The Evangelists of the Nothing: Sam Harris

by Matt Rawlings

Who is Sam Harris and what are his arguments? This series, The Evangelists of the Nothing, is written from my perspective, which is that of a former atheist who eventually became a lay Christian apologist (although studying to be a professional one!).  I want to fairly lay out the main arguments of leading atheists after reading their own works and then critically analyze them as best I can.

Sam Harris is easily the most prolific author among the New Atheists.  He has written several New York Times Best Sellers over the last ten years including The End of Faith (W.W. Norton 2005), Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage 2008), The Moral Landscape (Free Press 2011), Free Will (Free Press 2012) and Lying (Four Elephant Press 2013). I have read all of them over the last week or so.

Letters to a Christian Nation is really a continuation of The End of Faith (the former was supposedly prompted by letters and emails he received in response to the publication of the latter).  His most recent book Lying is also a sequel of sorts in that it builds upon the arguments found in The Moral Landscape.  So, I will focus primarily on the arguments he sets forth in The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.  I have not widely read his columns, so if I have missed something there, I apologize.

In The End of Faith, Harris argues that all religions are dangerous because they impart beliefs that cannot be tested. As such, these beliefs cannot be discussed rationally, which can lead to violence and slows the growth of progress given to us by science.  Harris recites a litany of crimes by various religions over the centuries as proof that religions are inherently dangerous and should be discarded for the sake of human flourishing.

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In The Moral Landscape, Harris contends science can serve as the ground for establishing objective moral duties by studying which brain states lead to happiness and human flourishing.  He cites a handful of studies demonstrating that science may be able to ultimately identify what thoughts and actions make us happy.  He dismisses the objection by David Hume that an “is” cannot be made into an “ought” by arguing that (forgive me here) what “is” is all there “is” so it must be an “ought.”  After all, who can reasonably argue that prohibiting the mutilating of a child’s body should not be an “ought.”  Harris believes this is rationally defensible apart from faith.  Moreover, the god of most religions is obviously immoral, so science is where we must turn.

Finally, in Free Will, Harris states that because materialism is all there is (although he concedes consciousness is a mystery), there can be no real thing as “free will” because we are all slaves to the programming in our genes.  Dr. Harris refuses, however, to believe this leads to fatalism or the idea that everything is preordained.  Instead, Harris wants to be identified as a determinist.  A determinist is one who believes his or her actions are determined by psychological states (most of which we are unaware of), which are most heavily influenced by genetics but can be shaped by new information presented by changes in the surrounding culture.  Thus, Harris argues we are never truly responsible (in the classic sense) for our actions.

What are we to make of all of this?

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