Posted by: rohlfsen1 | February 13, 2009

Morality in the World of Sam Harris

In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris dedicates over a quarter of the book to the concept of morality. In contrast to Richard Dawkins, who spends considerable time explaining potential genetic sources for current morality and altruism in The God Delusion, Harris tackles the subject from a rather different angle; rather than focus on the history of morality, he chooses to look at current morality and its ability to exist independently of God and religion.


In his short article, “The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos”, Sam Harris writes, “the idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principle myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled”. To then show how easily morality and religious faith can be “un-linked”, Harris offers three proofs. In his first, he claims that if the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency, then “it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms”. Yet, as he shows in Letter to a Christian Nation, the Bible is full of so many contradictions and horribly immoral instructions that it is surprisingly easy to criticize the Bible. In addition, Harris criticizes the way that Christians read the Bible, claiming that they either read the Bible literally (which leads to imitations of events in the Old Testament that clearly go against current reason), or that they cherry pick the Bible for passages that suit them at a given moment. He then finds a problem with the idea of Christian cherry picking, as he claims that Christians use circular reasoning to assert the morality of the Bible. As he writes, “you are using your own intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your moral intuitions” (49).

Secondly, Harris claims that “if religion were necessary for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers” (“Myth”). Not surprisingly, Harris finds no problem in disproving this statement. In his letter, he offers different types of correlational data to prove that “atheism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society and that widespread belief in God does not ensure a society’s health” (45). He offers data showing that developed, mostly atheistic countries are the healthiest, with the best rates of adult literacy, per capita income, etc (43). He also offers statistics on the United States, claiming that red states (which are usually conservative due to their heavy Christian population) are more dangerous and more violent than blue states (which are typically more atheistic). Nevertheless, it is important to note here how even Harris admits that such data’s correlation does not make it causal, and it could be that poverty or other external factors lurk behind what he presents. For instance, if red states are poorer on average, such circumstances could lead to both more crime and more faith in God, as suffering and poverty typically show a person that he is in need (and that need could be met by God).


Thirdly, Harris states that “if religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a non-theistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible” (“Myth”). At this point, we finally get to explore Harris’ definition and understanding of morality. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris writes, “for there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world” (23). Thus, it seems that Harris is fully convinced that objective morality can exist independently of God. Without appearing too harsh or critical, I must admit that I completely disagree with Harris in that I find his definition to be self-defeating, consequentialist, and impossible. For one thing, measuring suffering or happiness is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, as how does one decide what to measure? Do you measure short-term or long-term? Shallowly or deeply? Selfishly or communally? And for another thing, different peoples of the world have varying opinions concerning happiness and suffering, leading me to believe that any evaluation of morality must always be subjective and never objective… 


In addition, I find it interesting to explore why Harris is so concerned about the relationship between religion and morality. He states, “one of the most pernicious effects of religion is that is tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not – that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation” (25). Thus, it seems that by Harris’ standards of morality, religious people tend to let their religious beliefs get in the way of truly minimizing suffering and pain in the world. He offers the example of Mother Teresa, and through completely bashing her and her life’s works, Harris attempts to demonstrate how her fight against abortion and her passion for spreading the Gospel distracted from what her real goal should have been – loving and helping those in poverty. In the end, he offers a blatantly false dichotomy in asking, “we might also wonder, in passing, which is more moral: helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think the creator of the universe will reward you for it?” (34). Obviously (according to Harris), missionaries can either be atheist and help people out of sheer love and concern, or they can be Christian and help people out of personal motivations to gain a good seat in heaven… There is no in between.


Before unraveling and addressing Harris’ claims concerning morality, I want to first make note of the “New Atheist Strategy” that John Haught mentions in God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. As he explains, the New Atheists work similarly to one another by first making a broad premise concerning Christianity that is then easy to disprove, thereby winning them their case. In Letter to a Christian Nation, I find two broad premises, or assumptions, that Harris makes concerning the link between morality and religion. And once these assumptions are acknowledged for what they really are (false), it seems that Harris’ argument falls apart extremely quickly.


The first big claim that Harris makes is to propose that Christians believe the Bible to be the only (or primary) source of morality. However, this claim is completely untrue, as Keith Ward explains in Is God Dangerous? As he writes, “the whole tradition of Christian moral theology is based on rational reflection on the basic doctrines of creation and of rather general moral guidelines discerned in the life and often cryptic teachings of Jesus. Biblical texts are usually quoted in support of particular arguments, but they are rarely decisive, and they are never the basis of moral debate” (111). Thus, most Christians use reason to interpret the teachings of the Bible, which allows for morality to evolve over time in tempo with the changes in reason or rationality over time. In this way, newer insights into morality usurp older insights with no problem. In addition, Ward notes that not all passages of the Bible were meant to be read literally, as even Jewish scholars were taught to question God millennia ago (114). Finally, it is interesting to note that Jesus taught both an internal (based on motivations) and external (based on actual actions) morality, leading to the conclusion that morality according to Christians should be and is deontological rather than consequentialist. Thus, Christians can hold and maintain a more objective morality than the morality proposed by Harris.


The second big assumption that Harris makes concerning religion and morality is to believe that the main point of biblical religion is to provide moral edification. John Haught disagrees entirely with such a claim, stating that the main point of religion is to “have faith, trust, and hope in God. Morality is secondary” (67). In other words, Christians must first live in right relation to God before they can attempt to live in right relation to others, as God is the source of goodness and guidance needed to maintain a moral and loving society. As I once heard in slightly catchier terms, “the vertical must proceed the horizontal”… It seems that Harris’ disdain for the idea of a personal God once again causes him to miss the point altogether, assuming things of Christianity that are simply not true.


Overall, I think that Harris presents an outwardly strong case for the independence of morality and religion. He is logical and works step by step to build an argument that appeals to both human compassion and reason. Yet at the same time, Harris’ case cannot stand as the foundation of his argument (made up of his two main assumptions concerning Christianity and morality) is completely false. Thus, all his work falls out from under him and he is left simply refuting an idea of morality that he has fabricated.



  1. “We might also wonder, in passing, which is more moral: helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think the creator of the universe will reward you for it?” (34).

    Rae, I also took issue with this false dichotomy of moral motivations for helping another. Why does an atheist get off the hook for having selfish motivations? Just because one is not religious does not mean that one is self-less. There could still be an ulterior motive of reward (fame, approval of others, monetary compensation) in this life, rather than only thinking about the after-life.

    Harris also implies that someone who is religious can only do good for another because of the motivation for reward in the after-life. While I agree this may be motivation for some, I think Elizabeth Johnson does a great job in providing the best religious motivation for working to end the suffering of others: the love of God.
    “The ultimate ground of praxis with an eye to the poor is nothing less than the living God. This action is rooted in God’s love and arises in response to what is demanded by that love” (Johnson, 85).

    What Harris fails to address is the morality that springs from the understanding of being loved and the radical implications that has for how one lives their own life, from and in and through that love.

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