A Long Response to Harris’ The End of Faith, Part 1 – Introduction

  • Part 1 – Introduction
  • Part 2 – Three minor objections
  • Part 3 – One major objection

In what is quickly becoming a favorite pastime for me, I recently finished Neoatheist Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and began composing a response.  As usual, I found myself overwhelmed at the outset of this venture.  Dr. Harris is now a well-known and well-respected figure, having been featured in major national magazines and news programs after the publication of his best-selling and award-winning book.  He is also one of the nation’s foremost proponents of atheism and a popular podcaster.  In contrast, I am a lowly theoretical chemist.

However, I feel compelled to write this essay because there is a notable absence of free, detailed, online Christian response to the work of the New Atheists.  That is not at all to say that Christians have been silent in response to the writings of the New Atheists; in fact, the last few years have seen the publication of numerous excellent responses to Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, Hitchens and their colaborers (see for instance Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Greg Gannsle’s A Reasonable God).  But much of the best work is, as it should be, published in books where it can be read carefully and thoughtfully.   Consequently, there is little that can be accessed readily, freely, and instantaneously.  My hope is that everyone who reads the New Atheists would have access to both sides, not immediately assuming that the ubiquity of Christian pop culture serves as a kind of replacement for a genuine consideration of Jesus’ claims or conversely that adherence to some form of cultural Christianity can ever supplant real, living faith in Christ.

In this essay, I will be considering the main argument of The End of Faith, as I have done with Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man previously.  I am aware that Harris published a sequel years later, which I have not yet read.  I apologize if some of my concerns have subsequently been addressed and can only plead temporary ignorance and personal exigencies as the reasons for this omission.  But because the issues addressed by Dr. Harris have been raised before, my hope is that by addressing them as they stood at the book’s publication, I will be addressing them in a form that has existed for centuries and will still be of help to readers.

Before any criticism of this book, I must begin with a heartfelt apology.  Chapters and chapters of this work should never have been written because they should never have happened.  At one point, Harris himself asks an important question (p. 84-85): How can anyone who claims to follow a man who taught his disciples to love their enemies treat people as the church has? Harris ultimately blames faith itself, and I although I disagree with his assessment, I want to ask precisely the same question: how can we?  How can we who claim to follow a man who bore the lash for us act this way?  It is wrong and it is evil.

Given what we know of Jesus and of our own culpability in His suffering, we ought to be the most meek and gentle of all people.  By my callous attitude, I dishonor Jesus every day in ways I know and I don’t know.  I am sorry.  Jesus tells his followers that the world may hate them – will hate them in fact.  But that hatred should come from seeing our despicable dependence on God, our stubbornness in denouncing and deploring evil, and our loathsome insistence that we are all sinners who desperately need Jesus for salvation.  After reading the church’s history of violence and oppression, I am left with a deep sense of my own responsibility for the evil in this world and long all the more for the day when God will put it all right.  All the same, readers need to Jesus himself apart from all the wickedness and evil done by we who profess to follow him.

One reason that I have chosen to start with a necessarily emotional and personal introduction is that The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason is not actually a reasoned argument, as one might expect from the title.  Instead, the book is a very well-constructed polemic, a careful cutting diatribe against the very idea of a personal, communicative God and the abuses that Harris feels such an idea necessarily entails.  To see the book functions best in this way, one need only consider its general structure.  The first two chapters “Reason in Exile” and “the Nature of Belief” examine and define faith itself; what do we mean when we say we believe something and how do belief and reason intersect?  Chapters 3 and 4 deal respectively with the historical atrocities committed by Christians and Muslims in the name of their faith.  Chapters 5 discusses some of the ways in which ancient religious practices still exert influence over modern-day legislation.  Finally, Chapters 6 and 7 lay out a positive vision for science and philosophy to supply our necessary spiritual resources and values.

