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Why Sam Harris Can’t Stamp Out My Religion with His Own
by Graeme Hunter
Many Christians will be aware of a stepped-up attack on the Christian faith in the recent secular press. As one observer says, “They estimate that the time is ripe and that professed believers have lost the will to resist.” One example is Sam Harris’s recent book The End of Faith. Having reached the New York Times bestseller list, won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for nonfiction, and sold upwards of 300,000 copies, it has made the author famous and a good deal richer as well.
Harris’s main contention is that our weapons of mass destruction have made tolerating intolerant faiths—Christianity as well as Islam—an unaffordable luxury. “Given the power of our technology, we can see at a glance that aspiring martyrs will not make good neighbors in the future. We have simply lost the right to our myths, and to our mythic identities.”
No Appeal to Faith
Harris makes a few interesting points, but I should confess to finding his book to be one of stupefying banality. To have come to such a globally negative judgment about a book is normally reason never to mention it in public, but I make an exception in this case because it has appealed to so many thousands of readers and so many learned reviewers in respected journals.
It is not surprising that Harris gives few details about his plan for ridding the world of faith. He confines himself to a few words near the conclusion of his book. “It is a matter,” he writes, “of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that make no appeal to faith and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone.”
Totalitarian implications lurk close to the surface here. Who is going to find the “approaches” of which he speaks, the ones not based on any faith? How are these sages going to be appointed, and with whose authority would they be invested?
In countries where sizable majorities adhere to some religion or other, there will be no democratic way of appointing a committee to suspend religious faith. Yet those countries (the United States and Iran, to name two) are precisely the ones in which, from Harris’s point of view, such measures would be needed.
Next, one must ask how such a committee’s report could ever be established as “knowledge.” Whatever they put forward as the truth about “spiritual experience” would amount to a committee-created religion. Would it not be derided as such by adherents of old religions and by militant secularists alike? There is no sanctioned procedure in the areas of morality and religion for determining what is knowledge and what is mere ideology.
If there is a broad social consensus about some propositions, such as the golden rule, it has been built up slowly over generations, and these propositions still lack the universal acceptance Harris’s new religion would try to impose. How does he imagine achieving such acceptance, except through totalitarian means of stifling dissent?
Finally, what does Harris mean when he speaks of his new religious ideology being “broadcast to everyone”? Advertisers know how difficult it is to reach everyone, even with the slickest advertising techniques.
Only by force and at huge expense could you get everyone to listen. And far more force would be necessary to get them all to believe. Harris’s solution to the dangers posed by religion itself involves considerable danger, at least to anyone currently professing a religion.
One thing is certain, however. If anyone acted on it, Harris’s proposal would create a new column of belligerents, who in the name of some secular cult would make war on faith, and the faithful. They would be as intent on annihilating Christians and Muslims and practitioners of other faiths as Harris believes the religious to be intent on annihilating each other. Harris’s scheme does not diminish the dangers posed by religion.
But of course no one will act on Harris’s proposal. It is both too vague and too extreme. What his supporters like about the book, I think—and here I admit to guessing—is the contention that because religious faith is dangerous, it must also be bad.
Yet here too, I think, Harris is mistaken. Christianity is, indeed, dangerous, but as G. K. Chesterton once pointed out, it is dangerous because it is so good. “No bad things can be desired quite so passionately and persistently as good things can be desired,” Chesterton wrote in a very early essay (1903) contained in a volume called The Doubts of Democracy:
And when something is set before mankind that is not only enormously valuable, but also quite new, the sudden vision, the chance of winning it, the chance of losing it, drive them mad. It has the same effect in the moral world that the finding of gold has in the economic world. It upsets values, and creates a kind of cruel rush.
He goes on to give a secular example, the preaching of brotherhood and liberality in late eighteenth-century France, when “the slow and polite preaching of rational fraternity in a rational age ended in the massacres of September.” If this happened then, “what would be likely to be the effect of the sudden dropping into a dreadfully evil century of a dreadfully perfect truth? What would happen if a world baser than the world of Sade were confronted with a gospel purer than the gospel of Rousseau?”
The mere flinging of the polished pebble of Republican Idealism into the artificial lake of eighteenth-century Europe produced a splash that seemed to splash the heavens, and a storm that drowned ten thousand men. What would happen if a star from heaven really fell into the slimy and bloody pool of a hopeless and decaying humanity? Men swept a city with the guillotine, a continent with a sabre, because Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were too precious to be lost. How if Christianity was yet more maddening because it was yet more precious?
