Sam Harris on faith, evidence, intolerance and spirituality

Along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris has been called one of the “four horsemen of the new atheism”. His website can be found here.

This article will examine some of the ideas in Harris’ three books, The End of Faith (Free Press, London, 2005), Letter to a Christian Nation (Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 2006) and The Moral Landscape (Free Press, New York, 2010), namely his understanding (or lack of) of religious faith and its relationship to evidence and intolerance, particularly when it comes to Christianity.

In The End of Faith Harris defines faith as “belief in, and life orientation toward, certain historical propositions.” (End, p 65)

I suppose I could agree with this definition, however Harris says that faith beliefs are not based on any evidence,

“religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern.” (End, p 65)


“every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it had no evidence.” (End, p 23)

As we shall see, Harris’ claim that faith is never based on evidence is not based on evidence. Many Christians do have reasons and evidence for their faith.

Like other new atheists, Harris focuses on the intolerance and atrocities of religion. Hew writes,

“religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.” (End, p 26)

I could respond that atheism has been behind millions of deaths in the 20th Century. Atheism is the foundation of the Communist worldview and Communist governments killed over 90 million people between 1917 and 1991. Reading accounts of Christians, who suffered under Communism, such as Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, it is apparent that sometimes it was their atheism which motivated Communists to commit atrocities.

Sam Harris and other atheists would object that they are not Communists and disown them (Letter, p 40-43), but likewise, most Christians will disown and not justify the “Christians” who committed atrocities in the past. There is a double-standard here.

While Christians would argue that the crimes and atrocities committed by Christians were a perversion or misrepresentation of true Christianity, in what way were the atrocities committed by Communists a perversion of atheism?

Some of the things which Harris blames on religion include,

“the divine right of kings, feudalism, the caste system, slavery, political duels, chastity belts, trail by ordeal, child labor, human and animal sacrifice, the stoning of heretics, cannibalism, sodomy laws, taboos against contraception, human radiation experiments.”(End, p 25)

Okay, I can see how there is a connection between religion and “the divine right of kings” and “the stoning of heretics”, but “human radiation experiments”? What part of the Bible is that based on? And who decided to use the Bible to justify them?

What is the point of mentioning the caste system and cannibalism in a book directed primarily against Christianity? Am I somehow responsible for them because I believe in God even though I disapprove of them and I have a very different conception of God from their practitioners? Why shouldn’t I group atheists with cannibalism and the caste system because that is what non-Christians do?

It may be true that religion has caused or been a part of many horrible things in history, but this is such a broad statement as to be meaningless. I could say that politics has been responsible for many horrible things, or as Michael Moore suggested, tongue in cheek , so have “stupid white men”.

The problem is that many atheists seem to think that everyone who believes in God is collectively responsible for all the crimes of religion and blame Christians for the crimes of Muslims. This is about as logical as saying that politics has been responsible for much evil in the world (which is true), and then heaping your local democratically elected representative in with Hitler and Stalin.

Even when religion has done terrible things, we should not draw simplistic conclusions about the evils of religion. Many atheists will not acknowledge the distinction that the crimes and atrocities committed by Muslims are often the result of Muslims obeying the teachings of Muhammad, but the crimes and atrocities committed by Christians are usually the result of Christians disobeying the teachings of Jesus and doing the complete opposite.

The way some new atheists talk you would think that Christianity was nothing but a force for evil. However, Michael Shermer, an atheist and founder of The Skeptics Society in the United States, has written,

“However, for every one of these grand tragedies [committed by religion] there have been ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil; shades of gray complexity should abound in all such societal structures, and religion should not be treated any differently than, say, political organizations. One could easily build a case that state-sponsored terrorism, revolutions, and wars make even these horrific religion-sponsored catastrophes appear mild by comparison.” (Michael Shermer, How We Believe, Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, Second Edition, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2003, p 71-72)

