The Illogic of Sam Harris

I have earlier linked to a recent article by Sam Harris entitled God’s dupes which is subtitled, “Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics — and are every bit as delusional.” Some atheists seem to be distancing themselves from Harris, and this article is probably a good example of why this is so. While Harris has plenty of attitude, he doesn’t seem to have a good grasp on logic.

Harris states, “The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead…” Now, on its face this is a ridiculous statement, which has to be based solely on Harris’ presuppositional belief that there is no god, and therefore no one can possibly have good enough reason to believe in one. If he would just say this, then we could all just accept this as his opinion. I can disagree with him based on my own presupposition that God exists, and therefore everyone has a reason or reasons to believe. However, it appears as though his appeal here is to reason and logic, so it needs to be evaluated on that level.

The mystery person known as Mike Gene over at Telic Thoughts has a bit of fun with this, pointing out the obvious problems with making such an outrageous claim. Follow the last link and read it for yourself.

The big issue here is, as MG points out, is that Harris has apparently established his own subjective standard for what is a “good reason.” He is no doubt aware of the plethora of books and articles written on the reasons for faith – some more subjective (such as Francis Collins’ The Language of God), and others more objective from people like Josh McDowall and Lee Stobel. You or I might not buy all of their arguments, however many of them would qualify as “good reasons.”

For example, in spite of the many liberal theologians and others (I almost said “crackpots” but I’m trying not us resort to using pejorative language to show how fair and balanced I can be) who try to pass off the Gospels as little more than myth, there are a number of very good reasons to believe they are accurate, contemporary accounts of the ministry of Jesus. Richard Bauckham has written a recently published book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that provides “good reasons” to believe that these were actually eyewitness accounts. For an interesting review and summary of the book, you can read A. E. Harvey’s review at Times Online. (So much to read, so little time…) As I said in my Easter post, the historical basis for the resurrection is quite strong.

So, back to Harris. The thesis for this article is that religious moderates are just as bad as religious extremists, because they support the basic theme that extremists distort and abuse. A quote:

Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

What’s wrong with this picture? Or, what’s right with this picture? Can anybody not see the flaws in this thinking? Why, then, can’t Harris? He might just as blame everyone who flies the major airlines for the 9-11 attacks.

Harris drifts a bit in his article, moving onto another illogical argument, that because atheists can change their lives for the better, too, the changed life of a Christian is not evidence of God’s existence. Now, a changed life may not be objective proof – given that there can be other factors – does not mean it is not evidence of God. Just because deer tracks can be faked does not mean that most deer tracks are evidence of a deer.

Harris also states, “there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. … It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.” Here again, Harris relies on his presuppositions about what everyone else (in his opinion) cannot know. Just because he doesn’t know my middle name doesn’t mean that other people don’t know it. There is no way to prove what all other people do not know – it is at best a presumption based upon a presupposition as to what cannot be known.

Unless of course Sam Harris is omniscient and therefore a god … but then, he couldn’t be an atheist.

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2 Responses to The Illogic of Sam Harris

  1. me says:

    Actually, I think the term atheism does include both definitions, although I do understand the difference. However, to say “I do not believe in a God,” I think you must define the word “believe” as the logical conclusion would appear to be that if you don’t believe in a God, you have concluded that God probably doesn’t exist. There is obviously a continuum of belief – non-belief; at what point do you simply say, “I believe there is no God?”

    However, I think you have mis-characterized Christianity, and have stooped to using pejorative terms in the process. That’s ok, I’m not offended; I just wanted to point that out.

    To address your 3 main reasons, I have to disagree completely:

    1. the fear of death – at least for me – remains. I have certain beliefs about the after-life, but that doesn’t remove the fear.

    2. Real Christianity doesn’t relieve any responsibility to the world; if anything, it focuses it. One of Jesus’ main criticisms to the Jews (see the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) was that they failed in their responsibility to the world.

    3. Anyone who studies theology knows that Christianity provides no simple answers… there are those (I know many, in fact) who adhere to what I myself call a Christian Superstition, which does rely on oversimplified platitudes. However, this does not represent historic Christianity.

    Also, Presuppositionalism is everywhere, and not just with the various religions – it also exists in the sciences, etc. We all have our paradigms, replete with presuppositions; for example, the belief that we can even know whether or not there is a God (or anything else) is itself a presupposition.

    Glad to hear that you’re a skeptic; I am, too, which drives a lot of my friends crazy.

    Thanks for writing, feel free to drop in any time.

  2. davechuck says:

    I think you’ve distorted the more accurate meaning of atheism (as the atheists whom I know would define it anyway) with perhaps a common misconception.

    To most Atheists, Atheism says,
    -I do not believe in a God.
    To most Atheists, Atheism does NOT say,
    – I believe there is no God.

    See the difference?

    Anyway, atheism simply say “show me the evidence” and certainly has no poetic wishful thinking or comforting notions of paradise driving it.
    It’s easy however, for any simple person of average intelligence, with common sense, to see why most Christians (or any brainwashed religious persons) will bend over backward to bend reality.

    Three main, obvious reasons people defend Christian superstition so foolishly, desperately, and with such blind bias is because it provides these false comforts..

    1 It partly numbs (or buries) their fear of death.
    2. It relieves them of any sort of responsiblity in the world.
    3. And last but not least, it’s mythology provides simple anwers to life by dismissing it’s deepest, most uncomfortable mysteries and paradoxes.

    C’mon, Presuppositionalism? Geet outta here.
    Presuppositionalism is just semantic, apologetic, pseudo-philosophically contrived quackery. Just a “song n’ dance” invented to make supernatural hogwash sound scholarly.

    I actually define my own philosophy as that of a “Skeptic” and a “realist”, since the meaning of “atheist” and “agnostic” are often widely misunderstood by the general public. And I regularly to allow doubts to shine light on the assumption i hold, because hostility to doubt, reinforces ignorance. Just as faith reinforces superstion.


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