I have received permission to repost this. Some things are quotes from my blog, specifically “But Christians are Bad People” and others are quotes from Sam Harris’ “Letter…” (abbreviated due to laziness, not lack of respect). Some editing was done (i.e. removing names and extra info at the beginning, also added “if you’d like” to my bracketed side note on Matthew 22, and a few spelling errors were corrected).
This is a debate between an atheist and myself on Christianity in general. We decided to use my most recent blog and Sam Harris’ “Letter…” as the starting point. This will likely be only the first of many such posts.
His text is in normal print. My responses are in bold.
“Christians do bad things, so Christianity must be bad.”
I would argue that opponents of Christianity such as Sam Harris, would likely say that “Christians do bad things – and as the Bible specifically instructs in and sanctions such things – Christianity must be bad.”
I realize Sam Harris attempts to outline a case that the Bible commands evil in the beginnings of his book–citing Deuteronomy 13:6, 8-15. He then argues that Jesus does not remove responsibility from the law by quoting Matthew 5:18ff (page 5-6 in PDF form, 8-10 in the book). The problem is that Harris takes the Matthew verse out of context by either unintentionally or otherwise leaving out 5:18 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” One of the core teachings of Christianity is justification. Jesus paid the price. The Law that is written in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) is indeed not abolished, but fulfilled in the person of Christ. Jesus’ statement that He came to earth to fulfill them (the Law He states will not be overthrown) outlines this idea.
Paul makes this point clearer throughout his letters to the churches. Galatians 5:4-6, 14 (the rest of the passage can certainly be read, but I don’t think its wholly necessary to get the meaning)- “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision [a requirement of the Law] nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love… The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
This is ultimately a doctrinal and theological issue. It seems it is one that Harris does not understand. His argument stems from taking Bible passages out of context and arguing against one of the core teachings of not only the church fathers, but also of Paul and Jesus himself–that Christ came as the sacrificial lamb to fulfill the Law, which no man can ever do.
As far as whether Christianity sanctions bad things, I think that is nothing but an unfair charge. Christianity’s command can be summed up by what Paul stated before and by what Jesus Himself said of the law (Matthew 22:37ff [read before it for context if you like]): ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” It seems clear that the Christianity Christ preaches is not one that condones violence. Whether one wants to twist it to do so is another matter entirely.
“Christians are bad, so Christianity is false.”
In the second paragraph, you have changed the premise of your argument from
“This is blantantly false, and I’m honestly shocked that someone like Sam Harris…”
Again, your first premise is closer to what Harris has stated – the second I find questionable. The second is what you refer to here, and attribute it to Harris. I find no reference in his book that suggests he takes this position – correct me if I’m mistaken. That is, have you a reference that indicates that Harris thinks that because Christians do bad things, Christianity is false?
I should have stated that more clearly. It’s a problem I’ll hope to rectify a bit by taking —‘s advice to lessen my amount of posts and increase the editing and thought on each. Harris doesn’t specifically argue that Christianity is false. He does seemingly believe it should be rejected because of the initial premise, however. Though, to be fair, if Christianity is true (i.e. exclusive claim to eternal life in heaven), then it should be embraced by all means. The only logical reason to abandon it would be if Christianity were false. Arguing against Christianity by saying it’s bad does nothing to its claims of truth, making the argument an ad hominem attack on the character of Christians rather than an attack on Christianity.
Harris, it could be said, argues that Christianity specifically teaches bad things, but I’ve already demonstrated his lack of theological knowledge on the first point, and his other points (i.e. condom use, etc.) could be valid against Catholicism, which is not the Christianity I (and about 50% of Christians) ascribe to. It seems dishonest of Harris to assert that atheists are completely different while shoehorning the Christian right into a Catholic view. There were several times, whilst reading his book, that I found myself saying to his “You believe…” statements “No I don’t.” Those times are straw men arguments to me, though I would say that Christians who believe, say, in not having birth control, should try to defend their position (one I disagree with).
I would suggest a simpler test; read the text of their holy scripture, and see if it advocates and/or sanctions said violence. If it does, the religion is violent. If it’s holy scriptures are replete with violent act after violent act, the religion is violent.
Admittedly, I do find (at least) the international data concerning religious vs. non religious nations rather interesting. Though, Harris himself states;
“Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality…these statistics prove that atheism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; (and) …that widespread belief in God does not ensure a society’s health.”
