A Long Response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith
- Three minor objections - faith and the alternatives
- One major objection - the unavoidable ought
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. Mr. 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 website commentator. In contrast, I am always several years out of date and have attracted no real interest outside my immediate circle of friends. But I feel compelled to write this essay for two reasons. First, there is a notable absence of a free, 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 (hence all the Wikipedia references in my essays). 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. Second, my concern is for the glory of God. On this score, I have no real concern whatsoever. God has chosen to exalt Christ and in Him to display all His love, justice, holiness, goodness, and mercy. But the business of God’s glory is our only real business. If I can, by my writing, show forth in any way God’s goodness to me or can compel anyone at all to come to Christ, I will be overjoyed. God is good and I desire to spend as much time as I can reflecting on that fact.
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 my mistakes. But because the issues addressed by Mr. Harris are indeed eternal issues that 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 our Lord and of our own culpability in His suffering, we ought to be the most meek and gentle of all the rubbish that finds its way under the world’s feet. 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. I beg you to consider 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 emphases. 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 prove 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.
As I said at the outset, I found Sam’s book challenging, bracing, and of great importance. If Harris’ central thesis is that the world would be better off without faith, then we need to take this thesis seriously on its own terms. What he is offering us appears to be an entirely new approach to knowledge, swept clean of the must and stench of thousands of years of ignorance: knowledge based on truth; knowledge based on facts; knowledge based on science. This is the alterative that Harris offers up to us alongside and underneath his secondary attacks on faith. It is a compelling vision. Something in the human heart yearns for truth, not just because it is practical or helpful or useful, but because it is true. I think we are right to affirm this desire. We long for truth and we long rightly. But as I read Harris’ vision for knowledge of truth decoupled from faith, problems began to emerge. Is such a grasp of truth apart from faith desirable? Is it even possible? After some reflection, I believe it is not. Many of these issues are actually discussed in some detail in footnotes, which I hope will eventually make it into the main text of the book in a later edition. I urge all interested readers to go back and investigate these important (and often quite long) digressions, since the very core of Harris’ worldview resides therein. I have included page references from the first edition of the book wherever possible so that readers can follow along. As always, I welcome comments and will modify this essay for the sake of clarity (and validity!) whenever possible.
The first question we need to consider is whether truth without faith is even possible. I have actually written a fairly extensive essay on this subject (see The Necesssity of Faith ), but a short treatment here will also be instructive. As Harris mentions repeatedly, he defines faith as “belief in the absence of evidence.” In other words, faith is a belief about the way the universe actually works, about reality as it truly is, that is derived not from empirical reasoning or observation or experiment or the scientific method, but from some other source (“Believing a given proposition is a matter of believing that it faithfully represents some state of the world” p. 51; “To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief [emphasis in original]” p. 63; in fact p. 61-71 contain an excellent discussion of the relationship between belief and truth; see also Chapter 1, especially p. 23-25). When a faith-based belief is questioned, the answerer responds “That’s just the way it is.” There is no appeal to evidence, no appeal to objective reason. There is only flat assertion or dogmatic rejoinder. Based on the repeated characterizations of faith in Chapter 1, I think such a description of Harris’ view of faith is a fair one. Certainly, it is not a flattering one. We immediately recoil at what seems the small-mindedness of such an appeal. “Why is the sky blue? It just is.” “Why do stars appear in the sky at night? They just do.” There is no attempt to explore or exult, but rather a flat denial of any deeper, joyful reality at work. Faith, as Harris characterizes it, is the end of our humanity.
However, when we begin to probe Harris’ definition of faith a bit more deeply, we run into immediate problems. Fist, we have to ask the question: if we disallow any appeal to faith, then exactly which sources are allowed as valid sources of knowledge? Certainly, Harris affirms that reason and observation must be accepted as sources of truth. But what about intuition? Harris admits that most mathematicians would actually recognize intuition as the most valid means to truth (p. 182-183). Yet in some sense, intuition is also the most subjective of criteria. Even at our least generous, we have to admit that what is truly intuitive to one person may be wildly counterintuitive to another. What might seem obviously true to me might seem unclear or even obviously false to you. So should we allow intuition as a valid means to knowledge or should it be dismissed along with faith as irrational and subjective?
And what about authority? Harris himself addresses this question almost immediately in chapter 2, when he points out that those people we consider the most knowledgeable in any subject are almost always those whose information comes most from the authority of others (p. 73). For instance, I have a doctorate in theoretical chemistry and am probably a semi-expert in my field. And yet my knowledge of the absolutely crucial verifications of quantum mechanics on which I have based my entire career comes from second-hand (really, third- or fourth-hand) sources. None of us is really relying heavily on empirical observation after all, but on the reliability of reputed experts and authorities. Can we really say that such an appeal depends on evidence alone? Even with respect to the collective testimony of experts, results are mixed. History has shown us time and again that any appeal to the authority of experts is necessarily limited by the prevalent scientific understanding of a given culture. The geocentric universe, the four elements, and the moral influence theory of disease have all been in agreement with the overwhelming consensus of experts. The fact that these ideas were all eventually overturned is terrifying, not reassuring.
In his work, Harris attacks any epistemology that is based on dogma rather than on evidence. In other words, all claims to truth must be substantiated by objective evidence rather than mere assertion. But the key question that arises is whether this demand itself can be substantiated by evidence. I can loudly proclaim that evidence is the only criteria which is ultimately convincing. But is this idea itself derived wholly from evidence? Of course not. It is the barest of bare assertions. After all, how can I be sure that authority or intuition or dogmatic assertion are necessarily less valid sources of truth? What gives me such confidence?
In demanding that all truth claims be validated purely by evidence, Harris violates his own conditions. For instance, in a short but important footnote, Harris acknowledges that the ultimate defense against the objections of philosophers who would question his definition of ethics is exclusion, not of course because their ideas are different but because their ideas are wrong (p. 267, footnote 14). Such reasoning, he admits, is perfectly circular but is unfortunately unavoidable. In the same way, everyone knows that reason and logic alone are self-evident, even if such a claim is impossible to prove using reason and logic alone.
Harris’ real point seems to be that generalized skepticism is healthier and more desirable than credulity to any particular ethos. I would tend to agree. But as an absolute standard by which to determine truth and error, pure skepticism cannot pass its own tests. We simply cannot be skeptical of everything. We are left with faith, as Harris defines it, as an inescapable necessity of believing anything.
Note that I am not claiming here that evidence is useless or even that evidence is not extremely important. Far from it! If anyone doubts the role that objective evidence plays in the Christian faith, I can only point them to the extensive and tireless work of Christian apologists (see the work of William Lane Craig ,Gary Habermas , and others) in defending the objective historical reality of Christian truth claims for the last two thousand years. However, what I am claiming is that any attempt to construct a belief system without any element of what Harris calls faith will end in hopeless self-contradiction. These are not new ideas, but form the now classic postmodern response to the claims (some would say conceits) of modernism. In response to any rigorous, sustained inquiry about why we believe in the testimony of scientists or why we trust our own intuitive judgments or why certain truths seem obvious to us, we can only reply “That’s just the way it is.”