Similarly, Daniel Dennett, another of the “four horsemen”, has written,

“Sometimes – rarely – religions go bad, veering into something like group insanity or hysteria, and causing great harm.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, Penguin Books, New York, 2006, p 72)

Admittedly, the fact, that Christianity “rarely” goes bad and its positive achievements outnumber the bad, is little comfort if you are accused of being a witch in Salem. But if Jesus tells Christians to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), forgive everyone (Matthew 6:14-15), treat others as you would like them to treat you (Matthew 7:12) and that leaders should serve (Matthew 20:25-27), and the Church does the opposite, shouldn’t we be trying to work out why?

At one point Harris writes,

“many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are not the products of faith per se but of out baser natures – forces like greed, hatred, and fear for which religious beliefs are themselves the best (or even the only) remedy.” (End, p 15)

I would think this is a fairly accurate assessment. Paul said much the same thing,

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do , I do not do, but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:14-20)

Christians are not completely transformed by Jesus. Their baser natures lead them to commit atrocities, and Jesus gets the blame.

However, Harris believes this explanation is a “myth” (End, p 15).The real cause of religious intolerance and violence is faith without evidence. He writes,

“The question of how the church managed to transform Jesus’ principal message of loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek into a doctrine of murder and rapine seems to promise a harrowing mystery; but it is no mystery at all. Apart from the Bible’s heterogeneity and outright self-contradiction, allowing it to justify diverse and irreconcilable aims, the culprit is the doctrine of faith itself. Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence – that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants – he becomes capable of anything.” (End, p 85)

So, according to Harris, the problem is not “sin that dwells in me”, religious hypocrisy and disobeying Jesus commands to love, forgive and serve. It is faith without evidence. Huh?

Which churches does Harris think are preaching the “doctrine of murder and rapine” and that “Jews drink the blood of infants”? I must have slept in when that sermon was preached. Seriously, what does Harris hope to achieve by bringing up things which no Christian believes anymore?

Harris argues that all religions are intrinsically intolerant and hostile to each other,

“Religious violence is still with us because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests are restraining the most lethal improprieties of faith. It is time we acknowledged that no real foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity.” (End, p 225)

Well, I don’t have any urges to go out and persecute those who disagree with me (and neither do any of my Christian friends.) The secular authorities are not restraining us from persecuting anybody. They do not make any difference. Does Harris really have any evidence for what he is saying? If religious faith leads to intolerance, violence and murder, and 80-90% of people have some form of religious faith, shouldn’t we all be dead already?

Like Jesus, said, I treat others the way I want them to treat me (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31), and I want other people to respect and tolerate my beliefs. Here, Jesus is commanding religious tolerance.

In The Moral Landscape Harris is critical of postmodernism and its claims there are no moral absolutes or absolute truth (Moral, p 5, 17, 29). However, here he seems to be influenced by postmodernism and its assumption that anyone, who believes that what they believe is true, is automatically intolerant of those with different beliefs.

Postmodernists do not seem to understand the difference between tolerance of ideas and tolerance of people. You can be intolerant of an idea, in the sense that you believe it is wrong, but you can still tolerate and accept the person, who believes the idea, and not persecute them. Liberal democracy could not function without this distinction, expressed best in a quote attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Such sentiments would be meaningless to many postmodernists who would think Voltaire was intolerant.

Harris seems to assume that if you believe you are right in matters of faith, you are automatically intolerant of and even violent towards those with different beliefs. The evidence shows this is not true. Many people with different religious beliefs do tolerate each other and co-exist. If Protestants and Catholics tried to kill each other in Northern Ireland, but co-existed peacefully elsewhere in the world, common sense would suggest there are other factors behind religious intolerance and violence.

It is a pity the new atheists cannot use their supposed intelligence to research the real causes of religious violence and extremism, rather than claim it is faith without evidence. After all, I know some pretty dumb Christians who would fit Harris’ stereotype of faith without evidence, but they are not violent or intolerant.