“A very good breaking down of Harris can be found in The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day…”
Day states, “By applying his metric to the state-wide voting instead of the more
Let’s do justice to what Day is pointing out, however. He’s taking the same sample size (i.e. the U.S.) and simply giving a more in depth analysis of what the statistics show. He’s being more specific with the data. Rather than showing that red areas have higher violence than blue areas, they show that blue counties have higher violence on average than red ones.
Examples Day gives: Florida–11 blue counties account for 44% of the state’s population, but more than 50% of its murders and 60% of the robberies. Maryland–5 blue counties with a murder rate of 13.22/100,000 verses 0.89/100,000 in the red counties. Washington, D.C.–voted 91% blue but has the highest murder rate in the nation, almost 7 times the average national rate.
Harris’ examples of cities are also taken by state, but not by county. When one goes by county, 13/25 of the safest cities are in red counties (verses the by state of 8/25), while 21/25 of the most dangerous cities are in blue counties (verses by state 12/25). In other words, when one gets specific with the data, it can be shown that red areas are potentially safer than blue areas.
To say that it is a “smaller” sampling is inaccurate. Rather, it is looking more specifically at the same sampling. An analogy could be the body. Sam Harris points to one’s midsection and says there is something wrong with it. We can use that same data and zero in on, say, the kidney and point to that as the problem area. The same amount of data is there (we have examined the midsection), but the more specific information leads to a more correct conclusion.
“…how is it that showing violence by political beliefs automatically shows a correlation to religious beliefs?”
Because it can be shown that there is a strong correlation between the population’s political and religious beliefs. Therefore, show a correlation between violence and one’s political affiliation, and one can extrapolate from this.
It is fair to say that certain geographical locations in the U.S. are in fact predominately one party or another (thus the whole red state – blue state dichotomy), and that those parties do in fact represent certain religious affiliations more than others – the stats bare this out quite well, and candidates stake their chances of winning an election on it.
e.g. – The ‘deep south’ is predominately quite religious – compared to say, the much more liberal coastal areas, and to some extent, the mid west. The break down is shown here; http://www.valpo.edu/geomet/pics/geo200/religion/adherents.gif
The blue and red correlates very closely to this reality; http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/statemapredbluer1024.png
Certainly it isn’t perfect, but it is quite illuminating, and certainly enough to gain some reasonable insight as to the connections present between political and religious beliefs in the U.S..
Okay, let’s examine this in detail as well. Day points to a 2001 ARIS study that shows that 14.1% of Americans are atheists. About 1/2 of eligible Americans vote. So assuming that every eligible atheist voted, that means that 28.2% of the vote was potentially atheist.
The problem is that exit polls show that atheists were less likely to vote than religious people, accounting for about 10% of voters in CNN exit polls. They went about 2/3 blue. But the problem is that Harris seems to want to use this to show that non-religious people are less violent. This discounts all those who didn’t vote, and it also means that only 16% of blue voters were actually non-religious. It seems kind of ridiculous to attribute all that nonviolent behavior to a lack of religion when it is only 16% of the voting total.
So I stand by my idea that using votes to determine religious belief seems pretty silly. Not only that, but if we do use it as a determining factor, it would show the opposite of what Harris wants to argue.
“…religion does do a lot of good, whether people like Harris want to admit it or not.”
“It is undeniable that many people of faith make heroic sacrifices to relieve the suffering of other human beings.” – Sam Harris
He has no trouble admitting that at all. (straw man)
I’ll concede again that I should have been more clear here. Harris does admit that religious people do good things, but it seems to me that his argument centers around the idea that no religion = better people. Note especially pages 12-13 in the PDF version of “Letter…” He seems to argue that if religion were removed, more good would be done. I could stand to reword that part of my blog entry, but again I don’t think I’m attacking a straw man when Harris specifically tries to detract from the good that religious people do (i.e. his Mother Theresa example in which he says she was “…deranged by religious faith.”) If she were not so deranged, she would have been better. That seems to be a valid way to argue from what he is saying.
But one major thing could be said here theologically as well. Christianity isn’t about achieving goodness. It isn’t about being good. It’s the fact that we are not good that means we need Christ. Whether or not one wants to say Christians are worse than non-Christians doesn’t do anything to hurt the message of Christ–because it’s not based on being good people, it’s based on being saved people.