We can justify this appeal to bedrock truth in many different ways, but to me it appears to be a simple appeal to faith – to knowledge that is rigorously, logically, and ultimately independent of evidence. I refer interested readers to the Intermission section of Keller’s Reason for God, in which he examines the fundamental underpinnings of strong rationalism. To see how these issues affect our practical judgments on issues of central importance like Jesus’ Resurrection, readers also might want to read my essay Resurrection and Worldview .
In the preceding section, I pointed out that Sam Harris’ vision for knowledge without faith seems impossible. As human beings, we are always left appealing to some standard of truth with which there can be no argument. This standard could be the testimony of experts, our own intuition, or our own sensory perceptions, but in the end it all comes down to bare belief. Even an appeal to reason itself depends on an ultimately unreasoned assurance in the validity of reasoning. Such an objection that faith is unavoidable is not at all original and -in my opinion- is not very meaningful. After all, postmodernism can only show us that faith as Harris defines it is a necessary evil, but not that it is in any way good. Furthermore, we all recognize that some beliefs are more justified than others in a practical sense. When push comes to shove, there may not be a strict, rigorous, philosophical difference between believing in gravity and believing in the Tooth Fairy. Both might ultimately depend on our appeal to some infallible source. But no one in their right mind would climb into a plane driven by a pilot who disbelieved in gravity (see Harris’ remarks on p. 44!). In terms of our daily life, we may be forced to make use of something indistinguishable from faith, but surely these concerns don’t make a real difference in terms of how we navigate reality. Some people are simply more rational, more logical, and more coherent than others. Harris’ main point is that faith is bad and that reason is good, even if the philosophical lines between the two become blurred at times.
However, reflecting on Harris’ thesis that faith is intrinsically evil leads immediately to a second problem: the relationship between faith and truth. According to Harris’ definition faith is a belief about the nature of reality that is derived not from observation or experience, but from some other source. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Given this definition, it seems patently obvious that beliefs based on faith are far more likely to be wrong than beliefs based on evidence. Certainly, one might coincidentally hold a faith-based belief that happens to be true. But such a correspondence between my belief and reality would be accidental. In casting faith in this negative light, Harris is appealing to our deep desire as human beings for truth. In fact, it is our love for truth that makes it a negative light. We crave truth like plants crave the sun. It is this almost visceral desire that makes Harris’ indictment of faith so powerful. Part of us recognizes that anything that keeps us from truth ought to be discarded, no matter the cost. But this is where the second objection to Harris’ argument becomes so formidable.
Alongside a deep desire for truth, human beings also have a deep desire for happiness. To be clear here, I am not referring to a purely sensual, easily dismissed desire for physical pleasure, but an abiding desire for true fulfillment, contentment, and joy. We long for truth but we also long for joy. We long for reality, but we also long for peace. In fact, Harris himself must recognize this second deep longing because he often couches the language of his book in terms of happiness and fulfillment. Since this observation strikes at the very root of the problem of The End of Faith, I will reserve an extensive exposition for the second half of this essay. But for now, let me simply raise the issue in brief: within Harris’ worldview, what precisely is the relationship between truth and happiness?
As I have already stated, Harris’ book is not merely or even primarily an attack on faith, but the deliberate depiction of an alternative worldview that exalts human reason, logic, evidence, and truth. Harris’ goal is to commend this worldview to his readers; to appeal to them to cast aside any belief based on faith and instead to adopt a reason-driven view of the world. But for him to succeed in this attempt, Harris needs some kind of purchase on the human heart. After all, he is asking his readers to move from one view of reality to another. Consequently, he must make the case that his quest for truth through reason and logic is desirable. Again, I agree with him here. Truth is desirable simply because it is true, whether or not it is nice or wholesome or comforting. But I make this statement with much reservation and trembling as a Christian from within a Christian worldview. It is extremely unclear to me whether such a statement can be meaningful from within the secular worldview that Harris advocates.
To see the near instantaneous collision between truth and happiness within the worldview that Harris advocates, we need only consider an incredibly important statement that he makes on page 78, where he says that it is entirely possible to construct a secular, atheistic worldview in which it is “quite possible, even reasonable, to risk one’s life to save others”. I read this sentence more than once. It seems to me to hold the very key to Harris’ thinking. And yet, as far as I can tell, it has no referent. If any readers can show me where this particular example is explained in more detail, I would honestly be very grateful; I may have merely missed it. But if this is indeed a passing statement made by Harris, it seems to me to be the very core of his problem. Within a secular worldview, there is no explicit relationship between truth and happiness. In fact, it is woefully, pathetically, trivially easy to find examples in which truth and happiness not only conflict but positively collide.
As I mentioned before, human beings have long recognized the confluence between two deep needs: a need for truth and a need for happiness. The more we learn about the universe, particularly through science, the more we see a deep convergence between the two. Who can look at the night sky without seeing not only astrophysics, but also deep beauty? Who can look at the laws of quantum mechanics without gazing in awe? Richard Dawkins recounts a similar moment of aesthetic wonder in contemplating the world of microbes and bacteria and insects invisibly at work in his garden as a child (The God Delusion, p.11). Again, the more we learn of physics and mathematics and biology, the more we are moved to reverence. The New Atheists are among the first to acknowledge and revel in this reality (I wish that Christians were at the very forefront; John Piper does a great job). It’s impossible to read Harris or Dawkins and not get the sense that they truly revere the laws of nature that we observe around us.
But while there is a deep accord between our sense of beauty and truth at the level of physics, mathematics, and biology, there is an even deeper discord between these senses when we turn our gaze to almost any level of the human condition. As soon as we consider mankind –in some ways, as soon as we consider nature itself- we are horrified. We find that there is a deep, deep disjunction between reality as it is and reality as we wish it were. Everywhere we turn, we find death, disease, misery, suffering, and pain. To see that this disjunction leads to inevitable conflict between truth and happiness requires only a few terrible examples. Would a rich Westerner be happier knowing the cruel realities of the African slum to which he could easily send his drinking money, or would he be happier living in ignorance? Would a fervent medical philanthropist be happier knowing with utter certainty that all of his work fighting tuberculosis will be wiped out by a chance plague of measles? Would a mother whose tiny child is surely dying of dysentery rather know the truth or believe falsely that she will recover? In these cases, the tension between truth and the personal happiness of the subject is almost unbearable. And of course, we need not go to any extremes at all to find this tension at work. Whenever I pass a homeless man or woman on the street, whenever I buy my groceries or live in a certain type of house or spend any money at all, I am in all likelihood making an implicit choice for happiness at the expense of truth.
Since I will address this issue directly in some detail in the second half of this essay, for now I want to only make the point that this tension is absolutely vital and yet is rarely ever explicitly addressed by Sam Harris. For instance, this very issue is raised prominently in the section Death: The Fount of Illusions (p. 36-39) but is used by Harris in the subsequent section The World Beyond Reason (p. 39-44) only to further press on the reader the urgency and necessity of a worldview based on reality rather than on wish fulfillment. Harris’ sustained attacks on pragmatism, the idea that belief can be justified by usefulness rather than truth, only make sense if he believes in and values reality simply because it is real (see p.179-180). Throughout his work, Harris commends a worldview based on reality rather than on fiction (“On the contrary, I hope to show that spirituality can be – indeed, must be- deeply rational [emphasis in original]” p. 43; “Belief … requires that we believe a given proposition to be true, not merely that we wish it were so [emphasis in original]” p. 61-62). Yet he seems to consistently assume that what is true will make us happy and that if we desire real happiness, we need only seek the truth. To see that Harris makes this assumption, we need only consider the following quote from p.43-44, which Harris himself points to as a summary statement for his book: “It is time we realized that we need not be unreasonable to suffuse our lives with love, compassion, ecstasy, and awe…In the chapters that follow, I will attempt to make both the conceptual and the experiential bases for these claims explicit.” Again, with much trembling and fear, I think that as a Christian I can affirm the idea that truth and happiness are not ultimately in conflict. But I must ask Harris the vital question: how can he affirm this idea as an atheist?
