apologetics, Sacraments, theology

Sam Harris on Christian Sacraments–Lunacy?

Sam Harris recently debated William Lane Craig on the topic “Is Good from God?” See my comments on the debate here. During the debate, Harris argued that the rituals of Christianity can be seen as a kind of lunacy. Harris said, “[Religion] allows perfectly decent and sane people  to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.”

Consider what Harris is claiming here. Basically, he’s saying that to believe a cracker becomes the body of Jesus is a kind of lunacy. Interestingly, throughout the debate he issued these veiled (or not so veiled) insults to Christians at large, and quickly retreated from them when he was called out. But that’s neither here nor there.

My contention is that Harris’ implicit argument against the rationality of the Sacraments (and Christian rituals at large) contains an implicit assumption. Once that assumption is exposed, his argument fails. The implicit assumption is this:

1) Christianity is false

Yeah, I’m serious. The reason is because the only way Harris’ argument makes sense is if one assumes a priori that Christianity is false. For consider his objection if Christianity is true. If Christianity is true, then God exists, Jesus was God, Jesus told us what would happen in Communion/the Eucharist, etc., etc. But then if Christianity is true, it is perfectly rational to hold that the uttering of certain words as part of a ritual would be causative in the sense that God said it would be. So Harris’ argument turns on the assumption that Christianity is false.

But perhaps I’m missing Harris’ point. Perhaps he is instead trying to say “Look at what you guys do! It’s crazy if it’s something else!” But again the only way this would make sense is by assuming Christianity is false. If I believe Christianity is true, then I have no reason to think the rituals involved therein are lunacy or anything other than perfectly rational worship of our God.

But it could be pressed that it does seem as though Harris’ assertion that Holy Communion would be viewed as lunacy in other contexts is in some sense correct. For were I to do the same with pancakes and Elvis, I would be seen as a lunatic. Why not the Christian too? Well, then the question would have to be what kind of evidence do we have for thinking Christianity is true as opposed to other beliefs? In short, if the Christian is epistemically justified in believing Christianity to be true, then Harris’ argument is exposed for what it is: a facile argument which shows how deeply Harris and the other “New Atheists” fail to understand the position they attack.


Image: Priest distributing Holy Communion at Holy Protection Church, Düsseldorf.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


37 thoughts on “Sam Harris on Christian Sacraments–Lunacy?

  1. You make very good points here. I would add that not only do the “new Athiests” fail to understand what they attack, many don’t understand what they are defending. Atheism has become a justification for action without consequence. “If I don’t believe I am held accountable, how could I be held accountable for not knowing I was wrong.” What they fail to realize is that simply making this argument shows that they do know they are wrong and thus they are accepting the consequence of their decision to deny Jesus.

    Great analysis of Harris’ arguments.

    Posted by Paul S | April 14, 2011, 10:18 AM
    • Thanks for stopping by Paul! I think you’re correct about the lack of understanding about the atheistic position as well. I’d throw in the fact that most don’t realize that the deep discussions of atheism lead to physicalism, which entails a denial of free will, consciousness, meaning, value, etc.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2011, 10:20 AM
    • Posted by TheBC | September 4, 2012, 11:49 PM
      • Why only post a link to Ehrman speaking? Do you realize that although he uses these numbers and the like he admits that they don’t affect any major doctrines? Furthermore, simple things like spelling errors are counted in this list of variants, and they’re counted every time they show up: so if I have 10000 manuscripts and 5000 have a misspelling, that’s 5000 variant readings.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 6, 2012, 1:51 AM
  2. “So Harris’ argument turns on the assumption that Christianity is false.”

    Actually, it turns on the fact that there is no demonstrable difference between the cracker before and after the ceremony.

    Posted by NotAScientist | April 14, 2011, 10:25 AM
    • …Which goes to show how little Harris et al. understand about Christianity. To be fair, I think that some denominations would have difficulty defending their position based on an empirical perspective, but other denominations hold that the “body and blood” of Jesus is either symbolic or “in, with, and under the bread and wine” which would explain why it doesn’t literally turn into flesh and blood.

      And before any complaints of special pleading, etc, etc. These doctrinal stances have been held since the Reformation, as opposed to being reactive to empirical evidence.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2011, 10:31 AM
  3. While I am not a transubstantiationist, Harris needs to take a look at his own evolutionary theory. He believes that inanimate matter evolved into full-blown human beings and everything else. He then believes that an evolved brain can make reasonable assessments of what he and the cosmos is. He’s trusting what evolved by chance from chemicals. Sounds like lunacy to me.

