A Few Example Posts:

  • "The End of Faith: A Short Response to Sam Harris"
  • See also:
  • "A Long Response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith, by Neil Shenvi"

  • "Is John Piper the Best Answer to Emergence and Postmodernism?"

  • "Captured"

  • "The Storm is Over"

  • "If Golfing Were the Pursuit of Moral Perfection"

  • 4.25.2006

    The End of Faith: A Short Response

    Through an interesting series of events, I found myself holding a book entitled The End of Faith (New York; W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), written by Sam Harris. The back of the book has endorsements by Alan Dershowitz, Joseph C. Hough, Jr., and Peter Singer.

    My first and last "technical" description is”Wow!” Acording to Harris, it seems that I myself, personally, have become an extremely dangerous element in society and should be neutralized--in the realm of influence--as soon as possible.

    Reading the book, I felt like a man on a wanted poster (only my mug shot would reveal a wide-eyed soul pointing at himself as if to say, “Who? Me?”) Shucks. I thought I was just living life, paying taxes, loving my wife and kids, recovering from an appendectomy, and enjoying The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Disney and Walden Media with pizza from Papa John’s... I had no idea I had been lumped in with the misery of the Black Death, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, September 11, anti-Semitism, and Nazism. No wonder I’m exhausted these days.

    So, in the interest of piling on oneself, I’ll take responsibility for slavery, the Batan Death March, the Federal Debt (and Deficit), and the common cold. Whew! I’d say it’s nap time already.

    Sam’s book is like drinking from an anti-theism fire hose. His writing is interesting, and I even found myself laughing (not mocking, but laughing) at how he words some things. He anticipates some arguments used by Christian apologists and answers them head-on. (By answering, I do not mean refuting.) At least he has listened--somewhat. I found Sam Harris to be thoughtful (not always, but mostly in Chapter 6) and extremely intelligent.

    As a limited response to The End of Faith, I wanted to mention just a few of things.

    Mr. Harris portrays faith as holding to a belief without evidence--or even in the face of evidence:

    In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. p. 23.

    ...the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustifed belief in matters of ultimate concern... p. 65.

    Credit goes to Christopher Hitchens for distilling, in a single phrace, a principle of discourse that could well arrest our slide toward the abyss: “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Let us pray that billions of us soon agree with him. (p. 176).

    The author’s view of faith seems to be simple and total. Faith is an unwarranted belief period. And this applies to all of every different kind of faith.

    If Mr. Harris is saying that everything proposed by the evangelical faith is without evidence, I would have to respond as Tom Gilson (see here also) did and ask if he has considered the numerous books for Christian evidences. My impression is that he disregards them wholesale. And I would remind him that simple disregard does not constitute an argument.

    I believe that there are evidences for Christianity that have built up a framework of credibility supporting other propositions of the Faith that are not evidenced in a historical or scientific way. Some will simply dismiss me here, but I would point them to the last sentence in the previous paragraph. Yet at the bottom of this Christian, theistic framework is an assumption that our reasoning is valid. Many theists have reasons for what they believe. But these reasons and reasonings will never be “good enough” to someone who has made a prior philosophical commitment to naturalism.

    Yet, I may have found some common ground with Mr. Harris in his following paragraph on intuition (the basis of his hope for a science of right and wrong):

    ...”intuition” is a term that we simply cannot do without, because it denotes the most basic constituent of our faculty of understanding. While this is true in matters of ethics, it is no less true in science. When we can break our knowledge of a thing down no further, the irreducible leap that remains is intuitively taken. The traditional opposition between reason and intuition is a false one: reason is itself intuitive to the core.... One often hears scientists and philosophers concede that something or other is a “brute fact”--that is, one that admits of no reduction. The question of why physical have causes, say, is not one that scientists feel the slightest temptation to ponder. It is just so. To demand an accounting of so basic a fact is like asking how we know that two plus two equals four. Scientists presuppose the validity of such brutishness--as, indeed, they must.

    The point, I trust, is obvious: we cannot step out of the darkness without taking a first step. And, reason, without knowing how, understands this axiom if it would understand anything at all.... (p. 183)

    In chapter six, Harris proposes that we can avoid the relativism and pragmatism that plague secularism today. He proposes that we develop a science of right and wrong. What is the basis for this science? The intuition described above.

    Now this is where I really question Harris. If people of faith are to be dismissed because they hold to propositions without evidence, I have to ask the author, “Where is your evidence to validate such a confidence in intuition?” In the immediate context, he says that intuition has helped mathematicians do their work. But this is a circumstantial, experience-based appeal, is it not? Where are the controlled scientific studies that prove intuition exists, and where are the studies that show its measured reliability? This is an honest question.

    My point is that Harris appears to have a strong confidence in the moral reasoning of man based on his intuition. The naturalist, atheist, or strong agnostic may howl at my next point, but I really hope to get a hearing: a strong confidence in a philosophical assumption like “man’s intuition can serve as a basis for a science of right and wrong” is faith.

    Yes, it is.

    I agree that our world-views have to take a “first step.” But Harris verbally clubs those who take a different first step than he. He’s free to do so, but he is no more free from placing his confidence, his faith, in something than we theists are.

    Mr. Harris’s naturalism is a philosophy. Naturalism is simply a belief. And I have yet to be shown that it is inherently better than theism. The hard truth of it all is that naturalists hold to their belief the same way theists hold to theism: with confidence--faith --in a basic starting point.

