This article is written by Sam Harris, a fairly fundamentalist atheist in the ilk of Richard Dawkins. I first heard about him in a Wired article that describes how Atheism has fallen on pretty hard times as of late, and personalities like Dawkins and Harris are trying to rally the troops to be evangelical atheists of a sort: boldly sharing the Gospel of Atheism with believers.
The only thing that I come away from this article wholeheartedly agreeing with is that Christians far too easily dismiss atheists as people who can’t find any meaning in life. A sad, sorry lot to pitied. This is of course far too simplistic. That being said, Harris also misunderstands a lot and promotes some typical atheistic arguments that assume that secular naturalism wedded to the scientific method is the only true epistemology. The irony is that the presuppositions of this are unprovable by its own methods, leading to atheism and secular naturalism being a faith position of its own. For further exploration of this, read Dallas Willard’s The Faith of Unbelief, and Halden Doerge’s excellent series of blog posts on Theology and Science in the Postmodern World. These will go far to building the case that atheism is a kind of faith. From this framework, it becomes easy to see that Harris assumes that scientific rationalism has the inside track over against faith, while blinded to the fact that he has faith himself. I’ll now deal with some of his myths and responses.
1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.
This one is funny because, while Harris shows that most atheists believe life to have meaning, what he has given here is a red herring. Given that atheism is a faith position, of course they will then be able to find beliefs about meaning from within that context. However, the more pertinent argument here is that atheists do not seem to have as much ground for basing their ideas of meaning around than Christians. Theirs is an impersonal, mechanistic, chance-driven world. Christians proclaim the world to be be created and sustained by the trinitarian God who infuses the world with His loving presence.
2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.
A useless argument in any direction. Humankind has proven its ability to use whatever means necessary to pursue depraved ends. I completely agree with Harris in saying that “no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”
3) Atheism is dogmatic.
Harris attacks the sacred writings of various religions, and goes on to say that “One doesn’t have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs.” Agreed. I reject atheism’s unjustified religious beliefs.
4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.
This part was just plain confusing to me. Harris tries to say that it’s chance & natural selection that gives us our biological diversity. This is really a non-argument. Natural selection has nothing to work with if chance evolutionary mutations do not come first. So yes, atheists must actually believe that everything originates in chance, even if natural selection is a secondary process that goes to work on what chance produces.
5) Atheism has no connection to science.
This part is interesting. Harris pulls out some stats saying that while 90% of the American general public believes in a personal God, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. I think that this goes to show that scientists, by and large have gone through an excellent catechesis indoctrinating them into the tenets of the faith of secular naturalism. In order to practice their faith, it is inevitable that most would become atheistic or at least agnostic.
6) Atheists are arrogant.
Some are. So are some Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. But Harris takes this opportunity to show that he believes Atheists to have superior reason to be arrogant. Right.
7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.
This is another one that says a whole lot while saying nothing. A truly spiritual experience for the Christian is interaction with the trinitarian God. Harris has defined spiritual experience in suitably generic terms so that he can attribute them to any faith group, atheism included.
He then takes a dig at Christianity, saying that we can’t “be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.” This is just bad writing, since he suddenly switches from talking about his generic ideas of spiritual experience to epistemology. I won’t deal with Harris’ actual epistemological presupposition here, other than to say that he has defined the rules of true epistemology according to his faith position.
8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.
Harris says that “Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not.” Even the most coarse theology can easily see that God is omniscient, humans are not, and therefore we can easily say that there are vast limits to human understanding.
Harris also says that “From the atheist point of view, the world’s religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe.” This is another statement that is only valid if one shares Harris’ atheistic viewpoint. I would say that from a Christian point of view, the universe is robbed of its immensity and beauty by atheism in that we believe that the universe speaks to God’s character and reveals His glory to all who look for it.
9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.
Harris says that “Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine.” I agree. The same could be argued against atheists who argue for the science’s benefits to society. This doesn’t mean that it gives the best account of reality, just that it works.
10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.
In most cases I’ve had problems with both Harris’ listed arguments against Atheism and his rebuttals. But in this case, I flat out disagree with Harris and agree with the argument listed here. I would not imply that atheists are necessarily immoral people, since there are few (if any) people who live out the full implications of what they believe.
Harris’ arguments against morality from religions fails to understand the difference between theology and the Bible (or other religious texts). Few theologians would take instances of violence in the Bible as proscriptive, but rather descriptive of real human life. The teachings of Jesus would also condemn this brutality.
Again, Harris is out of his element when he says that both the Bible and the Koran condone slavery. I do not know much about the Koran, so I won’t speak to that. However, reading Philemon and Galatians 3:28 reveal a view to slavery that was incredibly subversive at its time. Not to mention that anti-slavery movements were primarily spearheaded by Christians because of their Christian convictions, which flatly contradicts his statement that “We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely.”
This got very long, but I found myself continually wanting to engage with the gaping holes in Harris’ arguments. I’m sure that my own arguments could be a little more tight, but I hope that this shows that atheism is a religion of its own riddled with problems, paradoxes and inconsistencies. Its premise that reason alone must account for all of reality (and its corollary that there is nothing beyond the natural world) is a statement of faith that is, in the end, unprovable by its own methodology.