Letters to Sam Harris

Evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson last November posted a series of “open letters” on his blog to Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, that are well worth a read. Harris, following in the footsteps of atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, is the latest popular writer to indict religion (i.e. Christianity) as divisive, oppressive and intellectually backward. A sample of Wilson’s responses:

Your next section asks the question, “Are Atheists Evil?” Your argument here rests upon a common misunderstanding of a standard Christian argument. In short, the issue is not whether atheists are evil, but rather, given atheism, what possible definition can we find for evil. The argument is not one about personal character but rather about what the tenets of atheism logically entail.

But there is another wrinkle as well. The Christian position is not that atheists are sinners, but rather that people are sinners. Consequently, when any false ideology (atheistic or theistic) gets hold of a collective group of people, there is bound to be an area where there are no brakes to restrain the natural sinful tendencies of the people involved. This will of course manifest itself in different ways according to the differences of the ideologies. It explains why nations that are formally atheistic are awful (and dangerous) places to live. But at the same time, we could all rattle off false ideologies that were theistic and which also turned the places they controlled into hellholes. This just means that men sin in different ways.

So all this happens because people are sinners — and the Christian faith accounts for the reality and influence of this sin.

Further along in the series, Wilson turns around the argument that a good and powerful God is incompatible with the suffering we see in the world:

You are exactly right that all Christians, if they are to be intellectually honest, must acknowledge that God is the ultimate governor of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, genocides, and wars. This creates the “problem of evil” for us. How can a God who is infinitely just, kind, merciful, and loving (which we Christians also affirm) be the same one who unleashes these terrible “acts of God?” It is a good question, but it is one that can only be answered by embracing the problem. We solve the problem of evil by kissing the rod and the hand that wields it.

This sounds outrageous to you, I know, but it is the only way to genuinely deal with the problem of evil. It is either “the problem of evil,” which the Christian has, or “evil? no problem!” which the atheist has. Consider the tsunami, and what that event was, from your premises. You spoke of the day “one hundred thousand children were simultaneously torn from their mother’s arms and casually drowned” (p. 48). Now I can only understand being indignant with God over this if He is really there. But what if He is not there? What follows then? This event had no more ultimate significance than a solar flare, or a virus going extinct, or a desolate asteroid colliding with another asteroid, or the gradual loss of Alabama to kudzu, or me scratching my head just now. These are just atoms, banging around. This is what they do.

It is very clear from how you write that you do not believe that God is there, and you are also very angry with Him for not being there. Many of these people who were drowned were no doubt praying before they died. You throw that fact at us believers (which you can do, because, believing in God, we do have a problem of evil). But if we throw it back to you, what must you say about the tsunami and its effects? It was a natural event, driven by natural causes, and has to be seen as an integral part of the natural order of things. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it. These things happen.

Read the whole series here.

8 comments on “Letters to Sam Harris

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    Presuming to answer for Harris, without his permission to do so, and with apology:

    “As to the latter, Yes…exactly. However, I am not ‘…angry with God that he…’ (he, really?) ‘…is not there.’ That very statement is not only an inaccurate presumtion, but is, itself, self-contradictory.

    My true position is that it is you CHRISTIANS, who believe in God, that SHOULD be angry with him, for the observable human condition, if in fact you really do believe.

    As for me, I believe that things are only as they are, and that we only have ourselves to blame, not “God”; along with the conditions of “nature” (human and otherwise) wherein we find ourselves.

    Too, it is my opinion that “believers” bear at least equal blame with non-believers for the state of our humanity; and more, considering the hypocrisy of so much of what they, themselves have defined as “evil”, done in the very name of their belief.”

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Like you, Hank, Christianity believes that we “only have ourselves to blame”. The only difference is we also have someone to praise. If things only are as they are, where does blame come in at all? The state of our humanity is like the state of any other predatory animal. It’s neither good nor bad that we kill each other. It just is. In a world where natural selection is the only standard, why is hypocrisy wrong? Whence our moral obligation to face truths that run counter to our wishes and interests?

  3. Hank Rodgers says:

    The reason that we attempt to face truths that run counter to our wishes and interests (as they usually do), has nothing to do with any “moral obligation” (however one defines the, almost undefinable, “morality”).

    The reason has to do with the fact that “truths”, and particularly the most important ones that we may never know, are all that really “are”, whatever they may be; and we must continue our pursuit of them, as objectively as we can and without regard to our hopes or “needs”:

    “Castles are sacked in war/ Chieftans are scattered far/ TRUTH is the fixed star/ Eileen Aroon.” (Old Celtic Song)

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    But why “must” we? From a Darwinian perspective, there must be times when illusions have more survival value, and nothing in that ideology explains why we should be upset about that. Though not without its negative fallout, religious belief is something that the vast majority of cultures throughout history have found “adaptive” — it helps people avoid despair and passivity in the face of death, reinforces altruism and tribal cohesion (even if it can also promote inter-tribal strife), promotes long-term thinking over hedonism, and so on — all of which helps our genes get passed on. The more religious societies and subcultures in the modern world have higher birthrates (Islamic countries, Orthodox Jews) while the secularized ones are dwindling (Italy, Japan, urban professionals). Again, good for the genes. Dawkins and Harris can argue that religion is an illusion, but by the terms of their own values, they have no basis to be outraged that people want to cling to the illusion. That’s what I was getting at with my last question.

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