Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beware of Sam Harris


Jewish date:  15 ’Av 5769.

Today’s holidays:  15 ’Av (to be forgotten by Jewish men with women in their lives at their own peril), Dedication of St. Mary Major.

Today’s quasi-holidays:  National Mustard Day.

Relevant to Divine Misconceptions:
  1. In lieu of a weird thing today will be a review of the militant atheist text Letter to a Christian Nation.  See below.
  2. “Orthodox Judaism Must Lead to Moral Behavior”:  More introspection of one’s own religion.
  3. More religious intolerance:  “TIMELINE: Ethnic and religious unrest in Nigeria”, “Nigerian police probe clashes that killed 700”, “Pakistan Christians shut schools to mourn killings”, and “'They Want to Destroy Christians'”.
  4. “'Gaza man killed daughter for owning phone'”:  I have mentioned this case before, and this article  gives a reason for the murder:

    The groups' reports said that the assault was triggered by Jawdat Najjar's discovery that his daughter Fadia - a 27-year-old divorced mother of five - owned a cell phone. He suspected she used it to speak to a man outside the family, according to the groups' reports.
    Note honor-killing was done over a mere suspicion of talking to someone improper, not evidence of any impropriety worthy of death.  This is why, as I keep saying, taking the law into one’s own hands is a bad idea.  For all anyone knew, the poor woman was innocent.
Today’s news and commentary:
And now for the review.  Enjoy and share the weirdness (or be scared or disgusted or something).


Redefining morality:  a review of Letter to a Christian Nation
by Aaron Solomon Adelman
Your humble reviewer is going to get through what seem to be the most important books of the militant atheism (= evangelical atheism, new atheism) movement, whether he likes it or not.  Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (Harris 2006) is one which was inspired by and spurred on by Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Dawkins 2006), and unfortunately it repeats many of the same mistakes (e.g., paranoid religion-bashing and a venous disgust for religion which permeates every single original sentence), which will not be repeated here because what was wrong in The God Delusion is perforce still wrong in Letter to a Christian Nation, and your humble reviewer has better things to do than repeat himself.  However, Letter to a Christian Nation is not a complete copycat either, as it makes its own original errors.

Problem 1:  Redefining morality.

Harris, like Dawkins, gives Christianity a negative moral evaluation.  Dawkins, as mentioned in this reviewer’s review of his book, never really defines morality.  Harris, on the other hand, does define his moral system:  “Questions of morality are questions of happiness and suffering” (Harris 2006, p. 8).  This is the whole foundation for his moral system, and anything which he perceives as causing unhappiness, suffering, and needless death he labels as immoral.  Harris is correct, at least to some degree, that we can make objective claims about happiness and suffering (Harris 2006, pp. 23-25).  However, he still misses my major point about morality:
Who told Harris that morality must be defined in terms of happiness and suffering?  For that matter, why would one think morality has to be defined in terms of happiness and suffering?  Not only do your humble reviewer’s comments on morality in The God Delusion hold, but Harris’s system fails on two accounts.  

1) The first problem is that this is an arbitrary opinion, so if he wants other people to adopt it, it is his duty to convince others to accept it.  He never does.  He just assumes he is right and bashes away.  And since he does nothing to prove his system is the “one true moral system” (which is not meaningful, since one cannot prove an opinion), anyone can reject it without having to give the least justification.

2) Harris’s moral system is the wrong one to use on his alleged target audience.  Remember, this book is supposed to be A Letter to a Christian Nation.  If one wishes to make moral arguments to Christians, one has to work within a moral framework acceptable to Christians.  This is why when Christians argue about morality they do it in reference to the Christian Bible; since they accept it as a basis for morality, one can make arguments based upon it which are persuasive to Christians.  Harris, however, cannot use the Christian Bible as a basis for what is right and wrong, because anything the Christian Bible says is right is going to be accepted as right by Christians.  This makes it illogical to use the Christian Bible as a moral basis to attack Christianity and be accepted by Christians.  Unfortunately, Harris’s use of his own moral system, even if his factual claims about Christianity were correct, makes him unable to articulate a moral argument that Christians must accept.  To put it colorfully, he’s damned if he does, and he’s damned if he doesn’t.  Ignoring the fact that he is doomed to fail no matter which moral system he chooses, Harris goes ahead anyway and tries to make an argument against Christianity on one of the worst bases ever attempted:

Problem 2:  Mistaking (alleged) immorality for falsehood.