Against all evidence and all counter-examples, Harris assumes that truth and happiness are ultimately congruent. From within Harris’ worldview, they are absolutely not. It is perfectly possible to choose truth at the expense of happiness or happiness at the expense of truth. But is there any reason to assume that we can have both? The fact that Harris passes over this tremendous dilemma with hardly a comment is a major difficulty. Don’t truth and happiness routinely conflict in our daily lives? Isn’t one of the reasons that faith is so appealing is that it provides false comfort to us in the face of the bleak terror of reality (again, see Harris’ treatment of this issue on p. 36-39)? Given the reality that truth and happiness are so often deadly enemies, it seems to me that the bulk of Harris’ book ought to struggle with this choice: which of these alternatives should human beings pursue as the ultimate good? Instead, Harris largely ignores this conflict and instead extols the virtues of a truth-based, evidence-based, reality-based worldview which leads to personal fulfillment, happiness, and joy.
The reason for his omission will, I think, become clear when we examine the philosophical underpinnings of his whole project in Section II . But for an atheist to implicitly aver that there is no inherent contradiction between truth and happiness as they are normally understood seems to require and even to demand the most pure and unadulterated faith imaginable. Certainly, traditional atheists like Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre have never held such a thesis. They would be the first to state that we can choose truth at the expense of happiness or happiness at the expense of truth but by no means can have both.
For a Christian, the very real temporal conflict between truth and happiness is ultimately resolved only by the existence of a good, personal God. Not only is a personal knowledge of our Creator the ultimate good which can be experienced by even the most abject and miserable of human beings, but God promises that a personal relationship with Him is ultimately eternal. So even in the present, Christians who suffer will find real comfort and real happiness in knowing that they are rightly related to their Creator. What is more, because God is eternal, a Christian can know that no amount of present suffering can ever be compared to the future and eternal glory that God has promised to those He has forgiven (see Romans 8:18-39 or the famous C.S. Lewis sermon The Weight of Glory ). Thus, a Christian can always choose the truth knowing that truth and happiness will never ultimately conflict. But this affirmation depends absolutely on the real existence of the Christian God. How such an affirmation can be made by an atheist is a mystery to me.
Thus, my second objection to Harris’ worldview is that he assumes that there is no fundamental contradiction between truth and happiness. To me, it seems that it requires a tremendous amount of faith for an atheist to believe such a statement. Not only does it violate any traditional definition of truth and happiness, it flies in the face of our intuition, our reason, and all our experience as human beings.
Finally, I have thus far been considering Harris’ argument on its own terms: faith is evil and reason if good. However, I haven’t yet said anything about whether Harris’ definitions are fair or accurate. In one sense we are, of course, free to define words however we want as long as we are consistent. But one of the interesting aspects of the Christian worldview is that words tend to have well-established meanings. How so? Historically, Christians have believed that God is a God who communicates to mankind and who has communicated authoritatively through Scripture. Certainly I would affirm (as Jesus affirms) that the Bible is a collection of real, historical documents written by real, human authors and editors who passed them down through a real, pain-staking processes of copying and transmission. Yet I would also affirm (as Jesus affirms) that the Bible is at the same time God’s inerrant message to humanity. This is an enormous topic and one that I have struggled and wrestled with for years, so I will not go into it in great detail. But it suffices to say that one consequence of the doctrine of Scripture is that we can ask what the biblical definition is for a given word or concept. Therefore, it is very instructive to consider what the Bible itself says about “faith”.
Harris defines “faith” as “belief in the absence of evidence” and attempts to construct a worldview which avoids any epistemological recourse to faith. We’ve already seen a few of the fundamental problems with such an attempt. However, we can also consider whether Harris’ definition of faith really accords with the understanding of the average Christian or with the definition of the Bible itself. It is here that Harris’ definition appears quite inadequate. A quick Internet search of the definition of faith or research into the classic Reformation formulations of the nature of faith (notitia, assensus, fiducia) or a perusal of the teachings of Jesus (see for example the use of ‘belief’ in Luke 8:4-15 or John 10:22-42 ) would immediately show that the biblical faith is certainly not equivalent to “belief in the absence of evidence”. In fact, biblical faith is not equivalent to “intellectual belief” at all. In modern terms, the conception of biblical faith (pistis in the original ancient Greek; compare Harris p. 64) is actually best understood as “personal trust” or “personal reliance.”
Let me immediately say that “intellectual belief” does indeed form one component of biblical faith. Biblical faith is not a purely existential, emotional concept. It does have a positive intellectual content (indeed, this content forms the basis of notitia and assensus as discussed by the early Reformers ). But it is possible to give intellectual credence to some proposition and yet to lack faith in it. A classic illustration of biblical faith is perhaps still the best. A man can approach me and tell me that I should sit in the plain wooden chair in front of me which is sufficiently strong to bear my weight. After inquiring about the man’s character, I might conclude that he is trustworthy. After considering the chair itself, its fixtures, its fastenings, and its workmanship, I might conclude that it is indeed well-made. After seeing many people of my weight or larger sit down in the chair, I might conclude that it will not collapse. In fact, there might be absolutely no doubt in my mind that the chair will hold me. But the question is: do I have faith in the chair? Absolutely not. Why? Because I am not sitting in it. Biblical faith is not merely intellectual assent to the proposition that Jesus can save. This proposition is absolutely necessary, but is not sufficient. Biblical faith is a personal trust in, a personal reliance on, and a personal commitment to Jesus himself. It is entrusting myself to Jesus and trusting that He will save me.
As a side note, perhaps this illustration will serve in some way to demystify faith. It is not the quality or quantity of our faith that saves us, but the object of our faith that saves us. If I am falling off of a cliff, I may have complete and perfect faith that a certain branch is strong enough to save me. And yet, if the branch is rotten, I will grasp it and break it and surely die. Alternatively, I might have weak, imperfect faith that a nearby rope will hold me. I might snatch at it with trembling fingers, with no more than a fraction of a percent of hope that it will hold. But if it holds, then I am surely safe. In the same way, Jesus is either a sufficient Savior or he is not. If Jesus is not a sufficient Savior, then no quantity or magnitude or certainty of faith in him can save me. But if his life, and death and Resurrection are sufficient to pay for my sin and reconcile me to God, then even the smallest real faith in Him will save me. Not because faith saves, but because Jesus saves.