Now what would a secularist like Harris say to this? He would say that he sees nothing precious about Christianity at all. The Scriptures, he thinks, belong on the same shelf with the tales of Daffy Duck. They do not reveal anything sublime and good, and it is time that intelligent people stopped pretending otherwise.
His rejection of Scripture makes clearer the ground for his objection to religious faith. It is not the mere fact that religious beliefs are dangerous that makes them bad. If we were certain they were true, we would have to accept them, however dangerous they might be. Harris feels free to reject religion because he is certain all religions are false.
And who could deny that any thesis that is simultaneously false and very dangerous ought to be outlawed? It was by such reasoning that, after the Second World War, Germany proscribed Nazi ideology, without diminishing in anybody’s eyes the new Germany’s claim to be a liberal democratic republic.
So, since I agree with Harris that Christian belief is very dangerous, I agree with his contention that it should be forbidden if it is false. But this is where he lets his reader down. He assumes, without proving it, that Christian teachings are false.
He lets us down in another, less obvious way. He never acknowledges that the dangerous ideas he fears can arise in other spheres than religion. Once you believe you are right about any of a number of subjects, you can easily become a menace to others.
Once the policeman believes you stole the money, he has to arrest you, damaging your reputation, upsetting your family, and costing you thousands for a lawyer. Yet he may be mistaken.
Once your doctor is convinced that the tumor needs excision, it will be excised (assuming you agree, and you probably will), even if the surgery threatens your life. You will suffer great pain, be stuck in a hospital for days or weeks, frighten and disrupt your family, miss weeks of work, if you live. Yet doctors can be wrong.
Once your government believes the country is under attack, it will send many of your sons (and, nowadays, even some of your daughters) to their deaths, fighting the alleged aggressor. Yet governments can misunderstand the world. And when they launch assaults against imaginary enemies, they may imperil the whole world.
All this is true, and yet it does not follow that we would therefore be better off without police and doctors and governments. They are necessities. We live with the danger they pose because life would be so much more dangerous without them. We can only make sure that police, doctors, and political leaders are accountable to sympathetic, but independent and qualified, bodies empowered to scrutinize their activities.
We want them to be right in what they say and do as often as possible. We must be vigilant, precisely because we know just how dangerous they are when they are wrong.
One great weakness of The End of Faith is that Harris does not prove that the dangers posed by religion are any different from those posed by the police, doctors, or government—or aggressive atheists, for that matter—or that its benefits are not worth the risk in the way theirs are. He does not show why it is not sufficient that we scrutinize religious claims and reject them when they are false. Instead, he takes for granted that religions are always dangerous, and always wrong, and therefore that we would be far better off repressing them.
Is Christianity always wrong? That claim needs to be clarified before it can even be disputed.
Religion’s High Standard
I doubt there is any religion with such an infallible nose for falsehood that it has managed to erect a system of beliefs wrong in absolutely every respect. Harris implies that even Christianity is not that badly wrong.
But suppose, in order to help him make a case, we reduced Christianity to a list of fundamentals, a conjunction of all the teachings it views as essential. As logicians tell us, a conjunction is false if even one of its conjuncts is false. So Christianity would be false if even one of its essential teachings is false. To count as true, Christianity would have to be correct in each and every proposition it held as doctrine.
That sets a very high standard for religious truth. Few scientific theories, I venture, could live up to it. If that is the standard Harris has in mind, and I suspect it is, this would explain why he is so confident in supposing all religions, including Christianity, to be false.
Even adopting that high standard, he is wrong about Christianity. I believe that Christianity is true even in this very demanding sense of the term. The conjunction of its essential doctrines is true, because every conjunct in it is true.
The whole conjunction of doctrines espoused by what Christians call the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is jointly and severally true. I say that because each of its articles has biblical warrant, and the Bible is the revealed word of God, a claim for which Christians have very good arguments (which I will not rehearse here)—arguments, to put it no more strongly, at least as plausible as those against it, including Sam Harris’s. Surely “that anything revealed by God is true” is what philosophers would recognize as an indisputable certainty.