    Posted by Gary DeMar | April 14, 2011, 11:44 AM
    • Thanks for the comment! Yeah I turned the argument around to say “Imagine I believed all of science was simply false. Now then I’m watching some scientists go around doing their thing. They look in these crazy little mechanical instruments with eyeholes–staring at some glass plate with green goo on it. Then they run around in white coats and gloves and type on some box that shoots light out of it. They’re crazy!”Well obviously, if I make the assumption that all of science is false, then their “rituals” would seem like lunacy. But I must first ground the idea that their religion is utterly false before I declare they are all lunatics.

      And I like your example as well, because it allows us to grant Harris’ position and still point out that it is [epistemically] crazy. There’s no reason to trust our cognitive faculties on atheism’s grand story.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2011, 11:51 AM
  4. Hi! I’m just posting all over your blog now… I agree with you that the ‘silliness’ of the sacrements is essentially contingent on Christianity being false. However Harris uses the ‘silliness’ of the sacrements as a rhetorical reductio absurdem of Christianity. The premesis of (at least certain varieties of) Christianity suggest that the transubstantiation is a metaphysically valid concept. If one finds the doctrine rediculous, one is compelled to more skeptically re-examine the premise that Christianity (or some variety of it) is true. It is like getting a wierd answer to a math problem: a bizarre solution to an equation compells you to skeptically re-examine the underlying formulation.

    Your argument seems perfectly valid to me, but I think you’re refuting an argument Harris isn’t necessarily making.

    Posted by JWW | April 14, 2011, 2:50 PM
    • The problem is that any practice, belief, etc. could be reduced to that level. I already used the science analogy. Think of sports. A bunch of people dress up in colors with logos of random animals/people/inanimate objects, drink a lot, shout a lot when some guys on a field run across a line, and then file out. It seems totally absurd!

      Or how about reading a book? Someone sits there and stares at this thing full of paper, flipping it around once in a while. Finally, they close it and walk away. Craziness!

      Anything in life could be reduced in such a way. As with many fallacious arguments, it either proves too successful or it’s false. Either everything is absurd, or it works against nothing.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2011, 2:54 PM
      • Regardless of stance, your comparison to books, sports, or science is flawed… Each of these things are tangible things that can be proven. You’re arguing logic with a bias, which negates itself. When completely isolated from the bias of either believer or nonbeliever, your counter-argument fails. I can hand you a book or bring you to sporting event, I can show you science’s technology. When following logic, the tangible (physical objects and events) will always trump the intangible (faith). This is not to say that either you or Harris is right or wrong, rather to insert some proper application of logic.

        Posted by Jamal | December 6, 2011, 12:13 PM
      • Jamal,

        Thanks for your comment. As I clearly pointed out in the post, the implicit assumption with Sam Harris is that “Christianity is false.” Similarly, your response contains an implicit assumption: empiricism as the basis for reality. Interestingly, you accuse me of bias, while asserting, without argument, “…the tangible (physical objects and events) will always trump the intangible (faith).”

        Of course here we have another implicit assumption: namely, that the “intangible” is solely faith-based. I clearly reject this claim, and so see no reason to be shaken by your response. Although you assert that I’m “arguing logic with a bias,” you’ve revealed several biases of your own.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 6, 2011, 6:12 PM
  5. Well its not that important, I just meant to point out that this is an appeal to common intuitions about grain turning into gods, and that the strangeness of the conclusions tends to make the premise look shifty.

    You mention science: quantum mechanics produces some very bizarre results, and those bizarre results have indeed made quantum mechanics slow to become well accepted. But after revisiting the theory and experiments, they appear as sound as they could be, and there doesn’t appear to be a satisfactory less bizarre explanation for observations.

    Posted by JWW | April 14, 2011, 3:19 PM
  6. The Eucharist is so far from our common understanding that perhaps that’s why they choose it to mock christianity. And they succeed only in front of those that only have a taste for mocking and irony. And they’re also theologically and historically ignorants.

    I asked myself if anything actually makes sense in a world of atheism, what’s the real basis for their mockery. On what ground can they tell that something really makes sense. If there’s no purpose in this Universe, than anything is possible, anything works.

    Posted by Christian Pascu | April 16, 2011, 10:36 AM
    • Hmm difficult for me to read that without responding…

      I’m pretty sure atheists and theists start from basically the same place when it comes to deciding if something makes sense: we’re all born into the world with a few dim notions about how at the end of the day all the things we see must fit together in some way, and we start noticing patterns in the world around us and we try to stitch them together into a coherant picture. Does any of it REALLY make sense? It seems to, but who knows FOR SURE. Either way this mode of ‘rationality’ seems to be our best shot, and so we do our best and try not to fool ourselves. This same approach is ultimately what must lead the theist to a belief in God – none of us are exempt from it.