To return to Sam Harris, I do think it is important to acknowledge the importance of faith –even as Harris defines it- to the Christian worldview. Christians certainly do believe in certain facts “in the absence of evidence.” For a true skeptic who demands individual confirmation of each miracle reported in the New Testament, Christians should be up-front that the validity of some of these reports are held on the basis of faith rather than on the basis of objective, empirical, case-by-case evidence. However, if we reduce the definition of “faith” to that of “intellectual assent” then we utterly miss the point that Christians are trying to make. For instance, why do Christians believe in the reports of the virgin birth? Fundamentally, it is because there are only two options. Either Jesus and his earliest biographers were telling the truth or they were utter liars. Christians are those who have faith in Jesus, that is, who have put their “personal trust” in Jesus. Consequently, Christians’ trust in the reliability of the Bible or the historicity of Jesus’ miracles is actually residual; it flows out of a prior, personal commitment to Jesus of Nazareth which is the primary reason for their intellectual beliefs.
For anyone who dismisses the relevance or significance of personal trust for intellectual belief, I would offer the following example. My wife and I have been married for eight wonderful years and I trust her completely. Imagine I come home from work one day and I find her on our doorstep with a look of terror on her face. “Don’t go inside,” she implores me, “pirates have taken over the house.” I would be fully aware that the chance of pirates invading our Durham townhome is vanishingly small. Nonetheless, I would not go inside. My personal assurance of her character would make me absolutely certain of her veracity (or at the very least, of her sincerity), even though my normal, everyday experience would tell me otherwise. The same issue is the ultimate issue with Jesus, who unlike my wife claims to be infallible. Either he is telling the truth or he is a liar. There really is no other option (the popular belief that Jesus never said the things recorded in the New Testament being, in my opinion, historically quite untenable). As the Professor Kirke remarks to Peter and Susan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe , “A charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing indeed... There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth.” Lewis formalized this reasoning as the famous “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument : “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice.”
Again, I in no way want to diminish the substantial, objective historical evidence for the words and deeds of Jesus, for the reliability of Scripture, or for the Resurrection itself. I have personally spilled a fair bit of ink attempting to outline the historical case that can be made for the Resurrection of Jesus and I can recommend many , many resources which make an objective, positive, historical case for Christianity. However, running the risk of Sam Harris’ utter contempt, I have to affirm that Christian faith must go beyond evidence alone to personal commitment. Real faith cannot and will not be limited to intellectual assent. In real, living, biblical faith, there will always be a central component of personal trust. To reduce faith to “belief without evidence” for the purposes of discussion may be appropriate. But Harris’ definition should not be mistaken for biblical faith, either as understood by the average Christian or as described in the Bible.
In conclusion, in this section I have presented some brief objections to Sam Harris’ central argument in The End of Faith. If Harris’ goal is that we should rid ourselves of any vestige of faith and establish a worldview based instead on reason, then I see three minor problems. First, faith is unavoidable. Even an appeal to reason contains buried within it a hidden appeal to faith. Something must be held as a first principle, as a presupposition, and that bedrock whatever it is can be held only on the basis of faith – bare assent to some truth claim. Second, a great deal of faith is required to affirm that truth and happiness can coexist. Throughout Harris’ work, he assumes that truth will necessarily bring us joy and any real joy must come from truth. How does he know this? It is certainly an idea that cannot be justified based solely on evidence, nor has it been affirmed by the notable atheists of the past. Again, Harris must appeal to faith even to establish a worldview that attempts to abolish it. Finally, Harris’ working definition of faith as “belief independent of evidence” captures only one component of faith as understood by most Christians or as it is described in the Bible. While biblical faith certainly contains elements of intellectual assent to certain propositions, that assent is occasioned by personal trust. A faith which is merely intellectual is, as Harris points out, not only incomprehensible but undesirable. However, a true picture of biblical faith helps to explain how intellectual belief in certain propositions can actually emerge from trust in a historical person.
The original title of this essay was A medium-sized response to Sam Harris’ The End of faith, but I can already see that my writing will almost certainly run much longer than I intended. Although the objections I’ve raised thus far are –I think- pertinent, they really do not address what I believe is the central problem with Harris’ book. As I’ve already said repeatedly, Harris’ argument functions on two levels. At the most superficial, he is simply trying to show that faith leads to misery. But at a deeper level, Harris is presenting an alternative worldview, based not on faith but on reason. The essence of his book is to persuade his reader to abandon his or her adherence to faith and instead embrace an alternative worldview, which could perhaps be referred to as Spiritual Atheism. Within it, we can find our longing for meaning and significance met with resources drawn primarily from science and philosophy (p. 39-44). To achieve this goal Harris must demonstrate both that traditional religion is bad and that his alternative is good. In other words, the reader must be ultimately persuaded of the desirability of Harris’ vision. In the next section, I turn to this major objective of the book and ask whether Harris is successful. More to the point, I ask whether Harris can be successful. In other words, is it even possible to construct a worldview that is desirable to anyone in the absence of a good and knowable and transcendent God? Read on.
My major objection to Harris’ book is not one that can be leveled against him in particular, although his approach to this problem seems to me to be fairly novel. Instead, this is an issue that comes up with all the atheist authors I’ve encountered and appears to be endemic to any non-theistic worldview. Essentially, it can be reduced to the inability of atheistic authors to provide a consistent framework for the use of a single English word. That word is “ought”. It is this word and the meaning behind it that appears to me to have no place in an atheistic lexicon. Although this problem may seem like a small one, I believe it is quite severe and calls into question the very coherence of atheism, both in theory and in practice.
I am sure that this section will not convince everyone. It isn’t really meant to. In fact, in this section I hope to hit what Wittgenstein would have referred to as “bedrock”. At some point, he believed and Sam Harris believes and I believe, that “our spade is turned” (p. 184). We strike a truth that is either entirely self-evident or is utterly opaque to us. Of course, I would refer to this bedrock truth as our faith, the real source of assurance and identity and meaning to which we have been constantly referring in all of our reasoning. But the bottom line is that neither I nor Harris would believe that it is reducible to anything else. We believe it to be truth because we perceive it as truth and rest our lives on it. Consequently, readers whose operational faith rests on entirely different assumptions will almost certainly be unconvinced by my arguments. I would humbly ask that two things be kept in mind.
First, introspection is encouraged. Some of the ideas presented in this section may be confusing because they are simply untrue. But others will be confusing primarily because they are challenging. I hope that the reader approaches this section with a genuine hunger for the truth. The temptation to find ways to avoid uncomfortable arguments can be overpowering. I pray that the reader will avoid this temptation at all costs. What does it profit a man to win an argument and yet forfeit his soul? Like most scientists, I am a poor philosopher and there will be glaring flaws in my logic, I am sure. But please don’t let my lapses in ability or reason keep you from Christ.
Second, language can be a great asset in overcoming our prejudices. The English language has changed and evolved over the last several hundred years, but it retains a great deal of wisdom and insight that we often ignore. There is a reason that certain words exist and a reason that we use them as we do. They often reflect realities that we are unwilling or unable to articulate. I urge the reader to consider carefully what he really means when he uses certain words and phrases. Certainly, it is possible to redefine our language to be consistent with our worldview. But often, language will provide profound insights into our real thoughts. Again, the reader is urged not to ignore the witness of our words to our beliefs. Our hearts are deceitful above all things, but often our words will testify to a truth that we might otherwise deny.
Why “ought”? Why would I claim that this word or that any word can form the basis for an assault on atheism? The answer becomes clear if we consider how important moral imperatives are to the Christian worldview. If objective moral imperatives do exist, then Christianity is coherent. If objective moral imperatives do not exist, then of all religions Christianity is the least likely to be true. However, I am getting a little ahead of myself. To begin with, let’s first consider what we mean by moral imperatives and the implications of their existence for the existence of a personal God.
