Posted by: crewsnr | February 10, 2009

Is there any Truth in Harris’ “Facts” of Life?

In this pages 57-87 of his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris asserts his ideas about the Bible, the relationship between science and religion, and religious violence and the future of civilization.  He presents these ideas as simple facts of life that should be automatically truthful and valid; therefore, everyone should see them as intuitively obvious.  However, this is simply not the case.


In his book Case for Christ, Lee Strobel says, “I once thought that the gospels were merely religious propaganda, hopelessly tainted by overactive imaginations and evangelistic zeal…. I had asked questions and analyzed answers with as much of an open mind as I could muster.  The evidence was clear….they cannot be explained away as legendary invention” (259). 


However Harris views the Bible, particularly the Gospels, in a very different light.  Harris claims that “to one who stands outside the Christian faith, it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience” (62).  Harris believes that the Gospel-writers simply fabricated a story that made Jesus resemble the Messiah as prophesied in the Old Testament.  He cites the Virgin Birth as an incorrect interpretation of the Hebrew prophecy found in Isaiah, and he thinks that since the Virgin Birth story is only found in Matthew and Luke, and not in Mark or John, the Bible cannot be true.  Harris brazenly suggests that if the Bible was the work of an all-knowing God, then why did God not include any secrets about solving cancer or the age of the universe in his book? 

While reading this section of Harris’ book, I admit that I was very frustrated with his claims.  I thought his ideas seemingly lacked support and frankly did not thing more than portray his misunderstanding of the Bible.  So how should I, or any other Christian, respond to these claims?  Christians believe that the Bible was written by errant men who were inspired by God but were nevertheless the products of the First Century’s culture, ideas and knowledge. To fully appreciate the text, the reader must recognize the cultural mindset of the writers and the historical context surrounding their lifetimes.  The Jewish community and eye-witness observers would not have allowed the Gospel-writers to present an untrue story that portrayed Jesus as the Messiah.  Reminding us of this fact, Lee Strobel said in Case for Christ:

When the gospels were being circulated, there were people living who had been around when all these things happened.  Someone would have said to Matthew, “You know it didn’t happen that way.  We’re trying to communicate a life of righteousness and truth, so don’t taint it with a lie.’ Besides, why would Matthew have fabricated fulfilled prophecies and then willingly allowed himself to be put to death for following someone who he secretly knew was really not the Messiah?  That wouldn’t make any sense” (184).  


Next, Harris presents the relationship between science and religion by characterizing this relationship as a conflict that is unavoidable and inescapable. He sets up his argument by asserting that religion and science are fundamentally different and cannot co-exist in any way.  He claims that intellectual honesty and integrity are core values surrounding science; however, religion makes broad scientific claims based on bad or no evidence.  He believes that “any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists… Religious believers do not” (74).


Attempting to prove this, Harris presents the Evolution vs. Creationism (ID) debate.  He believes that the material world can be easily explained by evolution, while Creationism creates more problems than it can solve.   Almost mockingly, Harris asks, well if there is a Creator, who is he? Harris points out that the Creator doesn’t have to be the Christian God.  What if the Creator is Allah, another god, or simply some force in the universe?  Yet, regardless of his identity, the Creator would have to be incredibly complex to create an intricate universe.  Pointing to the evolutionary tree, Harris admits that the world is extraordinary complex.  However, Harris claims that there is simply no evidence for intelligent design.  Harris cites flightless birds, nonfunctional eyes, the developmental stages of human life, and a woman’s pelvis as evidence of less than optimal design.


Throughout this section, Harris attacks faith and religious people.   Harris claims that faith is “nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail” (67).  In fact, he even goes so far as saying that Conservative Christians who impede scientific advancement are “building a civilization of ignorance” (70).


These attacks were difficult for me to stomach because I know that in general terms: He is right.  Christian can do much better, and they must!  Even though he puts it harshly, Harris is correct when he says that a majority of Christians hold blindly to faith and disregard evidence or reason.  Faith is not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” that Christians whip out and use to trump all other claims whenever they get in a sticky mess!


Christians must understand and recognize that science does not diminish their faith, and therefore they should be willing to learn from scientific endeavors and incorporate scientific theories into their belief systems.  Christians cannot claim to hold a monopoly on truth and should humbly admit that they can learn from other truth-seeking disciplines, especially science.


However, Harris skews his final conclusions about the relationship between science and religion.  He claims that science and religion can never coexist peacefully.  This is simply not the case.   We are a long way off but I think it possible for religion and science to be able to work together proficiently to find truth by answering both the “what” and the “why” questions.  I think it is perfectly feasible for Christians to find a happy medium between religion and science, even though they have been cast as polar opposites in recent years. Scientific experiments have verified over and over again the Darwinian theories of natural selection, survival of the fittest, and microevolution.  Therefore, Christians must recognize the validity of these endeavors and incorporate these ideas into their belief systems about the origin of life.


In his last section, Harris presents his concerns about the future of civilization and the detrimental effects of religious violence.  He starts out by saying that religious tolerance is a nice idea, but it is impossible to implement practically.  It just won’t happen, which in Harris’ mind, leaves the door open for religion to wreck havoc.  By simply mentioning the conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and Sudan, to name a few, Harris thinks he can easily prove that religion increases human conflict by widening the differences between opposing groups. To make matters worse, “our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us unwilling to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and patently ridiculous.” (80)  Looking towards the future, Harris is genuinely worried and concerned about how religion will affect future civilizations.  He points to the hostility and insanity of Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion, as serious threat. 


So how should Christians respond to Harris’ thoughts about religions’ darkest moments?  Sadly, there is little skewed in Harris’ analysis of religious toleration and the culture of “political-correctness and relativism” that has prevented many from speaking out against incorrect ideas.  Therefore, knowing we can’t change the past, Christians must put their best foot forward in the future.  The It wasn’t me, I’m religious” motto is simply not going to work!  Christians must be honest and admit their shortcomings.  Religious people are not perfect.  In fact, throughout history, religion has been cited as the grounds for hideous, repugnant atrocities and violence.  Christians should treat all people, including those of other religions, with value and respect because we are all filled with the Triune God’s love and grace.  However, Christians should also be willing to apologetically defend their beliefs against religious ideas that are incompatible with Christianity.


Harris is absolutely correct:  Everyone should be concerned about the future of civilization.  Where are we headed?  This should be a call to all Christians to impact our future in a positive manner, in a way that honors Christ. 


In conclusion, even though I agree with several of Harris’ peripheral thoughts and concerns about future civilization, religious violence, and science and religion, I do not agree with his overarching, central claims about the “facts of life.”  The Search for Truth requires a skeptical, open-minded evaluation of all claims; therefore, belief involves reason, logic, and faith.  In my mind, Harris has not given Christianity a fair trial.  In this section, he presents several concerns about the direction society is heading, and rightly so.  However, he has simply slapped religion, and Christianity, with a “NOT TRUE” sticker without truly evaluating the claims of Christianity and openly asking, Could this be true?     


 I’ll leave you with this: Lee Strobel was a self-proclaimed spiritual skeptic, or atheist, during the 1970s; however he became a Christian in the early 80s after several years of examining and pursuing the validity of Christianity.  In Case for Christ, He said, “I plunged into the case with more vigor than with any story I had ever pursued. I applied the training I had received at Yale Law School as well as my experience as legal affairs editor of the Chicago Tribune.  And over time the evidence of the world- of history, of science, of philosophy, of psychology- began to point toward the unthinkable.” (14)  Christianity is true.  What would be the outcome if Harris, Dawkins, and others had the same mindset towards the Search for Truth? How would their views of religion be affected?


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