      I wrote more about the transubstantiation and how if quantum mechanics were based wholly in an ancient gospel we would have no reason to accept it, but I think I started wandering off topic and I don’t want to be a bore or a boar, so that will have to cut it.

      Posted by JWW | April 18, 2011, 3:45 PM
      • Of course that’s our best shot if we presume that we’re born in this Universe, with no particular purpose and no preset destination. We do our best to learn about the surroundings, layer by layer, bit by bit, just because we don’t have anything better to do before we die. We’re just hanging out. 90% of the world’s population struggle for the money to have&raise their children and watch TV. That’s it!

        BUT, on the other hand, if we’re put in the Universe, with a specific purpose, than we’re also given a set of known things that we don’t have to rediscover ourselves. Just like we take for granted gravity and electromagnetic forces and every other nature’s law, just like that Eucharist is part of who we are and our relationship with the entity that put us here.

        If quantum mechanics is a given, space is a given, gravity is a given, and all the other things are a given, why should a given prohibit another law to be a given? Why should not resurrection/Eucharist be possible? Why is anything possible in the first place?

        Posted by Christian Pascu | April 19, 2011, 12:28 AM
      • I am not going to defend transubstantiation because I do not hold to that view.

        Anyway, you wrote, “This same approach is ultimately what must lead the theist to a belief in God – none of us are exempt from it.”

        That’s exactly my point: either the argument shows we’re all insane, or none of us are. It’s trivial either way.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 19, 2011, 10:54 PM
  7. Goodness….

    Posted by JWW | April 19, 2011, 6:25 PM
  8. I think it’s remarkably beautiful and just like God to do something so marvelous as to give us His own body for our spiritual nourishment. If He could speak everything into existence then why could He not use our mouths to place His presence in the most basic of materials; food? I had zero understanding of the Eucharist and His Real Presence in it until I was longing after Him and His presence. He led me to understand about His gift to us and why He told Peter to feed His sheep. When Jesus was born they wrapped him in swaddling clothes(could be compared to a shroud) & laid Him in a manger(a feeding trough for livestock or sheep). That act was a prophetic sign of the Eucharist to come. The early church had no problem understanding what Christ meant at the Last Supper concerning His body and blood and celebrated the breaking of bread always when they gathered together.

    Why would we even expect an atheist to understand the things of God when we ourselves have to grapple regularly with the most basic truths given to us in God’s word? The church is splintered into countless denominations because we can’t interpret scriptures without disagreeing on what they mean. How in the world is an atheist supposed to really understand anything? The truth is, they don’t. They are lost.

    Posted by Mitzi | November 24, 2011, 7:41 AM
  9. Are you for real? Once that assumption is exposed, Harris has no point? Yes…and every point Craig makes in the debate is pointless as well once you expose his assumption that there is a God.

    Sheesh….give a man credit where credit is due. That was an insanely clever couple sentences and quite frankly one of the funniest debate lines I’ve ever heard. We’re never going to agree on the big God issue, but as fellow humans, I sure hope we can keep our sense of humor through it all.

    Posted by equinoxic | January 27, 2012, 8:06 PM
    • When someone grossly misrepresents something you believe, that’s hardly funny. It’s bigotry. Harris’ point here simply assumed atheism and then made fun of those who disagreed with him. That’s hardly a “clever couple sentences.” Anyone is capable of insults, it takes thought to make an argument.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 27, 2012, 8:28 PM
      • Why must one assume Christianity is false in order to propose that transubstantiation is false? Don’t most if not all Protestants believe Christianity is true yet transubstantiation is false?

        Posted by Brap Gronk | January 30, 2012, 7:54 AM
      • Yes, something you believe without any evidence whatsoever. Yes Sam Harris assumes there is no god because he has a standard of evidence which he applies to every god and proposition in this life. You have that same standard as well and you apply that standard to all gods as well, except for the one you believe in and that’s a double standard.

        If there is no evidence, you have no real justification for your beliefs. I could believe that I can make it rain when I rub myself with peanut butter and run up and the street singing greased lightning, but without proof, I would be pretty insane doing so and that is the analogy Sam was going for.

        So instead of being insulted and donning a cloak of victimhood, why don’t you simply demonstrate christianity is true and truly expose Sam Harris’ bigotry. Couldn’t be that difficult right?

