Third Letter to a Secular Nation

Posted: Apr 17, 2008 12:01 AM
Third Letter to a Secular Nation

In a previous installment of this series, I criticized Sam Harris for lumping together “old world” and “new world” creationists. But I must admit that before I became a Christian I was also guilty of over-simplifying the arguments of believers. Back then, I’m sure I appeared just as narrow-minded as Harris appears  throughout the pages of Letter to a Christian Nation. Nonetheless, statements like the following still grab my attention:

“Consider:every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.”

That is an odd statement indeed. During a polite discussion,a Muslim fundamentalist admitted to me that Jesus led a sinless life and Mohammed did not. But he chose to become a Muslim, in part, because he did not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I disagree. That is a large part of the reason why I am a Christian and not a Muslim.

On the other hand, I know of those who have reached different conclusions without even knowing that Islam teaches that Jesus lived a sinless life. Indeed, for many Muslims the decision is made out of fear of the consequences of rejecting Islam. Many are not even familiar with basic Christian arguments or the evidence supporting them.

Accepting Christianity, on the other hand, is far more likely to have come from a rational appraisal of the evidence. And it is far less likely to have come from the threat of the sword. That is important to remember when looking at statements such as this:

“Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.”

This is absurd. Radical Muslims view Christianity as a religion of peace. That is why they are not hesitant to attack Christians in accordance with the teachings of the Koran. But Christians, including George W.Bush, believe the opposite – that Islam is a religion of war. And that is why we know we must fight back when they attack us. If Muslims and Christians did not have such disparate views of one another – including, but not limited to, the capacity for violence – conflict would be less likely.

It is difficult to take Harris seriously when he says that he views Islam and Christianity in the same way. In order to draw such a conclusion, one would have to be an incurable moral relativist or simply profoundly ignorant of the teachings of Christianity. This quote suggests both interpretations are correct:

“The Golden Rule really is a wonderful moral precept. But numerous teachers offered the same instruction centuries before Jesus.”

Of course, this is not true. Numerous teachers offered the instruction that we should not do to others things we would not want others to do to us. But Jesus asks us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.Jesus’ reference to sins of omission – echoed in James 4:17 – is a reference to a newer and higher moral standard. To call it equal is to reveal one’s historical ignorance and to lend credence to the notion of moral relativism –as if moral relativism really could lend credence to any teaching.

But Harris is unable to maintain consistency in his relativistic statements:

“The Jains preach a doctrine of utter non-violence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe,they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition.”

Here, Harris indicates that he views Jains as superior to Christians. But, remember, this is the same Sam Harris who claims to see all religions the same way.

Harris continues with his secular praise of Jainism:

“(T)he doctrine of Jainism is an objectively better guide to becoming like Martin Luther King, Jr., than the doctrine of Christianity.”

This raises a couple of interesting questions: 1) Is it the intent of Christians to use Christianity to become more like Christ, or more like King? 2) Is Harris really prepared to admit to the existence of objective truths?

Harris goes on to say this:

“Anyone who believes that the Bible offers the best guidance we have on questions of morality has some very strange ideas either about guidance or morality.”

The two key words are “best” and “we.” There is, therefore, a superior moral code by which “we” can all live. But it does not come from God. So what is the source of this superior moral code to which we may all subscribe? And have the principles of this code always been obvious to the civilized world? Read Harris’ statements about slavery:

“Consider the question of slavery. The entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an abomination. What moral instruction do we get from the God of Abraham on this subject? Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.”

The key phrase, of course, is “now agrees.” There is a reason why the civilized world “now agrees” with the notion that slavery is wrong. It is because of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments.

Prior to the Old Testament there were no limitations on the institution of slavery. In the Old Testament there clearly were. And in the New Testament we see even greater limitations. Indeed, in the Book of Galatians,Paul clearly states that there is no longer a distinction between freed man and slave. He says that we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But, of course, Harris selectively quotes the Old and New Testaments in order to obscure these important points. And he also relies upon historical ignorance, hoping that the reader will assume that slavery in the Roman Empire was the same as slavery in America.He does not mention that people often chose to be slaves in the First Century.Nor does he reveal that they were often in that state temporarily and as a means of paying off a debt – rather than as a permanent function of their racial identity.

Sam Harris’ opposition to slavery is due to the role the God-inspired Bible has played in shaping our Christian nation. Christianity taught America that slavery is wrong,and America taught Sam Harris that slavery is wrong.

Clearly, it is time for Sam Harris to admit the source of his belief in objective morality. Sam Harris derives his beliefs from God, not the other way around. God never told Moses to say to the people of Israel “Sam I Am has sent me to you.”