After a week off from blogging to celebrate Christmas, it’s time to start posting again, well sort of. Over the next few weeks I am going to re-post a series I wrote on the atheist Sam Harris from my previous blog from five years ago. I have found it is a helpful exercise to read the works of people with whom you disagree, and then write responses. It challenges your own beliefs and forces you to think more critically about what you actually believe.
Sam Harris became famous with his book The End of Faith. The title pretty much gives his thesis away: religious faith must end. In this respect, his book is very much like Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. All three of them are essentially a re-hashing of the arguments put forth by Sigmund Freud 100 years ago, but with a little more hostility and bite. I will say up front that anyone who takes the time to actually investigate their arguments and claims will find their arguments are extremely weak and not convincing at all. They construct straw men, get basic definitions and concepts of Christianity wrong, misunderstand the Bible, and indulge overheated rhetoric than actual reality.
In any case, in my next few posts I will take you on a journey through the mind of Sam Harris, and we will go on sight-seeing tours of his various arguments against “faith” in his book, The End of Faith. Essentially, Harris’ arguments can be summed up within four categories:
(A) Harris has a distinct point of view regarding the origin of the Bible and other ‘holy books’
(B) Harris discusses what he feels are outrageous claims made in the Bible
(C) Harris describes what he views are the “core beliefs” of most religions, and Christianity in particular
(D) Harris makes tremendous claims regarding the “salvific effects” of science and reason
As I will show, most of what he says on all these topics is basically wrong.
The Harris Bible…or Koran…or Book of Mormon
One of the first things I noticed in Harris’ book was that he displays a tendency to over-generalize virtually any and everything regarding religion, to the point where he seems unable to distinguish between clear differences between religions. If one was to summarize his entire book in one sentence, it would have to be this: “All religions are basically the same, and they’re all oppressive and evil.” Well, they’re not all basically the same. (Let me recommend Steven Prothero’s book, God is Not One—educated people know that all religions are not the same.)
Case in point, let’s look at how Harris characterizes the Bible and the holy books of other religions. Early on in his book, he writes,
“…most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility” (12).
A bit later he writes specifically on the Koran and the Bible:
“Because they are believed to be nothing less than verbatim transcripts of God’s utterances, texts like the Koran and the Bible must be appreciated, and criticized, for any possible interpretations to which they are susceptible.” (34)
Anyone who has any knowledge about the Christian idea of inspiration and the canon of Scripture will be able to see the problem in Harris’ characterization. Let’s take the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible as our examples. Muslims claim that there is perfect and heavenly Koran, of which the earthly Koran is a partial but still perfect replica. They believe Allah revealed it in the Arabic language, and therefore no translation of the Koran is truly the Koran. So it is correct to say that Muslims claim the Koran is the perfect and infallible book that came from the mouth of God, through the angel Gabriel, and recorded by Muhammad—he didn’t so much write the Koran, as he recorded the dictation. As a Christian, I obviously don’t believe that, but that is what they claim.
The Book of Mormon is actually presented in a similar fashion by Mormons. Joseph Smith claims to have translated the Book of Mormon from some secret golden tablets with the use of certain “seer stones”—he did not so much write the Book of Mormon, as he simply divinely translated it. I don’t believe this claim either, but that is what Mormons claim. Consequently, both the Koran and the Book of Mormon claim to have more or less “dropped from heaven.” No human authorship is attributed to either one. Both Muhammad and Joseph Smith acted nothing more than just secretaries. So what Harris says is right…about those books.
On the contrary, with the exception of ultra-Fundamentalists like Ken Ham, nowhere in Christian history has such type of view ever been attributed to the Bible.
The unique claim regarding the Bible is that of inspiration. Neither Muhammad nor Joseph Smith was inspired to write—they simply took dictation. The Christian claim of inspiration fully acknowledges real human authorship of the various books in the Bible. The writer of I and II Samuel used his creative gifts and insights to fashion his account of the lives of Samuel, Saul, and David. When Paul wrote his letters to various churches, he employed his pharisaic education, his rhetorical gifts, and his inspired insights to address very specific issues within those churches. The same could be said for every single author of both the Old and New Testaments.
Inspiration does not mean that God simply wrote what he wanted through the authors, as if they were some kind of mindless automons. Unfortunately, there are some ultra-Fundamentalist Christians who actually have this caricatured idea of inspiration that the “human authors” somehow went into a trance while God took over their minds for a bit while he wrote out what he wanted. Such a view should be rejected—it has no standing in Church history.
Inspiration is simply the belief and acknowledgment that these human authors were in some way inspired by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. It simply cannot be easily defined or explained. Even Paul acknowledges this in his own letters. At one time he’ll say, “Now, what I’m about to say is just my opinion—it’s not a command from the Lord,” and then later he’ll say, “Now this is a command from the Lord.”
The point is that the Christian understanding of the inspiration of the Bible is considerably different than the Muslim understanding of the Koran or the Mormon understanding of the Book of Mormon. In the Bible we see human beings writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—there is a connection and interaction between the human and the divine, and that is important to realize. We do not simply see “God writing a book.” It is this false caricature that Harris is objecting to—and rightly so. The problem is that he doesn’t feel the need or inclination to actually find out what the traditional Christian understanding of inspiration really is.