    As an author, Harris is refreshing and perplexing at the same time. I’m glad he sees the futility of relativism and pragmatism. Yet, I am perplexed at his belief that science can discover right and wrong (morality)--given a naturalistic world-view. Its like a sailor who denies the stars--and calls the sky pitch black. The sailor can hang a lantern (intuition) on the mast to replace the stars, but he’d still be as much at drift.

    This “science of right and wrong” seems utopian to me. I have no confidence in an optimistic future for moral realism based on naturalism and a faith in man’s intuition. I am not convinced that science can discover morality. As one who also believes in preserving our race, I say we can’t afford to wait for science to discover right and wrong. Indeed, science needs to be guided by ethics now.

    Yet, Harris is not all wrong. Despite his thought that theists only find moral maxims in an ancient text, we believe in the conscience. Although it is flawed, it does remind us that we live in a moral universe. Maybe what he calls intuition, we call conscience. The ideas of right and wrong are inside us as well as listed in the despised ancient texts of Scripture. However, I believe the secular intuition has no basis for knowing its own existence or trustworthiness. Why trust the conclusions of a mind kick up into the universe by chance?

    It seems to me that much of Harris’s appeal to a naturalistic, rationalistic world-view is based in moral outrage for the past and fear for the future. He lists many historical injustices as evidence of the danger of faith. (He even sweeps the Nazis and the Communists under the rug of faith. Very convenient). He then expresses fear that future injustices based on faith may actually destroy the human race. But what reason does Harris give that preserving the race is good or necessary? And if there is a reason to preserve the race, what scientific, rationalistic evidence is there to back that reason up? Others who hold a common world-view with Harris have concluded that the human race simply isn’t worth much (see this article).

    The End of Faith has other problems: The author's generalizing interpretation of history, holding Christianity as inherently anti-Semitic, the thought that one’s faith must put others outside the circle of one's moral concern, etc. But I will leave them for other theists to respond. In fact, our smart people better get to it.

    I have googled for Christian responses to this book and have found extremely few. I may be wrong, but if Harris is the philosophical picture of the near future, relativism and pragmatism could become passé. We may be looking at an intolerant, secular moral absolutism that carries an open disgust for all people of every faith.

    We need our smart people (I wish I were one...) to get crackin’.


    At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Tom Gilson said...

    Some excellent points here:

    "a strong confidence in a philosophical assumption like 'man’s intuition can serve as a basis for a science of right and wrong' is faith."


    "simple disregard does not constitute an argument".

    Harris is not as consistently rational as he thinks he is.

    Harris's book came out about the same time as McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism. Stark's Victory of Reason came out a bit later. I haven't read the Stark book yet, though I have read The Twilight. Both books make a strong evidential case against Harris's position regarding religion as a social force.

    Harris plays to his own audience. If Richard Dawkins "Read Sam Harris and wake up," you know the book is going to be inflammatory, and that its statements against religion need not be supported.

    At 2:31 PM, Blogger John Rush said...

    Thanks for your comment and your links, Tom. I also read and liked McGrath's "The Twilight of Atheism." Wrote about it here.

    At 2:40 PM, Blogger John Rush said...

    Also, I would like to link to a lecture by Os Guinness on the dangers of Christian hypocrisy. I believe that Christian hypocrisy has been a great damage to many people, and I fear it in myself--and know I have been guilty of it. Yet, Christ is no hypocrite. In pointing out my disagreement with Sam Harris, I do not want to appear to "attack" him--as if I could (he is much more intelligent than I.) Anyway, check out the lecture linked in this post. I thought it appropriate concerning Mr. Harris's arguments against faith because of the sins of the past.

    At 5:26 PM, Blogger Russel Trojan said...

    Like you, I read things like you describe and shake my head in amazement. The belief that one can draw a cause/consequence relationship (morals) from a cause/effect environment (naturalism) is remarkably silly. "Ought" cannot come from "Is".

    At 10:39 PM, Blogger Jeremy Weaver said...

    Great review/response brother! Oh yeah...I thought you were the smart people.

    I'll forgive you for those millions you've killed throughout history, but he ultimiate question is, Will the God who apparently (dis-apparently) does not exist forgive you? Oh wait...if He doesn't exist, what's the problem with your co-conspiracy in the Batan death march, holocaust, and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?

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    At 6:38 AM, Blogger Joe said...

    Mr. Harris exercises faith daily, he just doesn't accept that he does.

    Every time he boards an airplane to go a book signing he exercises faith.

    He has faith that the pilot is well trained, although he has no p priori evidence of that.

    He has faith that the builders of the aircraft did their jobs correctly, although he has no a priori evidence of that.

    He has faith that the laws of physics and areodynamics will remain dependable, although he only has past experience to lead him to that conclusion.

    He has faith that the next chair he goes to sit in will hold him. I doubt that he examines each chair to determine whether it is structurally sound before sitting. In fact, if he did he would be labeled "obsessive compulsive."

    The question is not whether he exercises faith, even by his definition, but whether he recognizes the object of his faith.

    My experience, my study of the Word and the testimony of others leads me to prefer to put my faith in things unseen yet hoped for.

    I find the person of Jesus to be more dependable than what passes as science.

    If Harris doesn't mind, I'll continue to put my faith in God through Christ.

    Even if he does mind.

    At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    After an initial anger at the tone this author (and others of his ilk)uses to dismiss those who embrace faith, I usually end up feeling sorry for them. I will never, ever understand those who choose to live their lives trying to refute the God who made them and this world. How sad.

    The commenter 'joe' here said it best.

    At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Just discovered your blog after typing "the end of faith christian response" in Google. Really great stuff here. Keep blogging!


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