        Posted by Ed | March 31, 2012, 10:21 AM
      • This reasoning is fallacious: here’s why.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 31, 2012, 4:17 PM
      • Every argument I’ve ever read on this site assumes Christianity is true. Interesting to hear you use it to try and debunk Harris…

        Posted by C | December 7, 2012, 6:35 PM
      • Really? You may have conflated arguing that Christianity is true and assuming that it is true.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 8, 2012, 1:24 AM
      • “This reasoning is fallacious: here’s why.” – Actually your reasoning is never fallacious. Observations, and prior knowledge used in the reasoning is why arguments are fallacious, and this is what you have done:

        You don’t believe the other gods are real, so therefore you are not in a competing religion.
        By definition, unless you believe the other gods to be real, they can ONLY be a philosophy to you.

        Therefore, comparing your religion to their philosophies, while saying your are just in a different religion, is false.
        Notice that you defined atheism as a disbelief in GOD, as in YOUR GOD, and that is incorrect. It is a disbelief in ANY god. Period.
        Since you defined the word atheism as a disbelief in just your god, then you must only think your god is real.
        In other words, an atheist in regards to all other gods but your own. as is every other believer in gods.

        Posted by Jeff | September 17, 2013, 12:23 AM
      • As I have demonstrated time and again: to other religions, I am not an atheist. I am a rival theist.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 17, 2013, 9:43 PM
      • So you accept all gods are real? Why then should anyone worship the one you worship, and not the others?

        Posted by Jeff | September 18, 2013, 12:35 AM
      • No, I do not. You are confusing categories. Atheists claim there is no God. I claim there is a God. Therefore I am not an atheist. I’m not sure at all why the phrase “rival theist” would lead you to think that I accept all gods are real. I have answered this notion of people of faith being atheists numerous times. Perhaps this post will be helpful to you.

        The fact is that if I am a theist, I cannot be an atheist. Period.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 18, 2013, 8:28 AM
      • Actually you can, since the term atheist is used as thus: “with respect to the other gods, you are an atheist”.
        Your responses so far have been only in relation to other people, yet you call it theism. It doesn’t matter what you are to other people. Atheism is a lack of belief in A god OR gods.
        A good analogy to help you with this is car mechanics. YOU are an expert if you know how to fix Fords, but only in relation to Ford cars! If I have a Chevy, you are NOT an expert, but you are still a mechanic!
        You are in a competing RELIGION, not a competing THEISM. Theism is a belief in a god or gods, and you don’t believe in Zeus, so in relation to Zeus, not the believers of Zeus, but the GOD Zeus, you are an atheist. To the believers in Zeus, you are in a competing RELIGION. Christians in Rome were considered subversive to the state religion and persecuted as atheists, because they didn’t believe in the ROMAN gods.

        Posted by Jeff | September 18, 2013, 12:45 PM
      • Your condescension in claiming that you are capable of defining who I am through a semantics game is amazing, and I’m not going to deal with it any longer. I simply maintain, as always, that I am not an atheist to other religions. I believe in a different deity than they do. That doesn’t make me an atheist to them, it makes me a rival theist: a theist who affirms a rival faith. If you have something of actual substance to post, I’d be happy to continue the discussion.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 18, 2013, 1:16 PM
  10. “If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence?” – Sam Harris.

    See: indoctrination, imprinting, mind control

    We began as creatures who would regularly climb mountains believing we would be able to touch the moon upon the summit.

    All religion(s) clearly fall under the categorical variants of Syllogistic fallacies

    Posted by RW | January 17, 2013, 9:32 AM
  11. OK, so the Christian faith is based on belief that the god of the Jews couldn’t be made up? A man, claiming to be raised in Egypt, “meets” god, and starts a religion that has remarkable similarities to Egyptian gods, and claims the ONLY people pure enough in heart to serve as priests in the Temple are his own family, and you buy this crap?

    Tell me if you believe the bible to be inerrant, and I will show your ignorance just as fast.

    It is a copy of Egyptian beliefs! Even Jesus was raised in Egypt, and comes back to AGAIN start a new religion from the old one! The Jews didn’t believe in a messiah between god and YOU. God states NO ONE sits with him, he is alone! Jesus states he is at the right hand of god! WHO is correct, and who is lying?

    The Jews created stories, as all cultures did at that time! Do you really believe a god, who creates universes, can’t prevail against an iron chariot? Why did Adam have a penis, if Eve wasn’t created yet? Why not show himself to us today?

    These questions, and many more, make atheists out of most that actually read the bible, and not just believe their preachers. Try reading it yourself.

