Another God Debate

Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren. I’ve never exactly been wowed by, or paid much attention to, Rick Warren, but it is fascinating to see how Harris’ numerous logical fallacies still stick out like a sore thumb, even against one of Christianity’s less powerful defenders. For example:

“There is so much about us that is not in the Bible. Every specific science from cosmology to psychology to economics has surpassed and superseded what the Bible tells us is true about our world.”

Who ever said the Bible was supposed to be a science textbook? Its concerns lie primarily with what God did and why he did it, not how he did it. And I have a hard time believing anyone
truly familiar with the Bible would be so quick to dismiss the truths “about us” and “our world” within its pages.

“We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations. You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.”

Two points here: First, it’s hard not to laugh at Harris’ “simple experiment.” It’s a bit like moving the goalpost to maximize your odds. While I believe prayer is powerful, I don’t think it’s a simple matter of placing an order, then God handing you your Big Mac at the drive-thru. Moreover, it’s not “self-limiting” conditions we pray for; it’s conditions that are scientifically possible (God working through the laws of science He authored). Just think of how different Judaism or Christianity would be if prayer was as simple as “ask God to give you things/do things for you, and He will.” What kind of message would that send?

Second, I do think Harris has touched upon one mistake believers tend to make: just as unanswered prayers don’t disprove God, answered prayers are not sufficient to prove His existence. We don’t have a way of knowing whether or not the turnout of any event is due to divine intervention. The Lord is weighing a myriad of earthly conditions and factors that would make the most brilliant mortal manager’s head spin, not the least of which is what we truly need in life, rather than what we want. While I wasn’t fully satisfied with his response, Warren offered an important point: “God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait. I’ve had to learn the difference between no and not yet.”

That’s a powerful difference. Indeed, I’ve experienced it. I’ve pleaded with God for dreams to come true, and I’ve been angry & confused when they didn’t—until I realized those dreams were based on incomplete facts and serious misconceptions. Had my dream come true, I later found, it would not have been the blessing I envisioned. The “mysterious ways” in which God works only seem mysterious to us because, again, we cannot possibly fathom all the factors in play, not the least of which is the fact that God knows us and our neighbors better than we know ourselves. To Him, there’s nothing mysterious about it.

“This really is one of the great canards of religious discourse, the idea that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were perpetrated because of atheism… The killing fields and the gulag were not the product of people being too reluctant to believe things on insufficient evidence. They were not the product of people requiring too much evidence and too much argument in favor of their beliefs. We have people flying planes in our buildings because they have theological grievances against the West. I’m noticing Christians doing terrible things explicitly for religious reasons—for instance, not fund-ing [embryonic] stem-cell research. The motive is always paramount for me. No society in human history has ever suffered because it has become too reasonable.”

First, notice how, in distancing atheism from historic horrors, he posits “atheism = reason & careful skepticism” as a given. Here Harris displays a classic trait of bias: the inability to compartmentalize separate elements of an overall issue—in this case, “Is God real?” and “Is God good for society?” Try to focus on the second one right here, Sam. Second, the crux of the question (and Sam “I’m-doing-my-PhD-in-neuroscience” Harris is smart enough to know this) is not skepticism, naiveté, reverence for the Sabbath, or any of the benign differences between belief and unbelief. It’s all about the belief that human rights are non-negotiable because they come from an authority higher than man. The danger atheism poses to society is not an automatic leap to death camps (indeed, every believer I’ve ever heard or read concedes that atheists are fully capable of morality, and applaud the moral clarity Harris and Christopher Hitchens display on some issues, most notably Islamofascism); it’s that national atheism is a vacuum in which all manner of “divisive dogmatism[s],” as Harris puts it, can thrive. And how can anybody possibly bemoan
opposition to embryo-killing stem-cell experimentation in the same breath as 9/11? I guess it’s easy…if you’re inclined toward dishonesty.

“The idea that somehow we are getting our morality out of the Judeo-Christian tradition is bad history and bad science.”

Uh, no.

“[Y]ou see a variety of claims there that aren’t backed up by sufficient evidence. If the evidence were sufficient, you would be compelled to be Muslim.”

Sam likes to deploy varieties of the idea that the large number of incompatible claims about God’s nature somehow suggests we should dismiss all of them in favor of atheism. In fact, here’s another example of failing to compartmentalize an issue. “Is there a higher power?” is a separate question from “What form does that higher power take?” Answering “yes” to the first question still leaves us with many possibilities: one God, many gods, a good God, an evil God, an indifferent God, God of Abraham, Allah, a God who’s real yet different from known religious descriptions…all possibilities that deserve consideration, but disproving one certainly doesn’t lead to disproving all.

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