Although moral imperatives permeate every aspect of daily life, they can be very difficult to define. Therefore, it is helpful to first consider some examples before attempting a definition. A woman’s elderly mother slips and falls down in front of her. She should help her up. A stranger is lost and needs directions. As a local resident, I should do what I can to assist him. A man has just learned that his neighbor has inherited several million dollars. He should not kill him and steal the inheritance. Throughout all cultures, times, and societies, these examples would have immediate resonance. Certainly, there will be local variations and sometimes differences. In certain cultures, love for family is much greater than love for strangers. In other cultures, outright hostility to foreigners is considered admirable. But as far as I am aware, there is no culture in all of human history that fails to recognize the common thread in these examples. All people through all history are linked by a sense of obligation. They differ, sometimes widely, as to the nature of this obligation. But it seems that in almost everyone, there is a tacit acknowledgement that human beings have a duty to act in a certain way. Consequently, we can define a moral imperative as a duty, either positive or negative, which human beings are obligated to perform. Thou shalt not steal is a moral imperative. Love the poor is a moral imperative. Wear a scratchy shirt on Fridays is a moral imperative.
Obviously, I am already beginning to point out the problems with identifying real moral imperatives versus false moral imperatives. If I were to ask ten different people what obligations were incumbent on all other human beings, I would obtain ten different lists that would differ not only in content but in length and seriousness. Every religion prohibits some behaviors and encourages others. Every philosophical system, every political party, every individual has their own lists of good and bad actions. It is quite true that, as a whole, human beings tend to recognize a basic core of moral values that is nearly universal (See the Appendix of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man for an extensive list ). In fact, some psychologists are recognizing that there appears to be a universal moral grammar akin to our universal linguistic grammar. But the differences are glaring and undeniable. Any argument about the nature of objective moral values must face the fact that even the most basic moral values differ from culture to culture. Furthermore, even the most clear moral commands seem to have equally clear exceptions. Is lying wrong even when it is absolutely necessary to avert a murder? Is murder wrong even when it is absolutely necessary to prevent genocide? Given the lack of consensus regarding what is and is not a real moral imperative, any argument that requires us to identify a deatiled list of moral imperatives faces serious challenges.
However, I have no intention of making such an argument. What is compelling to me is not the nature of moral obligation but the presence of moral obligation. Cultures, civilizations, political parties, and religions differ wildly over which actions are good and which actions are bad. But almost no one in history has ever denied that something is good. Even cultures which differ completely as to the character of moral obligation agree that moral obligation does exist. There is a way that human beings ought to behave. To see this truth at work, we need only consider the opening sentence of my previous paragraph. I drew an off-hand distinction between real moral imperatives and false moral imperatives. Presumably most readers assumed that the real moral imperative was God’s command to love the poor and the false moral imperative was the command to wear a scratchy shirt on Fridays. But I am willing to bet that no reader had any difficulty understanding the distinction that I was making. Everyone recognized the difference between a real moral imperative and a false moral imperative. I think it is absolutely crucial to recognize the significance of this fact.
If moral imperatives are simply a social construct or the product of family conditioning or the outcome of genetics, then what on earth do we mean by a “false” moral imperative? The fact that we can read such a sentence without a pause implies that we group moral commands into categories of true and false. Not helpful and unhelpful. Not progressive and obsolescent. But true and false , real and imaginary, factual and fictitious. There is something in us that identifies love for the poor, the stranger, and the helpless as right and true. It would be right and true even if everyone else in society denied it or explicitly agreed to abandon it in favor of a different ethic.
This is the really the problem of the unavoidable “ought”. It may be quite difficult to say exactly what behaviors we “ought” to practice or what “ought” to be our supreme end as human beings. But it is unavoidable that we use the word “ought.” I will reserve a full treatment of how inescapable moral imperatives are for the next section. But for now, let me examine the implications for theism.
If we are willing to recognize that moral imperatives almost certainly exist, then we are immediately led to the question of their origin. It is here that atheism proves woefully insufficient. What makes a moral imperative a moral imperative is by definition its trans-human origin. To see this is true, we need only imagine a moral imperative that originates from within some aspect of our humanity.
For instance, imagine that moral imperatives are actually derived from our genes. We might be genetically programmed, as we almost certainly are, with certain preferences for justice over injustice or love over hatred. But as soon as we make these moral imperatives a wholly derivative property of our genes, their imperative nature disappears completely. If we could engineer human beings who preferred injustice to justice and hatred to love, then we would lose precisely what we mean when we use the word “ought.” These immoral human beings would not be immoral at all. They would simply be different and unobjectionably different. We should experience no outrage at all to see them preferring to kill or rape the helpless since they would be following their personal genetic preferences just as we are following ours. In fact, if we discovered that such “immoral” humans would have a greater survival probability or a greater overall personal fulfillment, is there any reason we “ought” not usher in their dominion as soon as we possibly can? The very core of what we mean when we say that human beings “ought” to love is that we have an obligation to love whether or not it is encoded in our genes.
Or consider the possibility that moral imperatives arise from our social needs. Societies and groups which enforce no moral imperatives die out almost immediately, while only those that recognize justice and neighbor-love flourish. Again, two objections follow. First, what can we say of societies that appear to function efficiently (or even more efficiently) on a different set of moral norms? The Incas achieved a great deal of domestic peace and tranquility by slaughtering thousands of their own people. It seems to me to take a huge amount of faith to assume that a society will happen to achieve maximal stability by enforcing some constellation of classical virtues like temperance, civility, compassion and charity. History seems to indicate that the most stable societies are attained by governments which brutalize one or more classes of citizens. But second, by what standard do we conclude that societies ought to flourish? It may be true that moral imperatives lead to the continued existence of humanity. But what makes the continued existence of humanity our ultimate good? Why ought we continue to propagate the race, especially if we discover that humanity can most efficiently be propagated as a people devoid of compassion, love or mercy?
It seems clear that when I or anyone else uses the language of genuine moral obligation, its authority cannot derive from any purely human source. It must have some transcendent referent; that is, for moral imperatives to even exist, they must come from some source that is beyond ourselves, that is independent of genes or cultures or civilizations. Now I am not yet arguing that this source must necessarily be personal (although I think this is really the only reasonable conclusion). We might have some kind of free-floating standard of right and wrong. Or we might have some kind of deistic conception of a moral Creator without personal moral agency. But if we take the existence of moral imperatives seriously, what appears to be impossible is a purely atheistic conception of the universe. This is the point that Christian apologists have been making for centuries.
A classic treatment of this argument for God’s existence from transcendent moral values can be found in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity , which I highly recommend to interested readers. But I think a more compelling case for the logical necessity of a personal Creator from the existence of genuine moral obligation actually comes from the repeated and consistent denial of moral obligation by famous atheists. I think it undeniable (and it is certainly never denied in the free-thought literature that I’ve read) that human beings act as if there is genuine moral obligation, whether it truly exists or not. Certainly, all of us every day make an effort to live according to moral standards even if we believe that they are ultimately an illusion. Given this nearly universal behavior and the overwhelming tendency we have to ascribe it to real moral obligation, it is quite amazing that most atheists go out of their way to deny the existence of real moral obligation. If you read Sartre or Russell , you will find that they categorically deny the reality of objective moral values, no matter how comforting or natural they appear. Atheists have done so traditionally because they recognize that real moral obligation requires a moral Obligator. Since no moral Obligator exists, real moral obligation must be an illusion. To me, it is the willingness of atheists to recognize this truth that testifies most clearly to its validity.
