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A Short Response to Some of Sam Harris’ claims15 min read

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This is the text of one of my comments buried in one of the threads here.  I thought it "good" enough to post as a main article.  I am responding to this.  The numbered headers are Sam Harris’ words.

1. Many who claim to have been transformed by Christ’s love
are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While you may
ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that the hatred these people
feel comes directly from the Bible. How do I know this? Because the
most deranged of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.

While he does not want to ascribe this to human nature, I do, but not
in the simple manner he probably is thinking of. At any given time, a
significant proportion of xians are spiritually immature – either
because they are new, or because they live in one of the many blighted
churches that perpetuate spiritual immaturity (see Why Most Churches Suck). 

New converts to any new ideology need structure and don’t like
challenges to their faith. I’d say that much of the "murderous"
criticism he recieves is probably in large part due to immaturity.
However, he also says that he thinks it comes from the bible, not just
immature people. However, he ought to read the bible to determine that,
rather than depend on the people he is offending. And usually, the
mature people don’t oft respond – as the bible says, wisdom lies
quietly in the heart of the wise.

2. We agree that, if one of us is right, then the other is wrong. 

What follows is his list of bifurcated issues which I find to be
mistaken – I mean, by his logic, if he proves ONE thing wrong with my
view or right with his, then I must agree with him. That’s a bad trick
of logic, whether he knows it or not. I’ll give you some examples,

a. The Bible either is the word of God, or it isn’t.
Well, it depends entirely on what you mean by "the word of God." If you
define it too narrowly, it will be easy to disprove. For example, let’s
say I believe that the 1611 King James version of the bible is
word-for-word the "word of God." Well, if that is my definition, it
will be easy to disprove. The question would then be, does that
invalidate all other translations? Probably. Then what about new
manusripts that prove that parts of the KJV were not translated
correctly? Damn! The Bible is no longer the word of God! So right off,
I’m not buying into his obvious trap.

b. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a real Christian is to believe that all other faiths are in error and profoundly so.
First, we must agree on what the word "salvation" means – scripture
talks about salvation of the soul, of the spirit, and the destruction
of the body. So while we may find healing and relief for our souls in
the truths of psychology or self-realization via Buddhism, this is
perhaps not the type of salvation we would be talking about when
talking about Jesus being the only way.

Secondly, as I have mentioned occaisionally (but I should write a
whole article on this), there are two types of truth, empirical and
revealed. Empirical truths, like the truth of sowing and reaping
(a.k.a. karma), are shared by all enduring systems of faith. Anyone can
divine these spiritual principles from observation and experimentation.
However, revealed truths, like what happens after we die, can only be
taken on faith – so you have to choose whom you believe, if anyone.

So you can believe the revealed truths of xianity without assigning
all other faith systems to the scrapyard – in fact, since Buddhism
focuses much more on observation, they actually have as much or more
empirical truth to share than xianity. So I can choose to believe
xianity’s revealed truths, while garnering empirical truths from it and
other faiths. So I don’t buy into his strict either/or equation –
again, it’s a cheap trap. Unfortunately, most xians do not make this
distinction between types of truth, and are therefore forced logically
to say that all other faiths are made up of lies, or at best, are lies
clothed in truth to fool people (as it is written, the Devil clothes
himself as an angel of light).

c. If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I
should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, I have
persuaded others, many close to me, to persist in a state of unbelief.
They, too, will languish in "everlasting fire" (Matthew 25:41). If the claims of Christianity are true, I will have realized the worst possible outcome of a human life.

Well, no argument there.

3. Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you now have for being a Christian.

This is not a bad objection, that most groups who trust in their
scriptures treat them as the "word of god." However, I believe xianity
not merely because of this, but for other reasons, including:

  • it’s soteriology – that is, it’s emphasis on salvation as a gift,
    not by works. No other system of faith, not judaism (arguably),
    buddhism, or islam works this way (pun intended). None other is so
    freeing and truly shows both the kindness and justice of the divine,
    not discarding either.
  • it deals well with real world issues like guilt, forgiveness, restitution, justice, relationships, you name it.
  • it translates well into civil government (see Cultural Mandate at wikipedia)
  • it is well validated historically
  • while it does have some supernatural stuff in it, it doesn’t
    involve worship of elephants or people with 6 arms or a man who went on
    jihads. Now, you might have some objections to the xian supernatural
    stuff, but that’s just my perspective on this one.

For the record, there are different types of "biblical literalists". I’m sure he is taking on Biblicists primarily, and not those who are less stringent like the Contextual Literalists.

4. Muslims are convinced that Muhammad’s pronouncements on these subjects, as on all others, are infallible.

One of the unique features of xianity is that Jesus claimed to be even
more than Muhammad, and lived an amazing life AND rose from the dead to
prove his point. Muhammad lived a life of treachery and sexual
perversion, and is now dead.