Harris acknowledges that there are more tolerant religious moderates, however he writes,

“Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in the world, because their religious beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.” (End, p 45)

Not only does Harris attack the religious who are intolerant of each other, he also attacks the religious who are tolerant of each other. We just can’t win.

So, if you are a religious moderate, tolerant of others’ beliefs, and opposed to violence and extremism, you are still “responsible for the religious conflict in the world.” There is something prejudiced and immoral with blaming people for things they do not believe or approve of.

Harris acknowledges that religious people have done good things,

“Thousands of pages could be written cataloguing facts of this sort [of positive achievements] of every religion, but to what end? Would it suggest that religious faith is good, or even benign? It is a truism to say that people of faith have created almost everything of value in our world, because nearly every person who has ever swung a hammer or trimmed a sail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job …. The fact that religious faith has left its mark on every aspect of our civilization is not an argument in its favor, nor can any particular faith be exonerated simply because its adherents made foundational contributions to human culture.” (End, p 108-109)

Why not?

Harris may be right that many good things were done by people in religious cultures not necessarily because they were motivated by their religious beliefs, but because that was all there was then. (Others were motivated to do good because of their religious beliefs.) But surely it is equally valid that many of the bad things done by people with religious beliefs were not necessarily motivated to do them by their religious beliefs.

If someone, who believes in God, does something bad, he did not necessarily do it because he believes in God. It is more likely to have been their “baser natures” in action but Harris will not consider this (End, p 15).

Harris can’t have it both ways. Every bad thing done before the rise of secularism is an argument against faith and religion, but none of the positive achievements are an argument in its favour.

Harris also writes,

“Even if a belief in God had a reliable, positive effect on human behavior, this would not offer a reason to believe in God.” (Letter, p 46)

There is another double-standard here. It is true that the positive achievements of Christianity or any religion do not prove that God exists, but many new atheists argue or imply the opposite, that the bad things done by religion are evidence that God does not exist. It looks like readers of The End of Faith are supposed to draw that conclusion. Yet the new atheists’ argument is equally wrong. If a Christian ignores the teachings of Jesus and does something bad, that does not prove that God does not exist, only that the Christian is a hypocrite. Even if Allah in the Koran were to tell Muslims to commit atrocities, that does not prove that Allah does not exist, only that we hope he doesn’t.

While Harris acknowledges the role of Christian abolitionists in ending slavery, he writes,

“The fact that some abolitionists used parts of scripture to repudiate other parts does not indicate that the Bible is a good guide to morality. Nor does it suggest that human beings should need to consult a book to resolve moral questions of this sort. The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying that same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.” (Letter, p 18-19)

If it is so obvious that owning another human being “is patently evil”, why did it take decades of struggle by Christian abolitionists to end the slave trade?

Quite frankly, I think the reason Harris believes slavery is wrong is because Christian abolitionists changed Western society’s attitude to slavery. His views are the result of Christian abolitionism, not any supposedly obvious belief that owning another human being is evil. Slavery existed for thousands of years and still exists today in some Muslim countries and even in the form of sex slavery in modern secular Europe. It is not obvious that slavery is wrong.

It is hard to make sense of Harris’ attitude to religion and tolerance. He attacks religious extremists for their intolerance. He attacks religious moderates for their tolerance. At the same time he seems to be advocating intolerance of all religions. He complains that “criticising a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture.” (End, p 13) Huh?

If this were true, how was Harris able to find publishers for his books?

Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, journalists, scientists, historians have been criticising and attacking Christianity and other religions for decades, if not centuries. Perhaps, Harris needs to read more books.