“But those who are, say, Christian, are commanded to be good,…”
This is in fact a strike against Christianity in many an atheist’s mind; that the idea of Christian morality is ‘commanded’ of its adherents.
Here Harris completely misunderstands large amounts of Christian belief. Again the assumption is that being Christian = better morals. But that’s not what Christianity is about.
Also, this explanation of goodness begs the question entirely against the Christian. It assumes that a religious person only does good things out of belief of reward (or perhaps fear of punishment). The conclusion has snuck [edit: sic, blast!] into the premise. It is wholly possible that Christians do good things out of the kindness of their hearts. The Christianity I believe means that I am saved. Any good that I do is for other reasons, not for the hope of reward. The premise in the argument begs the question because it implies that the only reason a Christian does good is for reward, so the good acts they do aren’t as good as one who doesn’t do it for a reward.
“…whilst atheism can at best offer an evolutionary view of morality that is not obligatory”
Perhaps you can explain to me what the negative is here, assuming that the result – a person acting with moral responsibility – is the same?
I meant to say “objective” not “obligatory.” This was wholly a mistake I can ascribe to lack of sleep. The point you make about the result being the same is interesting, given that you just argued above that it is somehow better to do good things without a responsibility to do so. But again, the use of obligatory was a complete mistake. Read it as “objective” and that is my meaning.
I had a ridiculously long list here, and have decided it would be of no avail, at least not in this discussion. The violent history of religion would require its own debate. It does after all entail a couple thousand years of history.
One could make the same argument for the history of irreligion. Harris concedes as much when he points out that Christians bring up people like Pol Pot, Stalin, and the like. Interestingly, I think simply looking at an overall # of death rate, it is possible that irreligion has lead to more violence than religion. It is also worthy of note that Harris specifically tries to get around these people by calling them irrational and makes some attempt to try to put them outside of atheism. Page 14 on the PDF version of his book (40ff in the book) demonstrates Harris in a very uncomfortable position.
“The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths. Most become the center of a quasi-religious personality cult, requiring the continual use of propaganda for its maintenance. There is a difference between propaganda and the honest dissemination of information that we (generally) expect from a liberal democracy. Tyrants who orchestrate genocides, or who happily preside over the starvation of their own people, also tend to be profoundly idiosyncratic men, not champions of reason. Kim Il Sung, for instance, demanded that his beds at his various dwellings be situated precisely five hundred meters above sea level. His duvets had to be filled with the softest down imaginable. What is the softest down imaginable? It apparently comes from the chin of a sparrow. Seven hundred thousand sparrows were required to fill a single duvet. Given the profundity of his esoteric concerns, we might wonder how reasonable a man Kim Il Sung actually was.”
His argument here seems to be that these people are irrational, so they can be dismissed. Yet I’d make the argument that Christians in particular who try to use that belief system for violence are irrational. Either both can be discounted, or neither can.
“Further, is it not obvious that much religion embraces peace?”
No, it isn’t. (begging the question) The Christian Bible is simply one of the most violence-ridden pieces of literature I’ve encountered. Page after blood soaked page espouses more brutal rape, slavery, torture, genocide, sacrifice – and often to the elation of, or under the direct command of, the Creator – than you can shake a stick at.
The Bible does indeed have much violence in it. I’ve argued that things such as killing that is endorsed by God can be logically defensible here. I can sum up:
“In this case, the one presenting the argument is suggesting that:
1. God is morally perfect
2. God commands killing
are incompatible. Thus, in order to counter this argument, all that needs to be done philosophically is show there is no inconsistancy. In other words, all that needs to be done is show another alternative. That alternative readily makes itself available:
3. There are some whose moral depravity is such that God will not suffer them to live
This third explanation gives a logical “way out” of the supposed dilemma presented by the first two statements. While this explanation may not seem satisfactory to some who would wish to debate the finer points of individual verses, cherry-picking out-of-context Scripture does nothing in light of the fact that option 3. is logically valid. The defender of the faith need not even demonstrate that this statement is true, only that it is possible.
Thus, I conclude that to have 1. God is morally perfect and 2. God commands killing is not a contradiction in light of 3. There are some whose moral depravitiy is such that God will not suffer them to live.
