Sam Harris’ Disturbing Proposition

I came across the following line in Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

End of Faith, pp 52-53


Seriously? When I first read that line, I had to re-read it several times just to convince myself that my eyes were not playing a trick on me. I re-read the surrounding context to make sure I was not somehow misunderstanding what he was saying. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve got it wrong. He really does appear to mean what his words on the page are saying.

Notice he doesn’t say, ‘…ethical to kill people for what they do, or attempt to do.’ But for what they believe. Not what they’ve done, but for what they think.

He goes on to say, ‘This may seem to be an extraordinary claim…’

No kidding, Sherlock. You’ve got that right – it’s not only extraordinary, it’s crazy mad. What I find difficult to believe is that Sam Harris is still being taken seriously by otherwise thoughtful, level-headed atheists. Since when has it become okay to kill people for what they believe?

And let’s not make any mistake, Sam isn’t talking necessarily about a terrorist who believes it would be okay to detonate a nuke in Times Square or something along those lines. He’s talking about people who believe in God. People who have faith, the sort of faith that Sam believes should be brought to an end. Apparently by whatever means is necessary.

Unfortunately there are terrorists out there who believe in God, and terrorism is a great evil  – no matter what beliefs and motives the perpetrators happen to have. But Sam Harris goes on to lump all believers with terrorists. In his childish imagination that makes them all the same – and therefore just as dangerous. His entire book is a hopeless train wreck of thought and logic.

In Sam’s simplistic worldview, because there are dangerous terrorists who believe in God, the problem must therefore be with faith. And therefore, that makes believers dangerous. The answer according to Sam is obvious: we must bring an end to faith so that we can secure the world from dangerous acts of terrorism.

This is an example of the type of black-and-white thinking that can only thrive in the soil of highly selective facts and the manure of misinformation. Yes, there are crazy people who believe in God and do bad things. There are also crazy people who don’t believe in God – yes, bad atheists – who do bad things. And there are good atheists and good believers who have made the world a better place to live in.

The problem is not faith. Even if you could somehow remove faith in God, you would still have bad people wanting to do bad things in the name of whatever it is they believe in. Just ask Stalin or Mao Tse Tung or the mad atheistic dictator currently running North Korea. They collectively have millions of corpses to their credit.

These sorts of facts of history seem to escape the notice of the likes of Sam Harris. (This is where some atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, jump in and declaim that butchers like Stalin just happened to be atheists. They didn’t do these things because they were atheists. Only religious people can do that. Poppycock.)

We all have faith. Atheists have faith, even if they don’t care to recognize it as such. We all have faith in the ideals and principles that inform our daily living, faith in the things that we think are important and of ultimate value and, hopefully, affect our behavior for the good of other people. (Of course, this is where many atheists would argue it’s not faith. What they ‘believe’ is grounded in science and fact so isn’t really faith per se. This is not only an arrogant position to take – as if no one else is being scientific or factual – but is nonsensical. But exploring this argument will have to wait for another blog. In the meantime, I recommend the reader to look into Alister McGrath’s excellent book The Twilight of Atheism.).

Unfortunately Sam Harris seems blind to his own faith – the sort of faith that is eerily similar to that of militant fundamentalism. They like to sum up the world in two opposing camps because the black and white thinking of fundamentalist’s doesn’t do well with nuance or complexity. In a nutshell, it says: We’ve got the right idea, and people who don’t agree are dangerous and stupid and worthy to be eliminated. And because we have the right ideas on how to fix the world, we are justified in using force.

I’ll go with Jesus:

Blessed are the peacemakers,

Blessed are the meek,

He believed he had the right ideas, but he excluded the use of force to bring them about. And unlike Sam Harris, he did not recommend killing people for what they believed, even if he thought they were wrong.

Fortunately there are plenty of good atheists out there who find the words of militants like Sam Harris embarrassing.

Thank God for Richard Dawkins

The title of today’s blog may strike those familiar with New Atheism and the current God debate as a little bizarre, so I guess I’d better explain myself.

A few years ago, in 2008 to be exact, while browsing through a local bookstore I came across a copy of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion laying in the discount bin next to God is Not Great.

Until that time I was blissfully unaware of New Atheism and the raging ‘God debate’. I’d never heard of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris. Neither had I heard of any of the names on the other side of the debate, such as Alvin Plantinga, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, Timothy Keller, William Lane Craig and Francis Collins, to name a few.

Being a recent seminary grad the title immediately perked my interest and I picked it up. It was a hard cover edition with a dust jacket, and somewhere on the jacket I came across the following quote from Dawkins:

“If this book works as intended, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

I turned the book over in my hands and flipped through some pages, intrigued by what arguments he might have for his atheism.