Elsewhere, Harris appears to concede that faith without evidence is not the problem in itself. What people believe is the problem, “the differences between faith are as relevant as they are unmistakable.” (End, p 108)

Harris likes Jainism,

“But the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem. A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely.” (End, p 148)

“Mahariva, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented and killed people in the name of God for centuries on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.” (Letter, p 22-23)

I imagine it would not have made any difference at all if the Bible contained this passage from Mahavira. Jesus said similar things, which I mentioned in Part One, to love your enemies ( Matthew 5:43-48), to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), to forgive everyone (Matthew 6:14-15), that leaders should serve (Matthew 20:25-28), and to treat others like you would like them to treat you (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).

The problem with Christianity is that many Christians are disobeying Jesus. They are not basing their actions on admittedly difficult passages in the Old Testament, which they have probably never read, as many new atheists maintain. If all these “Christians” were Jains instead, they would probably just ignore Jainism’s similar teachings.

If Jainism were the dominant religion in the United States with its culture of materialism, individualism, capitalism, competition, militarism, power, and obsession with guns, I doubt it would still retain its pacifist teachings. It would be corrupted in the same way American Christianity has been corrupted by its culture.

There are about four million Jains in the world. They look like the religious equivalent of New Zealand – too small to cause any trouble. (On the other hand, they do not seem to be doing much, if any, good either.)

If there were only four million Christians in the world, they would probably also not be causing any trouble. They would be living out the teachings of Jesus and people would have to Google them to find out what they are about, like I had to do when Harris mentioned Jainism.

Many Christians would argue that one of the reasons Christianity goes wrong is not because of faith without evidence, but because of success and power. Everything was going fine at first. Christianity was a persecuted minority, living out the teachings of Jesus and depending in his power and grace. Then, the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian. Christianity soon became the official religion of the Empire, everybody jumped on the bandwagon and true Christianity clearly lost something.

Christianity is arguably at its best when it is being persecuted, not doing the persecuting (Matthew 6:11-12, Luke 6:22-23). In Part One I mentioned the book Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Lutheran minister who was imprisoned and tortured by the Communist authorities for fourteen years. Tortured for Christ and his other books are full of accounts of Christians loving and forgiving their Communist torturers. This is true Christianity, what Jesus had in mind.

Since Harris is American, I assume much of his experience with Christianity would be the Religious Right which seems to have forgotten that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and has turned Christianity into just another adversarial political movement. I wonder if he would have written books like The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation if his experience with Christianity was closer to that of Richard Wurmbrand.

On the other hand, in spite of Harris’ praise for Jainism and its pacifism, he also describes pacifism as “flagrantly immoral” (End, p 199) and says that Ghandi’s pacifism and non-violent resistance may have worked with the British, but not with the Nazis (End, p 202).

So what would have happened if the United States had been a truly pacifist Jainist country? They would presumably have done nothing during World War II and let Nazi Germany and Japan overrun much of the world. Although I have a lot of books and DVDs about World War II and the Holocaust, personally I am a pacifist. On the other hand I do appreciate that other people have gone to war and fight the Nazis and other evils. I think there is such a thing as a just war, but I would not like to do any of the killing. Does that make me a hypocrite? Are we better off because Christians in the past were not troubled by Jesus’ teachings and destroyed their enemies? These are real dilemmas and like his condemnation of both religious intolerance and religious tolerance, Harris’ condemnation of both religious violence and pacifism does not help.

Getting back to Harris’ argument about faith and evidence, in Letter to a Christian Nation he says that if there was good evidence for the resurrection (and other beliefs), everyone would believe it,

“If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. everyone recognizes that to rely on “faith” to decide specific question of historical fact is ridiculous – that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible or the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad’s conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.” (Letter, p 67)

Harris appears to be arguing that if it were true, everyone would just believe it. However, in the same book he wrote,

“According to a recent Gallup poll only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process without the interference of a deity.” (Letter, p x)

If everyone does not believe in naturalistic evolution, even some scientists, does this mean it cannot be true?