The case for God’s love could fill numerous volumes, but it is clear from Scripture that God is intentionally portrayed as the definition of Judge, morally perfect, and righteous. The writers of the inspired Word are clearly not recording stories of massed killings in the name of the Lord for the sake of showing God’s moral imperfections (which, I would argue, points even more towards the innerrancy of Scripture, but that’s a whole other issue), but they are rather recording these stories to show that God is indeed God and He is in control. In His moral perfection, there are things He cannot tolerate. Those things are punished in righteousness. Those who argue that the God of the Bible is evil are merely skimming scripture for verses they believe will back them up in out-of-context situations. Further, they are rejecting the Holy Spirit’s role in directing true and upright teaching of the word.
Finally, even if one does not accept Scripture as innerrant, the Word of God, or as being passed on by the Holy Spirit, the philosophical problem of evil in the Bible is solved quite simply, contrary to general belief, by the assertion that God’s role as Judge could mean He cannot allow certain evils to pass unpunished.”
Arguing that God portrayed in the Bible is evil is to not only do so by specifically searching for verses to support the case in light of much evidence to suggest otherwise (just see God’s interactions with the nation of Israel in light of their constant apostasy, the example of Jesus, the Psalms, and all kinds of other verses that deal with the mercy and goodness of God), but it is also to argue without a knowledge of the culture that such a text originated from. In other words, to argue that God is evil in light of the Bible is to look on such acts with modern eyes and completely discount the fact that the Biblical world was a completely different place than the world we have.
There’s a couple of things wrong with this statement – almost to the point that I would respectfully ask that you amend your blog, and make the correction. But that feels beyond the scope of what we’re doing here. I’ll abstain from that request – but do consider what it is you’ve actually said;
First, he does not endorse this religion. He highlights it as an exception to the rule. That is, he notes that it “preaches a doctrine of utter non-violence”, and he does so in order to contrast it with Christianity, which is replete with violence.
Second, you then choose to use the unfortunate phrase ‘adhere to’ when describing Harris’ statements about Jainism – stating he in fact adheres to Jainism. Certainly you know he does not adhere to this or any religion?
This is an issue of semantics and I’m willing to concede the point that Harris does not adhere to Jainism. Though it is clear that he has some interesting views on spirituality (I grant that Wikipedia is not the best source for this type of thing, but the quote from End of Faith, combined to his specific exclusion of Eastern religions from his general attack on religion show at least a predisposition).
“…it is telling that Harris feels the need to include a chapter about Are atheists evil?”
Do tell? I’m not at all clear what you think this exposes about Harris?
I can explain for you why this inclusion was quite necessary in a book of this sort. Day in and day out, the American atheist is absolutely inundated with accusations from his Christian neighbor, that he is without morals, “spiritually” bankrupt, brimming with sin, in a word, evil.
The need for a look into the morality of the atheist was an important component of the discussion – esp. in a book addressing a ‘Christian Nation’.
Or more accurately, to show that no such connection can be made. A simple question; Do you honestly think that any of the evil that Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao perpetrated, could be said to have been done in the name of ‘rationality’? I’d be quite curious to hear you justify that if it is your belief. I consider what these men did to be the very height of irrationality.
Yet Harris, and it seems you, continue to argue using points from people who are Christian and irrational. This doesn’t really seem fair. Also, I doubt that someone like, say, Stalin, would say they were being irrational. My main point is that either both types of irrational extremities (violent Christians and violent atheists) don’t need to be addressed, or they both do.
Regarding the inclusion of atheism in that quote, simply, nothing can be done in the name of atheism. It’s a statement without meaning. As I’m sure you’ve heard many times, atheism is simply the lack of a belief in a god. Nothing more. How you one do something ‘in the name of’ a lack of a belief?
Fair enough, then I’ll say that these men were atheists. The people who did violence and were Christian can still be compared to as a legitimate analogy. Atheists who do violence. Christians who do violence. I’d argue both are bad.
If you wish to tack on some other world view or belief system (secularism, humanism, etc.), they actually begin to carry some baggage, and one might say they did something in the name of some ideal that that particular world view or ideology holds. But then you are no longer talking exclusively about atheism.
Belief in a God can, however, give an objective standard by which all actions must be judged. Thus there is a better basis by which to reject certain actions than if there is no objective standard.
