As promised, I began my book study in my “Cross Examination” series, with the book, “Letter to a Christian Nation” by the famed atheist author, Sam Harris. It was a short read (less than a hundred pages), and it adequately (though unpersuasively) lays out the case against Christianity.
I say “unpersuasively” because, for much of the book, Harris offers little or no evidence to support his attacks. He does persuasively lay out two objections to Christianity, which are objections that must rank in the top five in any atheist argument:
- The problem of evil – there is much evil in the world, and there cannot be a personal, compassionate, all-powerful God while such evil exists
- The scientific irrelevancy of God – Christians (and the Bible) ignore scientific facts in order to believe what they believe.
The problem of evil is one objection that has been batted around for centuries, with some theologians coming up with explanations, and those who would follow atheism rejecting them. I plan to look into the problem of evil more as I continue this series, but for now I would say that there are two possibilities for resolution to the problem of evil for a theist:
- One can deny that evil exists (which is rather foolhardy).
- One can try to make sense of the divine permission of evil—either that God allows free will, and all evil is derived from that, or that there is some greater good that comes from evil.
Harris has a fascinating section in his book on science vs. religion. He believes that religion—Christianity in particular—is at odds with science, and this tension is a reason why Christianity should be dismissed. This I will admit: there are Christians for whom, if they are presented with scientific proof that goes against what they believe, they will say that science is wrong. This is where those Christians would be wrong. However, here’s where I would differ from his conclusion: if science offers overwhelming proof of something, then the Christian should then go to the Bible (where their beliefs are supposedly formed from), and see if their beliefs are well-founded. If the Bible doesn’t say what they think it says, then they ought to change what they believe.
In his section called “The Facts of Life,” Harris attacks what Christians believe, instead of attacking what the Bible says. In the entire section of science vs. religion, I did not find one biblical reference, whereas he liberally cited scripture in other sections of the book. I’m sure that, if the Bible had sections that supported his theory that Christians are scientific crackpots, he would have cited it.
If Christians believe something about the natural world that’s wrong, and isn’t supported by the Bible, why should they continue to hold on to that belief? On the other hand, if the evidence to support a scientific theory is incomplete or inadequate, why should the Christian change their belief because Sam Harris says “this is a fact that no longer admits of intelligent dispute”?
Here are the arguments in his book that I find less than persuasive:
- Morality cannot come from the Bible (or Christians would have a much different morality than what he thinks is moral). I’m reading a book right now, on the theistic side of the argument, that deals with some of the moral “issues” in the Bible, and so far, I’ve found them more convincing than Harris’ arguments.
- Christians divorce themselves from the reality of human suffering – Christians don’t spend as much time railing against genocide as they do abortion; Christians would rather have people die from AIDS than give them condoms; Christians would rather kill people than develop cures through embryonic stem cell research; etc. He says, “If you are worried about human suffering, abortion should rank very low on your list of concerns.”
- Demographics that are more influenced by Christian doctrine are more likely to be plagued by violence, homicide, teen pregnancy, abortion, STDs, and infant mortality. He minimizes the societal influence of atheistic leaders like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung by saying, “They were never especially rational,” and then proceeds to blame all of the ills in American society on Christian influence. Not exactly a convincing cause-effect argument.
My biggest disappointment in the book is that he doesn’t address the existence of God. I suppose this issue is somewhat outside the scope of the book (because he’s talking to Christians), but it seems to me that it’s a foundational topic for the book. He rails against the Christian God specifically, but doesn’t address any philosophical or scientific evidence that supports the existence of a god, whether Christian or not. He seems to make the assumption that there is no god, and then from that assumption, builds his argument against Christianity.
As an aside, let me offer say this (because I know that questions will arise from the last paragraph). What evidence is there that there is a god? In his 2007 book There Is a God, former first-string atheist Antony Flew explains his reasoning for recanting atheism and affirming the reality of God. He writes, “My discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology.” He goes on to outline three main things that drove him to believe that there is a God: the laws of nature, the existence of the cosmos, and the presence of life.
- The laws of nature: that nature obeys laws (and has regularities) is evidence that there is a God.
- The existence of the cosmos: that there exists any universe at all, and that it is fine-tuned for the existence of life, is evidence that there is a God.
- The presence of life: that there is life at all is evidence that there is a God. Scientists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe calculated in the early 1980s the probability of life forming, and placed the odds at one in 1040,000.
Harris glosses over this entirely natural argument for God when he says,
“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No on ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a non-alchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”
If it seems like I’m playing the “burden of proof” game, I am (a little bit). I think that, in this case, there is room for a mutual burden of proof. There are questions that the theist must answer, and there are things that the atheist must answer. Non-belief is not, as Harris asserts, “simply an admission of the obvious.” How does the atheist explain the impossible odds for life forming? Or that the universe had a beginning?
The bottom line: Harris’ book raises a lot of questions. Some are good questions, and some are less than good, bordering on irrational. The book is heavy on questions, and light on evidence.
Question: If you’ve read “Letter to a Christian Nation,” what did you think were the most convincing arguments? You can leave your comments by clicking here.
|This post is in my series called “Cross Examination: Is Debunking Christianity Possible?” I’m looking at a myriad of topics in the rational examination of my faith, and will write at least one post per week for the next year. If you would like to read some of the previous posts in this series, click on the links below:|