The Evangelists of the Nothing–Sam Harris

Posted on January 30, 2014 by


Reblogged from
Published about 7 hours ago by Matt

Who is Sam Harris and what are his arguments? This series, The Evangelists of the Nothing, is written from my perspective, which is that of a former atheist who eventually became a lay Christian apologist (although studying to be a professional one!).  I want to fairly lay out the main arguments of leading atheists after reading their own works and then critically analyze them as best I can.

Sam Harris is easily the most prolific author among the New Atheists.  He has written several New York Times Best Sellers over Evangelists of nothingthe last ten years including The End of Faith (W.W. Norton 2005), Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage 2008), The Moral Landscape (Free Press 2011), Free Will (Free Press 2012) and Lying (Four Elephant Press 2013). I have read all of them over the last week or so.

Letters to a Christian Nation is really a continuation of The End of Faith (the former was supposedly prompted by letters and emails he received in response to the publication of the latter).  His most recent book Lying is also a sequel of sorts in that it builds upon the arguments found in The Moral Landscape.  So, I will focus primarily on the arguments he sets forth in The End of FaithThe Moral Landscape and Free Will.  I have not widely read his columns, so if I have missed something there, I apologize.

In The End of Faith, Harris argues that all religions are dangerous because they impart beliefs that cannot be tested. As such, these beliefs cannot be discussed rationally, which can lead to violence and slows the growth of progress given to us by science.  Harris recites a litany of crimes by various religions over the centuries as proof that religions are inherently dangerous and should be discarded for the sake of human flourishing.

In The Moral Landscape, Harris contends science can serve as the ground for establishing objective moral duties by studying which brain states lead to happiness and human flourishing.  He cites a handful of studies demonstrating that science may be able to ultimately identify what thoughts and actions make us happy.  He dismisses the objection by David Hume that an “is” cannot be made into an “ought” by arguing that (forgive me here) what “is” is all there “is” so it must be an “ought.”  After all, who can reasonably argue that prohibiting the mutilating of a child’s body should not be an “ought.”  Harris believes this is rationally defensible apart from faith.  Moreover, the god of most religions is obviously immoral, so science is where we must turn.

Finally, in Free Will, Harris states that because materialism is all there is (although he concedes consciousness is a mystery), there can be no real thing as “free will” because we are all slaves to the programming in our genes.  Dr. Harris refuses, however, to believe this leads to fatalism or the idea that everything is preordained.  Instead, Harris wants to be identified as a determinist.  A determinist is one who believes his or her actions are determined by psychological states (most of which we are unaware of), which are most heavily influenced by genetics but can be shaped by new information presented by changes in the surrounding culture.  Thus, Harris argues we are never truly responsible (in the classic sense) for our actions.

What are we to make of all of this?

As to The End of Faith, Harris admits that atheists like Mao and Stalin have committed great atrocities but attributes this to their “dogmatism” and “uncritical thinking” rather than their lack of religious beliefs.  Yet, he provides no objective grounds or compelling motivation for thinking “rationally” like himself and he is just as dogmatic about the need for secularism.   Nor does Harris adequately address the fact that the scientific method itself cannot be tested as he demands which renders his argument self-defeating.  He also takes an a-historical, decontextualized approach to Christian Scripture and sociopolitical events which could be dismantled by any 18-year old freshman Bible student or lay public policy nerd.

His writing on Free Will is also problematic for he talks like a fatalist while maintaining he is a determinist.  If he is in fact a determinist he has stacked the deck so close to crashing into the fatalist camp that one wonders why he even argues for anything as every thought has been predetermined by our genes and culture.  Thus, if he is right, he is wrong.

When we come to The Moral Landscape, William Lane Craig is right that Harris really “describes rather than prescribes.”  Harris may be right that human flourishing is a moral good but there is still nothing to establish a duty to selflessly seek this good (which he admits does not have a clear-cut path nor a current scientific model for each individual to follow).  He speaks of government action and pills to cure evil as if he wants us to live in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (which Huxley didn’t even want to live in) where a totalitarian state prescribes Soma (a happy pill) and dictates everyone’s lot in life based on the best (albeit provisional) scientific findings.

I like the way Thinking Matters put it when summarizing Harris’ debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame, “Human flourishing cannot be identical with moral goodness because we can imagine a possible world, under Harris’s own assumptions, where evil people primarily flourish.”  In other words, if the Nazis had won and were in control of society, Harris, by his own criteria, would be celebrating the holocaust rather than denouncing it if our brains were conditioned to accept it and our “unhappiness” were cured.  In contrast, when you have a God who is good, no matter what is abused in his name by those who do not understand Him, an event like the slaughter of 6 million Jews is wrong no matter who wins the war and determines the culture that (alone with our genes) affects our brain states.

Moreover, if Harris right that happiness equals human flourishing, how does he account for studies showing that Christian conservatives are happier than secular liberals like him? Or that there is a psychological link between atheism and a poor relationship with one’s father? Thus, again, if he is right, he is wrong!

Harris is a prolific author and an interesting thinker (even if leading atheists like S.T. Joshi and Michael Ruse write him off as an embarrassment for his careless missteps). He is obviously a strategic atheist in that he has attempted to meet the most cogent arguments against atheism such as the need for religion’s civilizing effect and the lack of objective moral values and duties without God.  Yet, his real failure is not in his inability to counter the most emotionally charged arguments against atheism but his refusal to engage the best arguments for Christianity (such as the historical evidence for the faith, which I wrote about here).

Finally, even if Harris is right about the ability of science to ground morality there is no motivation to follow his prescription.  Science may tell me that eating McDonald’s french fries are bad or that unprotected sex with a porn star is risky but what is my motivation for resisting these temptations? The broad, vague idea of “human flourishing”?  Yet, what motivates me (and many others) to sacrifice immediate satisfaction for the good of others is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is the Gospel, or good news of salvation, that breaks my heart and spurs me to love others.  My motivation to life a moral life is not based on an ethereal promise of future human flourishing that I will not live to enjoy even if science somehow makes it possible but on the perfect life of a God who loved me so much that gave all to save me.  Thus, I will live a life striving to show my love and gratitude to my savior.

In the end, if Harris really wants to promote human flourishing then the proven recipe for doing so is a clear understanding of soli Deo gloria.

Until next time, grace and peace.

Posted in: Answering, Apologias