Christian belief is not simple an intellectual issue. It was implications for how we are to behave. Some people reject Christianity not because there is no evidence, but because they do not like its moral demands. Josh McDowell gives a couple of examples of this in The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict,

“A student in a New England university said he had an intellectual problem with Christianity and therefore just could not accept Christ as Savior. “Why can’t you believe?” I asked. He replied, “The New Testament is not reliable.” I then asked, “If I could demonstrate that the New Testament is one of the most reliable pieces of literature of antiquity, will you believe?” He retorted, “No!” “You don’t have a problem with your mind, but with your will,” I answered.

A graduate student at the same university after a lecture on “The Resurrection: Hoax or History?” bombarded me with questions intermingled with accusations (later I found out he did this with most Christian speakers). Finally, after forty-five minutes of dialogue I asked him, “If I prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was raised from the dead and is the Son of God, will you consider Him?” The immediate and emphatic reply was, “No!” (Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1999, p xxxiii)

People are not completely objective and rational when it comes to what they believe. Some people will reject evidence-based belief in favour of their own self-interest. Harris has suggested that science could change our views about the morality of abortion (End, p 177). But if science were to prove that abortion is wrong, does Harris really think that would make any difference to the pro-choice feminists?

Harris’ claim that Christian faith is not based on evidence is simply not true. The title of Josh McDowell’s book was The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Lee Strobel has written similar books called The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. These are not those novelty books with blank pages. These are introductory books to Christian apologetics, a field of scholarship which argues that Christian belief does not depend on just faith, but also on reason and evidence. After all, if what you believe is true, there should be some reasons and evidence from reality to support it.

Harris says there is no evidence for the Christian belief in the resurrection (End, p 87-88). He could read my newspaper article Jesus’ Resurrection Based on Evidence or visit websites like Gary Habermas or Risen Jesus.

Now, some atheists and sceptics will respond to Christian apologists and address their arguments and evidence. Harris does not do this. He does not attempt to explain what really happened to Jesus’ body. He simply says that there is no evidence. There is a big difference between saying that the reasons, which Christians have for their beliefs, are wrong or flawed, and saying they have no reasons for their beliefs,

Harris’ statements, that Christ an faith is not based on evidence, are not based on evidence. He is guilty of the same belief without evidence that he accuses Christians and others of.

I am not sure who Harris hopes to convince with his no evidence for faith claims. Even other atheists who have a look at what the other side believes on the Internet will know it is not true.

Many Christians confuse legitimate Christian faith without evidence, in the sense of believing God still loves you and you can still trust Him when life is going wrong, with belief about the divinity and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth which is supported by logic and evidence for those who will make the effort to look. They think that they can get away with being mentally lazy and just believe what they are told. That does not mean atheists can pretend all Christians have no reasons or evidence for their beliefs. After all, there are some pretty dumb atheists out there too. Moreover, atheism is not based on evidence. Atheists cannot prove God does not exist.

In The Moral Landscape Harris discusses Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, director of the National Institutes of Health, evangelical Christian and author of The Language of God. A highly qualified scientist and a Christian – the sort of person atheists say should not exist. Harris does not concede that some Chrisitans do have reasons for theri beliefs after all. He claims Collins’ beliefs are based on his spirritual experiences (Moral, p 165) and accuses him of committing “intellectual suicide” (Moral, p 161). This is not completely true. Collins also has reasons and evidence for his beliefs, but Harris largely dismisses them.

Harris quotes Collins quoting this passage from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which influenced his decision to became a Christian,

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thiing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is one thing we must not say. 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 a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else He would the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and call Him a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not let that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Moral, p 162-163)

This argument was summarized by Josh McDowell, who was quoted earlier, as Lord, Lunatic or Liar. If Jesus said he was the Son of God, he was either lying, insane, or he really was the Son of God (New Evidence, p 155-163).

Harris does not really address this argument. He points out that other people, such as Charles Manson, have also claimed to be God (Moral, p 162). Well, does he think Charles Manson really was God, or was he lying or insane (or both)?