My point in this section has simply been to explain and highlight the importance of “ought” to Christian apologetics. If we accept the existence of real moral imperatives, then the existence of some supernatural moral standard becomes inescapable. The existence of a personal, moral God becomes far more likely. What becomes truly untenable is a purely atheistic, materialistic worldview. Supporting this case is not only the work of Christian apologists throughout history but also the work of atheists who would explicitly deny the existence of objective moral imperatives. To do so, they would acknowledge that we use the word “ought” in an illegitimate and meaningless way. The average person uses the word “ought” as if it referred to an actual obligation for human beings to love or to revere or to show compassion. But in reality, the word “ought” does not carry any of these meanings because these obligations do not exist. We can use “ought” in a different sense to speak about our natural genetic tendencies as higher primates or our conditioning as social animals. But as a reflection of a real, moral imperative, “ought” is meaningless.
To me, and I hope to the reader, this explanation is not only deeply unsatisfactory but deeply false. Something in me recognizes that evil does not merely lead to suffering, but is morally, transcendentally, cosmically wrong. Something in me not only recognizes the need for real moral obligation, but recognizes the existence of a real moral obligation. We ought to love because love is right and good. We ought to show mercy because mercy is right and good. The conclusion for a Christian is that real moral obligation exists because a real, moral Obglitator exists. But before we can consider the implications for human beings in general and for ourselves in particular, we need to consider how Sam Harris addresses these issues in The End of Faith.
As I said before, in one sense the problem of moral imperatives is by no means unique to Sam Harris but is a function of atheism in general. However, I do think that Harris and the New Atheists do take a unique approach to this problem. The reason that the Neoatheists proselytize (and publish) so extensively is that they believe that atheism is fulfilling, far more so than the alternatives offered by traditional religion. In contrast, atheists have historically recognized that atheism is a tragic and miserable worldview. Consider the following classic quote from Bertrand Russel’s A Free Man’s Worship:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's salvation henceforth be safely built.This low opinion of the intrinsic appeal of atheism appears to be quite common to more traditional atheists. Certainly, they affirmed that atheism was true, but recognized that as a worldview it had little else to commend it. In contrast, the New Atheists believe that atheism is both true and good. But it is here that I believe the New Atheism falters, not because it attempts too little, but too much. In attempting to make atheism appear both true and good, it must recognize the distinction between the two. There can be a difference between what is true and what is good and the more the New Atheists try to show that atheism possesses both qualities, the more this distinction must be made.
To see how Harris tries to overcome this obstacle, we need to examine the underpinnings of his entire project. I said in the first half of this essay that one of Harris’ major goals was to present a winsome and compelling vision of what I called Spiritual Atheism, in which our felt needs for meaning and significance could be met by the resources of science and philosophy rather than religion. But as a comprehensive worldview, Harris must address the questions faced by every worldview: why does anything exist at all? Is there any meaning to human existence that is not annihilated by death? What is the ultimate good? It is this last question that I believe Harris is most trying to address in his work and which proves most problematic for him in the end. For Christians, God’s glory is the ultimate good. For Harris, as an atheist, the answer is much less clear (and much more difficult to condense into a catechism. In this section, I will try to tease out Harris’ answer to this question and show the difficulty he experiences in making it philosophically consistent.
In the last section, we saw the difficulty that most atheists face in affirming the existence of real moral obligation. If real moral obligation exists, then atheism is almost certainly false. I think that Harris would actually agree with this point, if I forced him to accept my definition of real moral obligation. If there is truly a transcendent, culture-independent, outcome-independent obligation incumbent on all human beings to act in a certain way, then atheistic materialism simply cannot be true; this transcendent obligation must come from some supernatural source. Of course, Harris does not take this route. Rather he defines (I would say redefines) the concept of “ought” such that it can be readily identified as a purely natural concept. The truly crucial contribution made by Harris in The End of Faith is his identification of “ought” with a particular form of “is”. Harris avoids the problems associated with a transcendent moral obligation by grounding our feelings of moral obligation in the objective reality of human flourishing. What we mean by “ought” is captured perfectly and completely by what leads to universal human fulfillment (see Harris’ extensive discussion in Chapter 6). All of this, so far, is probably confusing drivel unless you happen to be an amateur philosopher. So let me try to illustrate Harris’ approach with some examples of what he avoids and what he proposes.
One of the refreshing aspects of Harris’ book and of his writing in general is that he is very forthright in his beliefs. He abhors the deliberately vague and equivocal in favor of the absolutely clear. As a result, it is almost always obvious which positions he rejects. From the whole tenor of his book and several explicit statements he makes, Harris rejects any supernatural or Platonic understanding of moral imperatives. The idea that moral obligation or moral value resides in some ethereal, immaterial realm of existence is clearly appalling to Harris. There is no realm of forms or realm of the supernatural in which meaning and obligation reside. Again, this view is entirely consistent with Harris’ materialistic atheism and with that of his atheistic predecessors.
However, postmodern thinkers like Richard Rorty have responded to this absence of transcendent moral imperatives in a very consistent fashion. If transcendent moral imperatives do not exist, they reason, then there are no moral absolutes at all. This postmodern approach to ethics is known as moral relativism; all moral statements are conditioned on cultural setting. Because there are no cultural absolutes, all moral statements are equally true or equally false depending on their context. We are free to define morality for ourselves. Although this position is currently very popular and has captured the imagination of most leading cultural institutions, Harris gives it absolutely no respect whatsoever. In fact, one of his bitterest, sustained attacks is against moral relativism as utterly bankrupt and obviously false (p. 178-182). Again, there can be no question on this point because Harris makes his stance very clear.
In contrast to either the moral transcendentalist or the moral relativist approaches, Harris characterizes his belief system as one of ethical realism (p. 180). At first glance, one might wonder whether there Harris has any room left for his beliefs. After all, moral imperatives are either grounded in a transcendental standard or they are not; the choice appears to be binary. The former option appears to require supernaturalism while the latter appears to require relativism. In fact, this objection will return in a particularly bitter form later. For now, it is very interesting to see how Harris navigates between these two alternatives.
To establish his ethical realism, Harris defines human flourishing as that which objectively leads to peace, love, joy, happiness and fulfillment. Of course, as Harris mentions repeatedly, the science surrounding which actions lead to which outcomes is still in its infancy (p.42 and all of Chapter 6), but the strength of this definition is its objectivity. I would agree that certain actions lead to happiness and others lead to misery; I think very few people would dispute such a claim. The great leap for Harris is what immediately follows. What we call “good” or “right”, says Harris, are really those actions which lead to human flourishing and what we call “evil” or “wrong” are those actions which lead to suffering (an excellent summary quote is found on p. 170-171: “A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures”). Again, the strength of this definition is its objectivity. We can indeed call “good” those objective actions which objectively lead to human flourishing and we can call “evil” those objective actions which lead to its opposite. These are purely human-centric, materialistic, objective definitions. They require no appeal to any transcendent standard. Furthermore, they also appear to avoid the trap of relativism. In contrast to moral relativism, Harris’ ethical realism does actually allow us to call certain actions like cowardice, terrorism, murder, theft, and hatred “evil” because they objectively lead to suffering.