Considering the book as a whole, it is remarkable how little space is given to any rational or intellectual argumentation about the validity of the claims of various religions.  For instance, Dawkins devotes the whole of Chapter 3 of The God Delusion to a refutation of the classical arguments for the existence of God as well as devoting all of Chapter 4 to a detailed attempt at a refutation of the Argument from Design.  On the Christian side, Keller devotes each of the first seven chapters of his book to answering different arguments for the non-existence of the Christian God such as “Why does God allow suffering?” or “How could there be only one true religion?”  The absence of any mention of these issues in The End of Faith points deeper than a mere difference in emphasis.  Instead, it points to a difference in goals.  Rather than achieve some purely intellectual refutation of God’s existence, Harris mounts an emotional attack against the havoc that religion has wreaked against the average person in terms of emotional and physical suffering.

An appropriate response to Harris’ book must take into account these goals.  It is certainly possible to show that Harris’ arguments are insufficient to disprove God’s existence.  Of course they are insufficient.  It doesn’t matter.   Harris’ goal is not to prove that God must not exist or does not exist, but to show that the existence of the God described by traditional religions is undesirable.  Harris’ goal is not to show that God is absent, but that God is not good.  He reasons that once we have lost the desire for God to exist, we will lose all our motivation to show that God does exist.  I agree with him.

It is not enough to believe that God exists, certainly as Harris would define belief.  All of Jesus’ teaching assumes God’s existence as the most basic of premises.  The real question addressed by the Bible is not the question of God’s existence, but the question of God’s glory: how can God’s goodness coexist with human beings who are so bent on evil?  How and why can God love humans who are so bent on loving only themselves?  For this reason, I tend to find abstract discussions of God’s existence hopelessly dry.  If God only exists and does nothing else, His existence is quite immaterial.  In contrast, Harris’ approach can be very fruitful.  The question of God’s existence cannot and should not be addressed as a purely intellectual exercise any more than a man dying of thirst can approach the question of the existence of water with bland intellectual curiosity.  Either God exists and His glory is my very reason to live or His existence is a lie that ought to be subjected to ridicule wherever it is encountered.  In the same way, I think it will be very helpful never to keep the question of the goodness of God very far from the question of the existence of God.  As we consider Harris’ book, we need to constantly ask not only “could such a God exist?” but “what should be my heart’s response to such a God’s existence?”

If The End of Faith is mainly a polemic, then its agenda can be expressed by the simple thesis: faith leads to misery.  Of course, short words are slippery words so it helps to be very careful in defining our terms.  Harris’ definition of the word “faith” varies slightly depending on context, but can best be defined as “belief without evidence.”  A variety of quotes serve to illustrate this point, but Chapter 1 in particular provides the reader with Harris’ general view of faith.  On page 15, he characterizes faith as a set of “unjustified beliefs”.  On page 19, he contrasts belief based on faith to belief which is based on evidence and argues that faith is not “compatible with reason”.  Beliefs based on faith are those for which “no evidence is even conceivable [emphasis in original]” (p.23) , which are held “without evidence [emphasis in original]” (p. 27), which hare “sanctified by something other than evidence [emphasis in original]” (p. 29).   As Harris goes on to show in great detail, belief in the absence of evidence has been a source of near-constant misery for the human race.  In particular, belief in a God who communicates to mankind, the God of the Abrahamic faiths who has a personal will which is expressed through Scripture, has caused untold suffering to both believers and unbelievers, the faithful and the faithless.  Only by destroying faith itself and eradicating all belief that demands credence independent of evidence can we hope to create a society in which all people can enjoy true happiness.

Although a summary of Harris’ book can be provided in a few sentences or by a well-written book jacket, it can’t do justice to the weight of Harris’ concerns or his skill in delineating them.  We are outraged and ought to be outraged by the crimes committed in the name of faith.  If we ignore the legitimate concerns raised by Harris, we do so at our peril.  But not far into The End of Faith some significant cracks appear in the foundation of Harris’ argument.  Not only do I believe that Harris’ critique of faith in general is inadequate, but I believe his assessment of our condition points in the opposite direction than he intends.  If we truly understand the depth of our need, we are pointed not away from faith but towards God and His salvation in Jesus.  So to begin, let me start with three minor problems raised immediately when considering Sam Harris’ assessment of faith as the root of human misery and then trace these cracks to their origin in Harris’ basic premise about our deepest need.

Next: Part 2 – Three minor objections

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