“Sam Harris accuses Christianity in particular…He goes on to attempt to disassociate atheism with these obvious atheists” by saying “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion…” [Here I’d like to note that this is completely deceptive.”
I will agree, within this section anyway, that he did seem to directly avoid saying that the men were atheists. It felt disingenuos to me. He does elsewhere, but that isn’t relevant. I have to concede that he might have been more direct here. I don’t appreciate the dodge either. That said…
“These men absolutely were enemies of organized religion and wholly atheist. Harris is attempting to downplay the evil of these men.] “
It’s entirely honest on his part to say ‘sometimes’ in this case, as Hitler was in the list. Hitler’s atheism, as you know, is quite debatable, and he was a staunch bedfellow with the Church as well (however opportunist that relationship may have been). It would have been inaccurate to claim that ‘all’ of his list were enemies of religion and that they were all atheists. I can’t say for sure that this is why he stated it this way, but it would have been inaccurate to do other wise.
“Isn’t it obvious that those who champion murder in the name of God are just as irrational as these atheists that Harris, Dawkins, and the like are quick to condemn as irrational?”
Arguing this is false in light of the points I’ve already made, but it seems to be the central issue, so I’ll address it again. To argue that Christianity is violent is to go against the core teachings of Christianity from its founding (and indeed the person of Christ) to the present day. Not only are the two core law statements to love God and neighbor, but Christ specifically condemns violence in all forms. To argue otherwise is to beg the question. Again, it would be easy to pick out violent examples from Scripture and debate them on a verse-by-verse basis, but that is not the core issue. Christianity teaches the entire Bible points to Christ at the center. What does Christ teach? Nonviolence.
This may sound like a variation of the “No True Scotsman” argument, but it isn’t, as we do have a strict definition of what it means to be Christian in the Bible. One need only look at what Christ Himself says and one can find what is indeed a “true Christian.” Not only that, but Paul, Peter, etc. are further examples of what Christianity means.
Again, I refer you to the above statements. Christians can use the very scripture their religion is based on to justify the evils they do. Atheists have no such justification. An atheist committing an act of violence must assume the responsibility solely on their own. There is no dogma to point to and say “See, that’s what happens when you are an atheist.”. No ancient scripture or holy text, no authorities from whom rules and such are handed down, only an individual making a choice.
Christians who use the Scripture to justify violence have missed what Christ himself says about violence. There can be nothing more clear than this when one simply reads what Jesus says.
“I’d argue that atheists like Stalin could defend their killing from an atheologically defensible position as well: personhood doesn’t matter, so we can kill as we please.”
There is no such position in existence. Not having a belief in a god says nothing of one’s beliefs about the worth of a human life. It does not put special value on it, nor does it devalue it – it says nothing at all about it – or anything else for that matter. It only denotes that one has no belief in a god.
Conceded. Though the atheism you are describing is a “soft atheism” that goes against the definition of atheism as seen in both the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. See further points about that here.
“I do, however agree that either side can use those beliefs (or lack thereof) to condone violent actions.”
How is it you arrive at some belief system (that would ‘condone’ an action), from the statement that one dose not have a belief in a god?
“His examples include preaching abstinence over use of condoms,…All of these are ad hominem attacks (or ad Deum)”
How is mentioning that the church preaches abstinence an ad hominem attack? I submit that it most certainly is not.
This seems ad hominem to me. Rather than attacking any specific argument, he is attacking, say, Catholics, for preaching abstinence. I’m almost willing to concede your point here except for the virulent nature of his attack in this section. I may be reading too much into it, but this passage seems full of emotional appeal and very much like an attack on people who would dare believe such things and less like a legitimate complaint.
I won’t comment on your subsequent three fold explanation – mostly in the interest of length (this is already ridiculously long!). I’m quite interested in discussing morality as it pertains to religion and atheism in the future though. Let’s hope we can return to this.
Well. That’s quite a lot. More than enough for now, I’m sure. Hopefully it wasn’t too terribly dull, and I’ve left you with something worthy of response. Hope to hear from you soon,
Another thing I’d love to point out is that Harris is a wonderful example of the argument from atheism (page 5 in PDF) which I address https://jwwartick.com/2009/07/24/the-argument-from-atheism/.This argument is demonstrably false because by definition a theist is not an atheist, check out the blog for a longer rebuttal.