Suppose for a moment that one accepts Harris’s negative moral evaluation of Christianity.  Does this have anything to do with the question of whether Christianity is true?  Absolutely not.  It is still conceivable that Christianity is true.  The Christian God, if He really does exist, is as entitled to have moral opinions as anyone else, and there is no reason He has to follow Harris’s moral opinions.  The truth or falsehood of Christianity—or any other religion—depends on whether its essential claims are true, not how anyone feels about them.  Harris, however, barely goes beyond mistaking moral outrage for proof or (following Dawkins) attacking a straw man version of Christianity.  He does make one attempt at attacking the New Testament for being written to make it look like prophecies from the Hebrew Bible are being fulfilled and there being disagreements among the Gospels (Harris 2006, pp. 57-59), but then he lapses into complaining that prophecies are not written the way he wants them to be written, including giving an untenable interpretation of 1 Kings 7:23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4:2-5 that π =3 which only someone completely ignorant of mathematics would believe (Harris 2006, 59-62), and degenerates into another straw man attack after that.

Problem 3:  Who is the real audience for this book?

The title of this book is Letter to a Christian Nation.  Early on Harris claims to be addressing specifically conservative Christians, which he defines as people who believe “that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death” (Harris 2006, p. viii).  While not explicitly targeting non-conservative Christians or non-Christian religious people, Harris accuses them of giving “shelter to extremists of all faiths” and lending “tacit support to the religious divisions of the world”, yet claims to envision liberal and moderate Christians ganging up with nonbelievers against conservative Christians (Harris 2006, pp. ix-x).  However, Harris’s style of argumentation (“you are horrible people, and your religion is utterly repulsive”) is extremely badly calibrated to win any converts (or in this case, apostates) from any religious group.  The problem is made worse by Harris’s failure to even try to understand conservative Christianity as conservative Christians understand it.  Letter to an Christian Nation is, in fact, so abrasive and insulting to religion and religious people that few of its alleged target audience are likely to bother to reading more than a few pages, if they read any of it at all.  Given that Harris managed to get into a PhD program in the natural sciences, he is presumably sufficiently intelligent and aware of how humans think to know that this book’s chance of success among adherents of any religion other than atheism are negligible.  The most likely explanation your humble reviewer sees is that this is actually a book for rabid atheists who hate conservative Christianity, much like Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and its claim to be a letter to a Christian nation is a transparent pretense.

Problem 4:  Poor book design.

This is not a matter of fallacy or getting the facts wrong.  However, trying to find anything in a book which has no table of contents or index is a pain in the neck.  If your reviewer had not followed his standard procedure of folding over corners at notable passages and writing in margins, he would not have been able to find anything again after reading it.  Furthermore, there are few footnotes, even fewer of which give sources.  A listing of sources is found at the end on the book (Harris 2006, pp. 93-96), but these do not cover everything claimed.  For someone who is working on a PhD in neuroscience (Sam Harris), this is inexcusable.  There is a major rule in academia that one is supposed to source all of one’s nontrivial claims.  And while it is easy to fail to achieve this ideal, never has the author ever read another book from an academic (real or alleged) which ever made it so hard to find material on a specific topic.  This is exactly how a book is put together in order to keep anyone from keeping track of what the author is claiming or doing fact-checking.

Conclusion:  Letter to a Christian Nation is, like The God Delusion, grandstanding for theism-hating atheists with little or no interest in reason.  Harris ought to have learned from Dawkins’s deficiencies, but instead he repeats many of the same mistakes and a few of his own.  The only people who have any need to read this book are those doing research on militant atheism or Sam Harris.

Overall classification:  Worthless outrage professing to be reason.

Theological rating:  F, with a recommendation that Harris be banned from theology and logic until he repents and demonstrates that he understands the Christian Bible competently.

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Harris, Sam. 2006. Letter to a Christian nation. 1st ed. New York: Knopf.
Sam Harris [Web-site] [cited 2009-08-02. Available from

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