Because our very souls cry out against suffering, Harris’ outrage is like a breath of fresh air. He reserves particularly scathing criticism for our liberal inability to condemn evil. By swallowing (and wallowing in) postmodern moral relativism, we have left ourselves completely unable to even recognize that which is clearly wrong. Given his attacks on Christianity and Islam in Chapters 4 and 5, Harris indictment of the sins of modern liberalism should come as no surprise; but now we see Harris’ internal consistency. Ethical judgments can only be made from the standpoint of an alternative system of ethics. We recognize the sins of the Christian church by comparing them to some other (presumably higher) standard. Harris’ consistent and repeated criticisms make perfect sense against the backdrop of ethical realism. In fact, as I said earlier, Harris’ writing is never stronger than when he is affirming the worth of humanity and expressing outrage at our degradation.
Unfortunately, it is at this point that our reservations return in their bitterest and most potent form. Harris’ moral outrage is enabled by his ability to label certain actions as “evil” and “wrong”. But now comes the terrible thought: what if it is only a label after all? Throughout his work, Harris assumes that we can describe certain actions using the traditional categories of right and wrong. He uses these categories in their traditional form whenever he appeals to our moral sense. Murder is wrong. Oppression is wrong. Suffering is wrong. We all agree and are outraged. But then Harris defines evil in purely objective terms: “evil” is “that which leads to suffering.” Is that actually what we meant all along? When we call an action evil, do we really mean that it happens to lead to the firing of certain neurons and not others? When we say that murder is wrong, do we mean that it causes a reduction rather than an upregulation of serotonin? This is precisely what Harris means by evil; in fact, it is all that he can mean. Whatever he gains by creating a purely objective, materialistic definition of good and evil, he simultaneously loses.
Harris appears to recognize this objection, which is sometimes referred to as the “naturalistic fallacy” and sometimes as the “ought-is problem”, since he mentions it explicitly in a short footnote (p. 273, footnote 24) and also addresses it in a note on his website which I strongly recommend to interested readers. My main point is that Harris himself would admit that this issue is the crux of his argument and that other philosophers would see this issue as the crux of his problem. Harris’ contention is that what we call “bad” is, by definition, “that which leads to unhappiness”. Harris must insist that this is what we really, truly mean when we call something bad. We do not really mean that it is bad in some cosmic, transcendent, moral sense. We mean that it causes sentient beings to experience a particular neurological response.
I am sure that readers who appreciate Harris’ moral sensitivity will be hesitant to see the problems with this framework, but because it is so important I would like to ask two questions that will illuminate the shortcomings of Harris’ ethical realism. First, is there any reason to use the words “good” and “evil” in the way that Harris does? Since “good” simply refers to those behaviors which lead to happiness, why not dispense with the transcendent baggage historically associated with the word “good” and instead refer to a behavior’s “utility” or “fitness”? The reason that Harris uses the word “good” is – I think- that he wants the implicit association of good action with the action’s transcendent desirability. If we instead were to refer to an action’s “utility” as many philosophers do, we would have to immediately ask the question: “why should I care about utility? Is utility good?” In fact, at the risk of playing the devil’s advocate (literally), I must immediately ask a second question of Harris’ framework: “Whose happiness should I care about?”
Harris defines “good” as “that which leads to human fulfillment,” which seems like an immediately intuitive definition. He does spend some time pointing out that the science of human fulfillment is still in its infancy and that utilitarian philosophers are working diligently to determine which actions lead to a global maximization of happiness. Harris addresses this question as a purely practical concern, which it certainly is. However, a more important issue is at stake. Why should I, as an individual, care about the collective happiness of the species or the happiness of my neighbors or even the happiness of my family? Here again, we are left with no real answer. It is easy to say that such a questioner is not a real ethicist or that he lacks the most rudimentary understanding of ethics imaginable (as Harris does in his discussion on p. 171-172). It is very easy to ridicule him, to call him selfish, to exclude him or to exile him. But these responses cannot silence him.
All of us know that in the short-term, our personal happiness and fulfillment are all that we can directly experience. Certainly, we experience some happiness from the happiness of others. Certainly, this vicarious happiness can be increased. But why should I aim for this end? Would it not be far easier to aim for complacent self-contentment? If my ultimate goal is truly personal fulfillment, isn’t this far easier to attain through selfishness and self-gratification than through the painful self-denial and other-gratification? What is even more clear is that there are very obvious situations in which my personal happiness, by any standard, is in direct conflict with the happiness of my neighbor. When I have a choice to save a drowning child at the cost of my own life, what should I choose? In attempting to answer such a question, Harris has only two options. Either the happiness we should aim for is our own personal happiness and we should save ourselves or the happiness we should aim for is the global happiness of our neighbor and we should save the child. But surprisingly, neither of these options is truly feasible because both involve an appeal to an implicit “ought”. We “ought” to love ourselves supremely or we “ought” to love our neighbor more. But why? How does “ought” flow from “is”? Certainly we naturally aim for and seek our own personal fulfillment. That “is” certainly true. But how can Harris or anyone else move us from the positive “is” of reality to the normative “ought” of right and wrong?
The tragic failure of Harris’ worldview is this inability to reckon with the unavoidable “ought”. By redefining morality in objective terms, Harris can certainly bring “good” and “evil” into the realm of the observable. But he still cannot tell us why we “ought” to seek the good and abhor the evil. Any true free thinker, any Nietzschean Superman willing to flout Harris’ definitions and ask the truly difficult questions will find no answer. We “ought” to seek the global happiness of our neighbor at the expense of our own happiness simply because everyone else does or because it will make society run smoothly or because it is encoded in our genes. By disposing of any transcendental basis for the “ought” of moral value, Harris destroys moral value as a category altogether. Again, this is the same obstacle that has been approached time and again by great atheist thinkers of the past. Nihilism, existentialism, and postmodernism are all valid materialistic responses to this problem. To me, it is fairly clear that Harris ultimately makes no more progress than they do.
In the last two sections, I’ve considered the unavoidable “ought” of moral imperatives from theistic and atheistic perspectives. I think it has become very clear that I myself believe in the existence of real, transcendent moral values which are grounded in God’s character. But it ought to be noted that a belief in transcendent morality does not necessitate a belief in the Christian religion. In fact, theists of all types –Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Universalist- would affirm the existence of real, transcendent moral imperatives. However, in this last section, I would like to consider how moral imperatives function within an explicitly biblical worldview. What is the relationship between the gospel – the central message of Christianity – and a moral universe governed by a transcendent God? Does Christianity essentially approach moral imperatives in the same way as other religions, or is there something utterly different about the way that Christians view moral reality?
To begin with, it’s helpful to see how moral imperatives fit naturally into a biblical worldview. The Bible tells us that the universe was created by a transcendent, tripersonal Creator God for His own glory (see Genesis, Chapter 1 or Psalm 8 or John, Chapter 1 among others). This succinct statement has several immediate implications.
