" in evolutionary processes is purely pragmatic (to sustain a genetic line), so it can be dispensed with when not needed under such a system.

  10. C'mon man, you know that no one needs to explain why "evil" is a problem.
    Cruelty, experienced or perceived is what you're calling "evil". Everyone knows cruelty is bad. The non-superstitious know this, christian belivers know this , gorillas know this. Everyone. It's intuitive, and it's common knowledge.

    You critique Harris as if a misspelling is a logical flaw, because that style of technical/semantic micro-relevant hair-splitting is all ya got.

    Trust me,"The End of Faith" is not only an incredible intellectual achievment but a frightening expose' of the mindless momentum of apocolyptic, superstition.
    This will continue to be a very important book for many decades.

    And harris 2nd book will continue to be a problem for those promoting religious unreason , for a long time to come.

    It may contain a misspelling or two, actually.