That set of conjoined doctrines includes many more doctrines than the dozen or so that make up the Apostles’ Creed, but for the sake of concreteness and brevity, let me act as if the Apostles’ Creed were the whole set. That Creed says:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven and is sitting on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
One famous Anglican theologian, Alec Vidler, is said to have grown silent while the Creed was said, until the line “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This he would boom out, in the very reasonable conviction that everyone suffers under the government of his day.
But although I admire some of Vidler’s writings, I think he was wrong to be so skeptical. It is not in fact very difficult to believe the Apostle’s Creed. Take the Virgin Birth. Sam Harris unequivocally and repeatedly declares the belief that a supernatural being, the Holy Ghost, sired Jesus Christ on the Virgin Mary ridiculous.
Here he has the advantage over me. Though he may not have devoted more than a few minutes to thinking about this article of the Creed, he has somehow figured out what it means, whereas I, who have been chewing on it for many years, have not. He knows, for example, whether it means that seed from the Holy Ghost gushed into Mary and made her conceive in a way that, apart from the seed’s source, resembled natural conception, or whether it refers to some other means of conception that is thoroughly supernatural from start to finish.
He is fortunate to have attained this knowledge so easily. His certainty about its meaning must make his rejection of such a doctrine very easy for him, since he believes such things impossible. But at the same time, I, who have not yet understood the article, am therefore not in a position to reject it. It may be true in a way I do not yet see. So not knowing what it means, how can I say it is false?
But then you can’t accept it either, you retort. If you don’t understand it, how can you say it is true? But there, I think, you are wrong. If this article of the Creed is a revelation of God—a belief, as I said, that can be well defended—it must be true, whatever it may mean.
And what does any reasonable person do with a proposition he knows must be true and important, but which he doesn’t understand? He files it away in his mind and thinks about it. He tries to make it true. He applies it again and again to experience in the hope that its truth will some day reveal itself to him.
I have to confess to having made little progress with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, but I shall continue to work on it until the day I die. And with other doctrines of the Creed I have already had more success. Let me mention just one.
When I was a child, I thought that God was a father in the way a male parent is. As I grew older, it was pointed out to me that God is neither male nor human.
I was taught that God is called a father as a concession to the weakness of human understanding. We can understand what a loving human father is like. And transferring that knowledge to God, by analogy, gives us a glimpse of what God is like. He is like that, only more so, they said.
Many Christians believe that is what the Creed means when it calls God a father. But I no longer think so. I now think that the Fatherhood of God is primordial, and that human fathers are only called such, by analogy to God’s relationship to his human creation.
Now it would very much surprise me if I ever go back to believing any of the things I once believed about this article of the Creed, but it will not surprise me if I come to notice some new and even better things about it than I have noticed already, and leave my present understanding of it behind just as I did my earlier ones. That has been the pattern with most of the articles of the Creed. By steps that philosophers sometimes call dialectic, my understanding of them has deepened and broadened.
But I have probably already gone too far in discussing this point. The hard-won insights of one person can seem trivial, preposterous, or incomprehensible to another, and I will not hold it against you if this one of mine seems so to you. Nor will I weary you with other things I think I may have learned by reflecting on the Apostles’ Creed.
My one contention is that it is perfectly reasonable to believe each of the conjoined doctrines of the Creed to be true, without claiming to understand what they mean, and therefore to believe that the whole conjunction is true. They are true because they are a revelation of God (this is, again, a perfectly rational belief to hold). But since God’s understanding is infinite, and mine is limited and weak, I do not expect I shall ever confidently say of any article of the Creed: This and this alone is what it means. I will always say confidently, however, that it is true.
According to Sam Harris, that makes me a dangerous person. I agree. I am not a pacifist and so will resist attempts by militants of other religions or militant secularists to deprive me of my faith.
But I don’t think I am any more dangerous a person for my religious beliefs than Sam Harris is for his secular ones. I am probably less dangerous. Sam Harris’s scheme for “broadcasting” his new anti-religious “knowledge” to “everyone,” as I have argued, appears to presuppose the use of violent or at least coercive means against those he considers to be nonbelievers. But my Church does not call for conversion by the sword.
The danger of Christianity, as Chesterton saw, comes from its being intoxicatingly good. Sam Harris thinks that anything that intoxicating should be prohibited. Someone ought to tell him that prohibition has been tried and found wanting. Someone should suggest that this intoxicatingly good thing would also be good for him.
The quotation from Chesterton can be found in chapter twelve of Masie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.