The fact that other people have said they were God does not prove that Jesus was not God. There seems to be a bit of postmodernist thinking here. There are many different possible answers, so none of them are true.

Furthermore, polytheists and pantheists might get away with claiming to be “God” because they have a very different idea of what “God” is (“Everything is God, including me”) than Jesus from a Jewish monotheist background where to claim to be God is to claim to be the personal omnipotent creator of the universe.

Harris has some different ideas from many atheists. He writes about the “reality of psychic phenomena” (End, p 41) and says “we don’t know what happens after death” (End, p 208), which sounds like he is open to the possibility of life after death.

More interestingly, Harris acknowledges that there is “a sacred dimension to our existence” (End, p 16), that “We cannot live by reason alone” (End, p 43) and that we have spiritual and emotional needs beyond our material needs (End, p 205-206).

Christians would agree with Harris so far, but he has different ideas about how our spiritual needs are to be met. Rather than finding forgiveness and wholeness through relationship with Jesus, made possible by his death atoning for our sins, Harris advocates spiritual practices, such as fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation and the use of psychotropic plants (End, p 210) with the goal that people will “divest themselves of the feeling that they call “I” and thereby relinquish the sense that they are separate from the rest of the universe.” (End, p 40)

He also writes,

“Break the spell of thought, and the duality of subject and object will vanish – as will the fundamental difference between conventional states of happiness and suffering. This is a fact that few Western scholars have ever made it their business to understand.” ( End, p 218)

It seems odd that Harris can write about the need to “break the spell of thought”, and at the same time attack Christians for their blind faith and unreason.

If I were to show someone those last two quotes out of context, they would probably think the author was a Buddhist. Harris clearly regards Buddhism and Eastern mystical and philosophical traditions as superior to Western religious beliefs (End, p 215-218).

In a future blog, I may write about Harris’ views on morality. He places a lot of value on what causes human happiness as being good. This is very un-Buddhist thinking. Buddhism teaches that desire, not faith, is the problem. (Christianity does not say that desire, in itself, is wrong. Desire becomes wrong when it is misapplied and becomes sin.) For Buddhists desire must be overcome and in the end everyone will lose their identity and individualism in eternal nothingness called Nirvana. The Buddhist idea of heaven actually resembles some Christians’ conception of hell.

While I doubt Harris is a closet Buddhist, he does not seem to consider whether there is a connection between Buddhism’s anti-desire and anti-identity beliefs and its spiritual practices which lead to a “sense” that we are not “separate from the rest of the universe”.

Harris also believes in moral absolutes and absolute truth and rejects postmodernist relativism. In this point he is in agreement with the Western Christian worldview. Eastern worldviews tend to be relativist. Again, is this relativism a result of the subjective spiritual practices which Harris advocates?

If Harris had been raised in a culture with an Eastern mystical worldview uninfluenced by the West, he would not be a neuroscientist. Many atheists do not like to admit it, but the rise of science in the West was a product of the Christian worldview. In For the Glory of God Rodney Stark argued that science emerged in a Christian culture, not an animist or polytheist one, because,

“Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, anticipating human comprehension.” (Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2003, p 147)

This would not be possible if you believed in Zeus.

Early scientists with a Christian worldview believed that when God created the universe, He established laws of nature by which the universe operated and it was their role as scientists to discover these laws. My atheist medieval history lecturer explained this in my first year of university.

In 2004 Antony Flew, one of the world’s leading atheist philosophers, announced that he had changed his mind and believed that God did exist. In his book There is a God Flew wrote that one of the reasons why he came to believe in God was the existence of consistent scientific laws which implied there must be a lawmaker behind them. (Antony Flew, There is a God, Harper Collins, New York, 2008, p 88-89, 95-112)

The development of modern science is one of the many positive achievements of Christianity. Some books on this subject include D. James and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?, Thomas Nelson, Tennessee, 1994, Vincent Caroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2002, Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, Tyndale, Illinois, 2007.

Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:16, 18)

In other words, you should be able to tell if a person or a belief system is good or bad by what it does or produces. If Eastern mysticism and philosophy really is superior to Western Christianity, where are its superior fruits? The social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, universities and hospitals, or the equivalent of the rise of science in the West?

Is there really any evidence from centuries of Eastern mysticism that having the sort of mystical experiences, which Harris advocates, makes you a better or more caring person? Or is he just making assertions without any evidence to support them? Okay, there was Gandhi, but he had Jesus as a role model.

At the same time Harris is also critical of the New Age movement which adopts some of the spiritual practices which he advocates. He may be hard to please, but I had to laugh when he wrote,

“The New Age has offered little progress in this regard, because it has made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells. Most of the beliefs and practices that have been designated as “spiritual” in this New Age or any other, have arisen and thrive in the perfect vacuum of critical intelligence.” (End, p 285)

Harris also writes,

“At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed.” (End, p 204)

“A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of every religion, because spiritual experiences, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous.” (End, p 221)

He appears to be arguing that a private spiritual experience is acceptable and good. The problem seems to be if the person, who has had the experience, tells others about it, and traditions or religion build up around someone’s experience. Perhaps, part of the problem is that the faith of the religious can be secondhand, as opposed to the founder’s initial spiritual experience.

Harris says that the problem is that people make religious assumptions based on their spiritual experiences,

“Such an enterprise becomes irrational only when people begin making claims about the world that cannot be supported by empirical evidence.” (End, p 210)

But can we have mystical experiences without interpreting them according to our preconceptions or using them to reinforce our preconceptions? A Pentecostal Christian would assume their experience proves they have been baptised in the Holy Spirit. A New Ager or Eastern mystic would assume their experience proves they are one with “God” or the universe. Harris’ advocacy of spiritual experience for its own sake seems to be based on his preconception that there is no God.

Furthermore, spiritual experience and religious faith based on evidence are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Earlier, I mentioned Francis Collins, author of The Language of God, whose faith was based on both spiritual experiences and historical and scientific evidence, but Harris does not refute his reasons (Moral, p 160-163)

Harris writes.

“The problem with religion is that it blends this truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason. Take Christianity as an example: it is not enough that Jesus was a man who transformed himself to such a degree that the Sermon on the Mount could be called his heart’s confession. He also had to be the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory. The effect of such dogma is to place the example of Jesus forever out of reach. His teaching ceases to be a set of empirical claims about the linkage between ethics and spiritual insight and instead becomes a gratuitous, and rather gruesome, fairy tale. According to the dogma of Christianity, becoming just like Jesus is impossible. One can only enumerate one’s sins, believe the unbelievable, and await the end of the world.” (End, p 204)

Earlier, Harris quoted C.S. Lewis saying we cannot just say that Jesus was a great moral teacher because great moral teachers do not claim to be the Son of God. If they do, they are either lying, insane or they really are the Son of God. Jesus was a great moral teacher who also said he was the Son of God. We cannot separate these two sides of Jesus’ identity and ignore one.

Jesus’ moral teachings cannot be separated from his claim to be the Son of God. Jesus said he was the Son of God who came to die for our sins so we could be forgiven. In doing so, he would usher in a new covenant between God and us. His moral teachings and the principles in his parables were his expectations of how we are to live in this new covenant, made possible by his death.

Simply calling this “a gratuitous, and rather gruesome, fairy tale” (End, p 204) does not prove it is not true. It does not explain why if Jesus was only a moral teacher, his followers came to believe he was the Son of God who died for his sins and rose from the dead, especially when his original Jewish followers would have found the idea of a carpenter claiming to be the creator of the universe absurd and blasphemous. Jesus must have encouraged this belief and done some pretty impressive things to convince them , like really rising from the dead.

