I have a confession to make. I like Sam Harris. I think he may well become my favorite atheist. Someday, I hope to meet him.
He’s the kind of guy you could have a knock-down argument with, and then go knock down a Guinness together.
Sam’s not a nice guy. That’s why I find him, in great part, so likeable. Nice atheists pretend that Christianity is all very well for people with softer brains, and consequently, nice atheists treat Christians with condescending public pats on the head, even while, in private, they consider such belief to be the sheerest, most ridiculous fairy-tale bunk.
But there’s no such duplicity in Sam: “if one of us is right, the other is wrong.” And Sam makes no bones about it. He believes Christianity is dead wrong, and he’ll tell you to your face.
So why do I—a Christian in my very bones—find an atheist’s candor to be so refreshing?
Let me go further, and say that his candor is not only refreshing, but helpful to Christians. So helpful, in fact, that every Christian should write him a thank-you letter back.
In fact, I think I will.
Letter From a Christian in Your Nation.
Dear Sam (if I might),
I just read your Letter to a Christian Nation, and as one of the addressees of your sundry jousts and barbs, wanted to thank you on behalf of all my fellow believers. You may find this a bit shocking, since you complain in the introduction that after your last book you received thousands of hate letters from irate Christians which revealed them to be “deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.” But let me explain.
First of all, you take the beliefs of Christianity more seriously than most American Christians. You rightly dismiss the mushy mainstream, the complacent cultural Christianity that stands for nothing because it has long ceased to stand on anything firmly. Such “religious liberals” or “religious moderates” as you call them “are Christians who have no fear of hell and who do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus.” As you rightly point out, they have given up such definite beliefs, and instead offer an entirely indefinite and airy faith “about mystery, and meaning, and community, and love” which offends no one and seemingly can include everyone—even atheists! Who is against meaning? What would it mean to be for meaning?
But you refuse to be swept up into the circle of such nonsense. Instead, you make clear that the only Christians worth arguing against, are those who actually believe what Christianity proposes. In doing that, you force us to take Christianity more seriously ourselves. Since we are—or perhaps were—a Christian nation for so long, we have become smug, and the Christian faith has suffered the kind of degeneration that occurs whenever a blessing is taken for granted. So, we thank you for you honest shock therapy.
Having said all that, and presuming that you do indeed mean what you say about the merits of “intellectual honesty,” you will not mind my probing your argument. After all, if I am to become an atheist—which is the stated result you desire in writing me a letter—then the reasons you provide for becoming an atheist must be compelling enough for me to drop Christianity.
Where to begin? Well, I suggest that you better use arguments that rise above the freshman philosophy level. “As many critics of religion have pointed out,” you remark, “the notion of a creator poses an immediate problem of infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God?”
Come now. All inferences in regard to the origin of the universe are faced with this problem, even and especially the arguments of atheists. If God didn’t create the universe, then what do we put at its origin? Is the universe self-caused and eternal, as many have tried to claim? But why is that bare assertion more rational than to argue that God is self-caused and eternal?
Or perhaps, it all started with the Big Bang. But what came before the Big Bang? Another expanding and contracting universe? And before that? And that? An infinite regress!
But there are other, more worrisome contradictions in your Letter. Please help me sort them out. For example, you argue that (statistically speaking) somewhere in the world today, a little girl will be kidnapped, raped, tortured, and killed. God, if He existed, watches it happen in benign neglect. Therefore—and here there are a few missing steps in your logic—you are an atheist.
“An atheist is a person,” you righteously proclaim, “who believes that the murder of a single little girl—even once in a million years—casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.” Poignantly stated. And so, you inform us, you have embraced evolution as the cause of it all.
But, my friend, later on in the book you say that “There is, after all, nothing more natural than rape,” meaning by this that the prevalence of rape is a sign that it “had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors.” You make clear that you think rape is indeed evil—I am thankful for that—but this worthy response clashes with your atheism in two ways.
First, given your Darwinian presuppositions, “good” can only mean “had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors,” and these evolutionary advantages are the very source of our being here now as its beneficiaries. Thus, on your own terms, either rape is good or our contemporary existence rests on the very kind of evil that you have just claimed “casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.” Indeed, the very “benevolence” of natural selection consists in its continually and savagely cutting down the weak by the strong.
Following directly upon this, it should be clear your rejection of God—oddly enough—depends upon His existence. If you really take God out of the universe, then you are left with only evolution to blame. But evolution cannot be blamed. It is not immoral but amoral. From a purely evolutionary perspective, the desire to kidnap, rape, torture, and kill may or may not be traits that confer advantages to particular kin groups swimming in the same gene pool as they do inevitable battle in the struggle for existence against other kin groups. But either way, you can’t blame a rapist. The desire to rape, according to neo-Darwinism, is simply a randomly-derived genetic trait.
What else? You chastise Christians for “expend[ing] more ‘moral energy’ opposing abortion than fighting genocide” by handing out free condoms to “fight” AIDS. But abortion is genocide, and on a scale that dwarfs all other more visible forms of genocide ever committed.
Sam, I must stop here. There are so many other difficulties, I cannot put them into a single letter. But perhaps someday, we’ll get together and, cheek by jowl, settle this great debate.
Very sincerely yours,