First, the existence of God explains the existence of moral imperatives. Moral obligations exist because there is a moral Obligator. Because human beings were created for a purpose, we ought to fulfill that purpose. The very existence of the concept of “ought” implies a real obligation to obey and the possibility of obedience implies the existence of moral obligation. So moral imperatives do not emerge from the ether, but are a natural consequence of the activity of a transcendent Creator.
Second, the tripersonality of God clarifies the nature of moral obligation. Obviously the doctrine of the Trinity is difficult and mysterious, but for our purposes, it is sufficient to observe that the Bible says that God is intrinsically relational. In a general theistic conception of God, personal relationship did not exist until God created other beings. However, the Bible indicates that God, within Himself, is personal so that the personal antecedes the impersonal. This fact explains why all of the common moral imperatives and certainly all of the biblical moral injunctions are deeply personal. The Ten Commandments begin not with the rules themselves but with the reminder that Yahweh brought the Israelites out of Egypt . All real moral imperatives function in the same way; the commands to love the poor, care for the helpless, and respect property are all interpersonal commands that come from an interpersonal God.
Third, the glory of God is the basis for the content for all moral imperatives. As a Christian, I still have trouble defining the glory of God. However, I have found the following definition both biblical and helpful. The glory of God is God’s supreme importance and God is of supreme importance because He in Himself is good, righteous, just, holy, and beautiful. Whenever I see anything that I want to praise or revere or esteem, I am seeing a reflection of God’s glory in the created universe. This definition helps us to understand the content of moral imperatives: they are simply expressions of God’s character. We are commanded to give rather than steal because God is a God of generosity. We are commanded to love because God is a God of love. This realization helps to answer the classic Euthyphro dilemma : either what is good is good simply because God arbitrarily chooses it, or there is some higher standard than God to which God appeals when he defines the good. But if we believe that God is truly a personal God, then there is another option: the good could simply be an expression of God’s intrinsic character. In that case, what is good is certainly not arbitrary, because it could not be otherwise. Yet the good would have no higher referent than God himself because it is simply an expression of his character.
Thus far, theists would roughly agree. The interpersonality of God as revealed in the Trinity would certainly be a point of contention, but the general idea that God is good and that God is the source of right and wrong are truths that all theists would affirm. Moreover, theists would also agree that a Creator God necessitates a genuine moral obligation for His Creatures. We are obligated to obey Him, not merely because He is more powerful than us, but because His will is genuinely good and right.
But the message of the Christian gospel is not the message of religion. The central message of religion, especially as it relates to our discussion, is this: obey the moral law and God will accept you. God as Creator has established certain moral imperatives. These imperatives might be expressed in the Five Pillars of Islam or the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism or the Ten Commandments but they are certainly good and certainly binding. Do this and you will live. Keep the rules and God will bless you. Heaven or paradise or nirvana or personal fulfillment awaits those who obey. This is the message of religion and it is the exact opposite of the message of the gospel, which is both infinitely more pessimistic about man and infinitely more optimistic about God.
The message of the gospel is that God rescues sinners. The Bible affirms that we live in a moral universe created by a moral God. When Jesus taught the crowds, he affirmed the teaching of Scripture. In fact, he pointed to a higher standard than had ever been taught before or has even been taught since. “You are to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” said Jesus, “And you are to love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live” ( Luke 10:25-28 ). This is the moral imperative implicit in God’s creation and it makes perfect sense. If God really is the source of everything good, then we ought to love Him with our whole lives. And if God has really created all people in His own image, then we ought to love them as ourselves. But the obvious fact is that every single one of us has broken these simple and good laws in thousands of ways. We are liars and cheats. We hate our parents, we hate our friends, we hate our spouses. We are selfish and petty. And we honor ourselves far more than we ever honor God. This is the obvious truth about us and the Bible is absolutely clear in its assessment of us: “there is none who is righteous, no not one” ( Romans 3:9-20 ). It is not that God is so unfair; it is that we are so wicked. This is the most realistic and the most tragic assessment of man in any religion I know. The Bible doesn’t offer us any hope at all in ourselves. We are dead in sins because of our violation of God’s law and we violate God’s law daily because we are dead in our sins.
And yet the Bible does offer us the only real hope there is: hope in God. What we were powerless to do for ourselves, God did for us. The outrageous claim of the Bible is that God, in perfect freedom with no obligation to save even one of us from hell, chose to send his own Son into the world . This Jesus was the first real man in history. He loved God from the very depths of his soul and he loved his neighbor as himself. He met God’s moral obligations and he met them perfectly. He did so not in the midst of glory and adulation, but in the midst of rejection and suffering. At the end of his life, Jesus did not love God and love his neighbor from a throne, but from the cross. He was betrayed and beaten and whipped and crucified and bore his misery like a sheep before his shearers. He gave up his perfect, sinless, divine life for filthy, rebellious sinners like us. And God heard his cry for mercy. Three days after his death, by the power of his Holy Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead, declaring him Lord and Savior to all who will receive him. Salvation is found in no other Person in history because of who this Person is and what this Person did. He claimed to be God Himself come to rescue us from our sins. Either He was or He was not.
This is all quite a story. The essential question is: is this a true story? Every other religion would urge us to keep the moral law with the hope of satisfying or pacifying or appeasing or pleasing God. The Bible says we are hopeless. We have already broken the moral law a million times in a million ways and God is now our judge. At the same time, every other religion says that God must be satisfied or pacified or appeased by us keeping the moral law to the best of our ability. Even Harris’ Spiritual Atheism would tell us that our ability to live a happy and fulfilled life depends on our ability to live up to our moral standards. But the Bible says otherwise. It says that God will accept us simply on the basis of what He did for us in Christ and make us good and holy and happy simply for His own sake. The Bible is both more radically pessimistic and more radically optimistic than any other book in history – radically pessimistic about us and radically optimistic about God.
One of the many reasons I can believe the gospel is that it is the only message that tells me the deepest truths about God and about myself– that God is glorious, that I am a sinner and that I need a Savior. For all those reading this essay, I pray that you will consider yourself honestly and soberly. The best place to start is with Jesus’ teachings. Ask yourself what Jesus would think of you. Ask yourself what Jesus does think of you. The answer is both terrifying and liberating. It is terrifying because Jesus knows we are sinners and exposes our sin mercilessly. He wants it dead and he will kill it in any way he pleases. But it is liberating because he calls sinners to Himself. He loves us not for our sake, but for his own sake, not because of who we are but because of who he is.
Certainly, I think that the historical truth of the gospel is intellectually credible and can be examined by the everyday tools of history and archeology. But the gospel, as truth, is also existentially credible. Real introspection will always lead us to the gospel because it leads us to truth. To quote John Calvin from the beginning of his Institutes :
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.
I can urge readers to seek the truth because I am fully persuaded that the truth is found fully and only in Christ. I hope that this long essay will help to elucidate Harris’ position and also to expose its difficulties. But my ultimate hope is that this essay would persuade those who read it to trust in Jesus. He is both the author of the good and its ultimate fulfillment. He requires righteousness from us and provides righteousness for us. Only through knowing Him will we ever be truly good and only through knowing him will we ever find true contentment, peace, and freedom.
- Response to Harris FAQ - Are materialistic ethics possible?
- A Brief Response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion
- A Somewhat Lengthy Response to Robert Price's The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man
- A Brief Response to Cristopher Hitchens' God is not great
- The Necessity of Faith
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.