Harris concludes The End of Faith with,

“While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on sufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.” (End, p 221)

But are reason, spirituality and ethics really incompatible with Christianity. Admittedly, they might seem to be if you are being confronted with the Religious Right in the United States. However, one of the themes of this blog is that Western evangelical Christianity has lost its way. It is lukewarm and spiritually dead (Revelation 3:14-22). The church needs revival, to be brought back to spiritual life, which happens when they repent of their sins and turn back to God (2 Chronicles 7:14, Jeremiah 29:12-13).

In his Memoirs Charles Finney, arguably the greatest evangelist of the 19th Century and one of the most controversial, described his personal experience of revival,

“I had accompanied him to the door,and, as I closed the door and turned around, my heart seemed to be liquid within me. All my inward feelings seemed to rise and pour themselves out; and the impression on my mind was – “I want to pour my whole soul out to God.” The rising of my soul was so great that I rushed to the counsel room, back of the front office to pray. There was no fire and no light in the room: hence, it was dark. Nevertheless, it appeared to me as if it was perfectly light.

As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for some time afterward, that it was a wholly mental state. On the contrary, it seemed to me that I met him face to face and saw Him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at His feet. I have always since regarded this as a most remarkable state of mind, for it seemed to me a reality that He stood before me and I fell down at His feet and poured out my soul to Him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance. It seemed to me as if I bathed His feet with my tears, and yet I had no distinct impression that I touched Him, that I recollect. I must have continued in this state for a good while, but my mind was too much absorbed with the interview to recollect scarcely anything that I said.

But I know as soon as my mind became calm enough to break off from the interview, I returned to the front office and found that the fire that I had just made of large wood was nearly burned out. But as I returned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without expecting it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was ever such an experience for me, without any collection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, at a moment entirely unexpected by me, the Holy Spirit descended upon me that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed to comes in waves, and waves of liquid love – for I could not describe it any other way. And yet it did not seem like water, but rather as the breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to be for me like immense wings; and it seemed to me, as these waves passed over me, that they literally moved my hair like a passing breeze.

No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. It seemed to me that I should burst. I wept aloud with joy and love, and I do not know that I should say I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said to the Lord, “Lord, I cannot bear any more!” Yet I had no fear of death.

How long I continued in this state, with this baptism continuing to roll over me and go through me, I do not know. But I know it was late in the evening when a member of my choir – for I was the leader of the choir – came to the office to see me. He was a member of the church. He found me in this state of loud weeping and said to me, “Mr. Finney, what ails you?” I could make him no answer for some time. He then said, “Are you in pain?” I gathered up myself as best I could and replied, “No, but I am so happy that I cannot live.” (Garth Rosell and Richard Dupuis (editors), The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, Zondervan, Michigan, 2002, p 15-17)

I am not suggesting that every Christian’s experience of revival should necessarily be identical to Finney’s. Along with mass evangelism and revival, Finney’s experience led to social reforms, like abolitionism, education and women’s rights. However, would Harris regard Finney’s spiritual experience as positive and worthwhile?

Christian revival combines ethics and spiritual experience, since a crucial step in experiencing revival is when Christians realise how far they have strayed from God’s standards and expectations and they repent of their sins and turn back to God. If this repentance included evangelical Christians repenting of their anti-intellectualism and then seeking to understand why what they believe is true, it would bring together reason, spirituality and ethics, although probably not in the way Harris had in mind.

It would also lead to the “end of faith” in the sense of the faith of worldly, intolerant and lukewarm Western Christianity. Revival would also largely take the winds out of the sails of the new atheist movement since much of their focus is on the unChristian behaviour of Christians ( and such criticisms are often justified), rather than on the actual arguments for or against the existence of God.

One thought on “Sam Harris on faith, evidence, intolerance and spirituality”

  1. Great article. Sam seems to transcend the usual commentator on religious ineffectiveness where they preach compassion and tolerance and for some suspicious reason they become the immoral opposite.

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