Furthermore, the whole concept of “infallibility” is a slippery and often misunderstood idea that even Christians don’t quite get. Ultra-Fundamentalists take this to mean that every single punctuation mark is purposely put there by God—that God wrote the Bible “perfectly,” and that it is 100% literally correct and perfect in every single way. Such a view, though, is not biblical and it does not truthfully reflect the entire Church history regarding biblical understanding and interpretation. We have manuscripts that differ from each other—the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has made a small fortune blowing these differences out of proportion—but 99% of these differences are either minor grammatical differences or things that do not affect the meaning of the text in any way.
Nevertheless, it is wrong to claim that the Bible is a “perfect” book—it is an inspired canon of Scripture through which God reveals the true nature of Himself, human beings, and His creation. It gives us an inspired testimony and witness to how God worked through Old Testament Israel and the early first century church. It is this idea of canon of scripture that I now want to touch upon.
Harris the Literary Critic?
But before I do, I want to comment on another quote by Harris:
“The belief that certain books were written by God (who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself) leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict, past and present” (35).
I find it amusing when people like Harris fancy themselves literary critics. When he quips that it is “difficult to fathom” how a book supposedly written by God could be outdone by a mere mortal like Shakespeare, I just shake my head. My major in college was English, and I love Shakespeare. He was a literary genius. For years I have enjoyed teaching Shakespeare in my high school British Literature classes. At the same time, though, having focuses on the literary artistry of the Bible in my graduate school years, I have to say that the literary artistry and poetry throughout the Old and New Testaments is breath-taking, beautiful, and nothing short of genius…and yes, inspired.
It is easy for people in the English-speaking world to acknowledge the literary genius of Shakespeare because he was a writer that came from our common cultural heritage. It is harder for someone, though, to fully understand and appreciate the literary genius of a writer from a different culture who writes in a different language, simply because it is from a different culture and different language. Different cultures have different ways of writing literature, with different tendencies and emphases. On top of that, I’ll be honest, even the best English translations of the Bible pale in comparison to reading it in the original languages. Translations can get quite tepid.
One can only begin to appreciate it if one takes the time to learn the language and understand the culture. Obviously Harris doesn’t do either. His comment, therefore, is more akin to something like, “If Mozart was really any good, then why didn’t he write music more like Arianna Grande?” I mean, hey, Arianna Grande might be a good and talented singer, but I think it’s safe to say Mozart was a bit more talented. Harris’ comments reveal more about him than they do about either the Bible or Shakespeare for that matter.
The Canon of Scripture
Harris’ claim concerning how “these books were written by God,” also is fundamentally wrong when it comes to Christianity. I’ve already touched upon the concepts of inspiration and infallibility. Now I want to touch upon the concept of canon. Canon means “measuring stick” or “ruler.” The New Testament canon was acknowledged and formed during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. It is the collection of the early first century documents written by the early Church.
Now, the very fact that Christians have a canon of scripture points to the reality that they are able to interact with the Bible as they use it to address every day human concerns. The canon of scripture gives us the earliest witness of the first Christians regarding Jesus Christ and how he fulfilled the entire Old Testament story. If you want to understand the original testimony of the first believers, look at the Bible, just like if you want to understand the original views of the Founding Fathers, you look at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Because we have preserved this canon of scripture, it is able to help us “measure” what various people say, claim, and do throughout history. When C.S. Lewis writes Mere Christianity, we can compare what he says to what the early church said, and come to the conclusion, “Yes, this lines up with that” and therefore we acknowledge the inspiration, if you will, of Lewis’ writing. When faced with problems like homelessness, oppression, and corruption, we are able to look at the witness of the inspired first believers and conclude, “Clearly God wants us to address these issues and try to bring healing and justice to the world.” The canon of scripture helps guide us in tackling the various tough issues that challenge us every day.
Consequently, when Harris says it “leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict,” I don’t even think he knows what he means. He seems to be saying, “Religious people can’t deal with real problems in the world.” But that would be a flat-out denial of the countless ways in which Christians have, based on the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the witness and canon of scripture, tackled human rights issues throughout history: hospitals, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, charities, the abolition of the slave trade…the list could go on.
Them People in Biblical Times..Theyz just dumm!
Another quote by Harris that deserves mention is the following: “The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology” (45).
The statement certainly has flair, but it betrays a frightfully high degree of historical ignorance. Indeed, I doubt that even Harris really believes this. The writers of the Old Testament lived among pyramids and ziggurats, during the great empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—I’m pretty sure it took a much higher level of technology than a mere wheelbarrow to build the buildings, temples, and monuments that those civilizations built. The New Testament writers wrote during the height of the Roman Empire who established the most thorough road system in history to that point. Their military technology was highly advanced (any ever see the opening scene in Gladiator?). They built temples, monuments, and war machines everywhere they went. Again, I’m pretty sure their technology was slightly more advanced than a wheelbarrow.
What Harris is really displaying is a case of modern arrogance. What he is really saying is, “Those people back then couldn’t be smart, because they didn’t have access to cars and smart phones!” He’s equating having technology with wisdom and intelligence. To be consistent, he’d have to say writers like Homer, Dante, and yes, even Shakespeare were worthless hacks because their societies couldn’t play Xbox. It is obvious that Harris here is more concerned with coming up with cleverly inflammatory statements than he is with accurately debating history and making coherent points to advance his argument.
Such is Harris’ take on the Bible. Have we learned anything about the actual Bible? No. Have we learned anything about Harris’ lazy analysis of the Bible? Most certainly.