I haven’t always been a believer, but then I don’t know if I was ever an atheist, at least not in the sense it has come to mean lately. I stood for several minutes debating with myself whether or not to buy it.

And I have to confess I was a little nervous. Here was a prominent scientist claiming to debunk religion and prove that God was a figment of my imagination. Might there not be contained in the pages of this book a devastatingly poignant argument against God that could demolish my faith? Some argument so water-tight, a weight of evidence so compelling that it would convince me that God was indeed a delusion and my faith would fall apart.

But the bold challenge also piqued my inner ten year old. It amounted, as far as I was concerned, to a double dog dare in its boldness. You can’t back down from a double dog dare without being a sissy. Although no one else was watching and no one would have ever been the wiser, if I backed down I would have known that I had chickened out and proved myself an intellectual sissy.

As I held his book I recalled the words of my seminary professor, Dr. Stan Fowler: Seek out the best arguments from those who take views opposite to yours. It will help you refine and perfect your position, or give you reason to change your mind.

I’d never heard of Dawkins before and didn’t know if he was the best representative for the atheist point of view, but the back cover said he was world renowned, so I thought: why not, I have to start somewhere. If my faith is founded on delusion, better to find out about it now.

In that spirit I decided to take up Mr. Dawkins challenge. And with some trepidation and a lot of curiosity I bought the book, took it home and sat down to read.

I finished reading his book a few days later, and, as I set it down my first thought was: ‘If this is the best atheists can do, then believers sure don’t have much to worry about.’

I was a bit disappointed, really. I had expected something better, more intellectually challenging from someone who supposedly spoke for atheists worldwide. So lacking in substance were his arguments that I even gave the book another read just to make sure I hadn’t missed something.

Dawkins relied heavily on sweeping, superficial statements and catchy phrases of great, swelling rhetoric. But when I brushed aside the blustering propaganda there wasn’t much substance to be found. Many of his claims were simply false, and his argumentation poorly thought through and riddled with faulty logic, his claims devoid of accurate facts.

But I won’t go into a detailed book review here. After all, I’d be a bit late to the party if that was my intention. The book has been out for several years now, going on ten to be exact, and there have been numerous reviews of this book.

For those interested, though, Joanna and Alister McGrath’s little book ‘The Dawkins Delusion’, is probably the best. And it’s short but to the point – a feature I like about books.

But I digress. Back to why I’m thankful.

Dawkins continuously made sweeping claims to the effect that science had so done away with God that no thinking person could rationally believe in him (or her). Atheism was the only alternative for thinking people, according to him.

And as I read his book, I kept waiting for him to drop the science bomb that would demolish God. I waited in vain. While he continually referred to the science that made faith impossible, he signally failed to provide any solid, detailed examples in his book.

This surprised me. If, as he said, science was so firmly in the atheist camp, wouldn’t it be a simple matter to produce a few solid, detailed examples.

I am a trained computer programmer with a twenty year career in the field, so I suppose it would be safe to consider myself a reasonably intelligent, thinking person. But I’m not a scientist and was not familiar with the science to which he referred.

So I started digging up examples for myself (thank you Mister Dawkins). And I was surprised to find out, as I discovered the many scientists contributing to the God debate, that there was more solid science with the theistic writers than in Dawkin’s book.

I will offer here as a few examples: Francis Collins, The Language of God. Alister McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith. John Lennox, God’s Undertaker. Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution and Darwin’s Black Box. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God. There are plenty more. Hugh Ross comes to mind, but this list is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to check why many scientists think there is an abundance of proof for the theistic perspective.

In these books the reader will find an abundance of solid science, with plenty of specific, concrete examples of the evidence supporting their position. Dawkins doesn’t do anything like that.

One has to wonder why? Perhaps Dawkins was reticent to put forth solid examples and details because the science was not so much in his favor. Facts are stubborn things as someone once said, and when the details don’t add up in your favor the good propagandist will leave them alone and rely instead on bluster and vague, sweeping claims.

As badly written and thoughtless as it was, I’m glad I read his book. It forced me to look harder at the evidence for my own Christian faith, to dig into the science and philosophy and familiarize myself with the arguments for both sides. His book launched me on a journey in which I discovered the richness of my Christian heritage and the many brilliant scientists and philosophers currently writing in the field, many of which I’ve already named above. Until I came across Dawkins’ book I hadn’t heard of any of these great men and women.

As a result I’ve developed a passion for apologetics that continues to this day. After reading his book, not only was I not an atheist, but I was a more convinced Christian, stronger in my faith. Until I read his book I knew little if anything of apologetics and had no understanding of the science and arguments involved with the ‘God debate.’

Thank you Richard Dawkins. I am a more intellectually fulfilled believer now because of your book. I think all believers should read it.