I’ve never heard a Muslim sing "Mohammed set me free", mostly
because Islam is a religion of bondage to the law. But you can find
millions who will tell you that Jesus set them free – just because Joe
Murderer tells you that his way is the only way doesn’t invalidate
anyone else’s similar claim. Each should be looked at for it’s value
proposition – that’s what reason is for, and why reason should be used
not only to invalidate sources of faith, but to validate. Perhaps the
author should read my essay Dangers is the Search for Truth – sounds like he has gone afoul of at least one principle.

I understand the author’s problem with everyone claiming that their
way is the only way, but that does not mean they are all wrong – some
claims are more credible than others, and logically, ONE or NONE could
be right. And Jesus backed up his claims.

So when the author asks "Why don’t you find these claims convincing?
Why don’t you lose any sleep over whether or not you should convert to
Islam?" – there’s your answer. And that’s a simple answer. The author
should go read some of Lee Strobel’s books if he can’t tell the
difference between these claims. But maybe he’s just playing Devil’s

5. Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way
every Muslim views Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.

That is a valid objection, and a good perspective to consider. I have
and will continue to consider the infallibility claims of the
scriptures, and they are not without their difficulties. That does not
invalidate the xian message, but it does make you consider how you
approach the scriptures. However, you don’t have to go to the extreme
liberal side, where you choose what you do and do not like. You can
still use logic and reason to determine how to interpret and apply

6. But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience.

Well, now he goes on a long tirade about how HE would do prophecy if he
were God. I understand his argument – that the vague nature of biblical
prophecy can be done without any special knowledge, so what makes
people think it is so exact and convincing? Well, I’m sure it is not as
exact as he would like it, but that doesn’t mean that it is all inexact
– some of it is pretty specific.

Part of the lack of exactness of it
may have to do with the possibility that while certain events are set
in time, others are not and depend on human agency. You might want to
check out What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The Current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge.  God’s omniscience doesn’t mean that he knows what you are going to do next…or does he?  :)

His following littany of "why doesn’t God tell us how to cure
suffering like cancer if he is kind and omniscient" is understandable –
it is the age old, and probably most serious challenge to faith – the
problem of evil. Where did it come from, why did God allow it, why
doesn’t he DO something? There are answers to such questions, none of
them totally satisfactor in my opinion.

However, my approach is thus –

  • There are some questions that I *have* answered for myself, and these
    keep me in faith
    – just because I can’t understand some things doesn’t
    mean that the answers I do have are invalid. There are a lot of reasons
    to believe, even if all questions aren’t answered.
  • We must not just ask the question "does it make sense to me,
    and do I like it" but "is it true?" Those are not the same question.
  • We may need a different perspective. We could ask "how could a
    loving God allow someone to go to (or choose) hell?" Alongside that, we
    should also ask "how could a loving and JUST God allow anyone who has
    sinned into heaven at all?" –
    Our idea of what is good and just is contaminated with our own
    self-interest and need to justify our sinfullness as "not that bad."
    This is why, in the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-24),
    Jesus challenges his idea of good, because he thinks he is good enough
    to get in as he is, being a "good" person. "There is none good but God"
    is Jesus’ definition of good. There is a chance that God will give everyone another chance before
    the judgment, and after their death when they realize that Jesus is
    real, and the true way. However, scripture does not indicate that.
  • This comparison might help.  If God was loving, would he let children starve to death? – The fact is, children do starve to death. So either God is not real
    or loving, or there is another answer – and that answer could be that
    God has given us free will, and we have perverted it, and WE allow
    children to die because of our wickedness.  Same line of reasoning can be applied to the question "if God loves
    us, how could he create anyone he KNEW was going to hell?" Becuase
    maybe it’s just not his fault.
  • What does God know? – The reality of both predestination and free will is a paradox. But
    many theologians have suggested that while God knows the outcome of
    things because he is outside of time, he does NOT know in this moment
    what you or I will choose.  Again, you might want to check out What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge

7. I would point out, however, that billions of other human
beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences-but they
had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while
making art or music, or while contemplating the sheer beauty of nature.
There is no question that it is possible for us to have profoundly
transformative experiences. And there is no question that it is
possible for us to misinterpret these experiences and to further delude
ourselves about the nature of the universe.

Valid point. That doesn’t invalidate anyone’s experiences, and neither
does it invalidate xianity. And many have converted between these
systems, so perhaps they found something wanting in their older system
of belief, and maybe some experiences are more profound than others.
Why else would they convert?

Plenty of people have left these systems for the relief of xianity.
One of my favorite conversions is that described by M. Scott Peck in
Further Along the Road Less Traveled, where he documents his conversion
from Zen to Xianity.

8. If you have read my letter this far, one of two things has
happened. Either you have perceived some error that is genuinely fatal
to my argument, or you have ceased to be a Christian. Please don’t
hesitate to contact me with any errors you may have found. You could
yet save me the torments of hell.

Do I need to send him a letter?