    Posted by Jeff | September 17, 2013, 12:02 AM
  12. Since when did you have to believe in the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation in order to qualify as a Christian?

    I was brought up in the Church of England. We didn’t and don’t subscribe to such nonsense. You seem to be implying, however, that all Anglicans cannot qualify as Christians because we don’t adhere to this silly doctrine.

    Take a decko at the quotes below from the OED. It should be clear that you don’t have to be an atheist to regard transubstantiation as a bogus belief.

    From the OED:

    transubstantiation, n.

    2. The conversion in the Eucharist of the whole substance of the bread into the body and of the wine into the blood of Christ, only the appearances (and other ‘accidents’) of bread and wine remaining: according to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.Distinguished from consubstantiation, in which the elements of the bread and wine are held to coexist with the body and blood of Christ.

    1533 Tyndale Souper of Lorde C iij b, S. Thomas theyr owne doctoure that made theyr transsubstanciacion confessethe that some there were that sayed that Christe dyd fyrste consecrate wyth other wordes, ere he nowe reachyng the bread to his disciple sayed, This is my bodie.

    a1536 Tyndale Briefe Declar. Sacraments (?1548) D iv, As concernyng the transsubstanciatyon I thinke that such a speche was among the olde doctours though they that came after vnderstode them amysse.
    1558 Bp. T. Watson Holsome Doctr. Seuen Sacramentes viii. f. xlv, The..church..did..well..when it inuented the worde of Transubstantiation, to expresse the olde truthe,..that the former substaunces of breade and wine be conuerted and chaunged into the body and bloud of Chryste.

    1579 W. Fulke Heskins Parl. Repealed in D. Heskins Ouerthrowne 73 Transubstantiation is not so olde as Damascene, neither was it receyued in the Greeke Church, neither is it at this daye.

    1635 E. Pagitt Christianographie 55 The word Transubstantiation is..first mentioned by Roger Hovenden, who flourished An. 1204.

    1664 H. More Modest Enq. Myst. Iniquity xv. 52 That Mysterious conceit of Transsubstantiation and the Idolatry thereon depending.

    1678 Act 30 Chas. II. Stat. ii. §3 Such Peer or Member shall..audibly repeat this Declaration following. ‘I A. B. do..testify and declare, That I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the Elements of Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the Consecration thereof’.

    1715 R. Bentley Serm. Popery 21 By slow degrees Transubstantiation was enacted into an Article of Faith.

    1839 T. Keightley Hist. Eng. (new ed.) I. 83 As transubstantiation had not yet [11th c.] been established by the papal authority, it..formed no part of the public system of the Anglo Saxon church.

    1901 Bp. C. Gore Body of Christ ii. §3. 118 The use..of the distinction of substance and accidents for the purpose of assisting the doctrine of transubstantiation was already familiar to Berengar,..he combats the proposed use of it, denying that the accidents can exist apart from their substance or ‘subject’, or apart from that of which they are attributes.

    1901 B. J. Kidd 39 Articles II. 230–1 It was a crude attempt to secure some real meaning to Our Lord’s Words of Institution by the doctrine of a physical transubstantiation or change in the material elements. But the Schoolmen now came forward with a subtler defence… Hence the doctrine of a metaphysical transubstantiation was adopted [by the Realists].

    “transubstantiation, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 10 March 2014 <http://www.oed.com.rp.nla.gov.au/view/Entry/205086

    Posted by Richard Mahony | March 10, 2014, 10:29 PM
    • Was this comment directed at me? I definitely don’t think one needs to adhere to transubstantiation to be a Christian. However, Sam Harris’ view of Christianity (as he outlines it in his book “Letter to a Christian Nation”) is essentially to say that Christianity is Catholicism and any other views are off topic. It’s a really weird argument he puts forward.

      Anyway, I’m not sure why you’d think I think one needs to believe in transubstantiation. However, my point is that Harris’ argument is itself baseless because he simply assumes that Christianity (or if you prefer, Catholicism) is false and then operates from that.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 11, 2014, 5:46 PM
  13. Though certainly Harris thinks that Christianity is false, his criticism here needs not to go that far. I could be a devoted Christian and be convinced that I won’t go to Heaven unless I do three somersaults every morning. That idea would be crazy in itself disregarding the general validity of the doctrine I uphold. Cannibalism sounds rather crazy to me, so within the parameters of accepting the Bible as the true word of god it seems to me one should try to interpret messages such as “do this in my name” or “this is my body” in a way most compatible with common sense (which would probably be a form of symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.)

    Posted by Claudio Di Gregorio | September 19, 2017, 6:54 PM

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