Saturday, December 16, 2006

The first part of my review of "Letter to a Christian Nation"

Sorry for not blogging in such a long time!! Life got really rather busy for me the last few months. Anyway, I've started a review of Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation", once I'm done I'll post a condensed version of the review at Amazon.

I gave this book two stars instead of one because it does make some good points about some Christians. But I feel Mr. Harris overreachs at many points, and also displays ignorance about Ancient Near East culture.

A couple of points to start off with:

1. I found it incredible that this book critiquing Christianity did not deal with the Resurrection of Christ at all. Christianity makes a historical claim that the Resurrection of Christ was an actual historical event. The Resurrection is the central belief of Christianity. If that tomb wasn't empty on that Sunday morning, then Christianity is false. If that tomb was empty for some naturalistic reason, like Jesus only swooned on the cross, then Christianity is false. Mr. Harris did not deal at all with Christianity's historical claims surrounding the Resurrection, this makes it very difficult for me to accept this book as a good critique of Christianity.

2. I feel that it is very important to understand the socio-historical context of the Bible. For example, I agree that on a surface reading Deuteronomy 22:13-21 seems barbaric and uncivilized. However, if we read this passage in the context of an ancient society that was constantly on the edge of survival, a society that needed to be certain of the paternity of all citizens for the purposes of inheritance, a society that therefore needed to impose such strict laws for its own survival, maybe this passage wouldn't seem so barbaric. Since our survival as a society doesn't depend on being able to prove the lineage of every person, we deem this passage as "the vilest lunacy". But taking this passage in socio-historical context, there might still be a worthwhile moral message, that people shouldn't put seeking out their own pleasure when said pleasure puts their family's survival at risk. As one prominent Internet skeptic has put it:
“I do think that a sort of default skepticism about supernatural events is reasonable--which would, of course, extend to such events in the Bible. However, if someone wants to actually commentate specifically on the Bible, they had better think about whether they are qualified to do so. I generally try to refrain from expressing an opinion where the Bible is unclear, unless I am citing a resource. The bottom line is that the Bible is an ancient and complex document which is impossible to fully understand simply by sitting down and reading it. One could memorize every word of scripture, but it still won't be properly understood until it is placed in the correct socio-historical context. I suggest that any non-scholar who wishes to criticize/commentate on the Bible ought to either announce their amateur status up front (ala Isaac Asimov) or rely heavily upon citations.”

3. In order to be a reasonable critic of the Bible, it not only requires some degree of knowledge of the socio-historical context of ancient Hebrew culture as stated above, but also knowledge of philosophy, history, ancient literary genres, archaeology, ancient languages, etc., etc. I feel this is only being reasonable given that

a)the Bible is a collection of 66 books representing different literary genres, everything from poetry, biography, allegory, etc, and

b)the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and

c)the Bible was written by about 40 different authors over the course of 1600 years in which society did change and evolve.

I’ll grant that Mr. Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation” is just that, a letter, there wasn’t the space to delve into these factors very deeply. I haven’t had the opportunity to read Mr. Harris’ earlier work, “The End of Faith”, perhaps he addresses some of those issues in that book. But this letter should have shown some recognition of these issues, and it doesn’t. This is a flaw of the book, in my opinion.

Now on with my review.

I agreed with everything Mr. Harris said on the first page, although I will say as an annihilationist, I don’t believe Mr. Harris will spend an eternity in the torments of hell, but that his soul will be destroyed. Mr. Harris says, “The fact that my continuous and public rejection of Christianity does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are.” Well this is would be all well and good if Mr. Harris went on to show an adequate understanding of my reasons for being a Christian, but he betrays an absolute lack of understanding of those reasons when he says this two pages later:

“Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.”

I had no idea that Muslims believe that God rose Muhammad from the dead. No, a Muslim’s reasons for being a Muslim are completely different than my reasons for being a Christian. I’m certain a Muslim’s reasons for being a Muslim are just as compelling in their mind as my reasons for being a Christian are to me, but to say that they are the “same” is just ignorant. The reason why I don’t lose sleep over whether or not to convert to Islam are simple, I’ve considered their claims and rejected them. I can’t prove that Allah isn’t the one true God, and so I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong, but having considered the claims of both religions, I made what I feel is a rational decision to become a Christian, and it’s a decision that I’m comfortable with. Having said this, I’m on a pursuit of truth, I’m not interested in forcing myself to believe things that are false.

I agree where Mr. Harris says questions about morality come into play when our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively. But then he betrays his lack of knowledge of socio-historical context here: “Admittedly, God’s counsel to parents is straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13-14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.”

Here’s a place some CONTEXT is needed. First, Christians believe that Christ has taken the punishment for sins, therefore under the new covenant with God through Christ, we are not to enforce any punishment at all. Second, as far as the Proverbs sayings our modern culture obviously beating a child with a rod would be extreme, but since in ancient times a child’s disobedience put a family’s survival at risk, maybe it’s a little more understandable?

By the way...Exodus 21:15 doesn’t refer a child “talking back” to his parents, but attacking them physically. Leviticus 20:9, which is quoted in Mark 7:9-13, and again in Matthew 15:4-7, refers not to a single instance of a child’s temper, but rather a child wishing harm or imploring nature to bring harm to his parents.

Mr. Harris quotes Matthew 5:18-19:

“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

He says that Jesus is endorsing the entirety of the Old Testament Law, therefore we should be stoning people for working on the Sabbath., etc. The problem here is that Mr. Harris wrests this passage from the preceding verse which, once again, gives it context, Matthew 5:17:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” What does Jesus mean here? He is simply saying this....he came to fulfill the Law’s requirement for punishment for sin. He fulfilled that punishment for all humanity on the cross. But the Law still exists!

More later.


Susan M. said...

I found it incredible that this book critiquing Christianity did not deal with the Resurrection of Christ at all. Christianity makes a historical claim that the Resurrection of Christ was an actual historical event.

The burden is not on Harris to show it didn't happen, but on you to show it did. That's one of his main points and I'm surprised you missed that. If you've got some evidence (other than "faith"), bring it on!

PS: "Evidence" does not consist of (contradictory) hearsay. I wouldn't accept that in bio class, and I won't for any religious claims, either.

PPS: I loved Harris' book.

Theophilus said...

Fair enough, Susan M. I don't expect Harris to disprove the Resurrection, I don't expect Harris to show that it didn't happen, but I do expect him to at least raise some sort of objection to it. Some argument against it. He could propound the theory that the disciples stole the body, or the "swoon" theory, something, you know?

I do plan on raising the point about the standard of proof. You and Mr. Harris say that burden is on me. Fine. What is the burden I must meet? I've seen skeptics say they won't believe unless they see a videotape of Christ walking out of the tomb. If that's the burden that you and Mr. Harris want to put on Christians to prove the Resurrection happened, a burden which NOBODY could ever meet to prove that ANY event in ancient history actually happened, then I feel you're being unreasonable. At that point I don't feel it's worthwhile even talking to you. If, however, your standard of proof for the resurrection would be the same as it would be for any other event in ancient history, then I think we can begin to dialogue.

You say that the gospels are contradictory hearsay and thus are not worthwhile as evidence. I'm going to break this down. Are the gospels contradictory? They are in places, though many contradictions skeptics raise melt away when one has an understanding of things like ancient Hebrew culture, ancient languages. Some contradictions skeptics raise are very easy to answer. Here's an example of a contradiction I've seen at least one skeptic raise. Luke 24:51-52 says that Jesus ascended to Heaven in the vicinity of Bethany, Acts 1:12 indicates that he ascended to Heaven from the Mount of Olives. Is this a contradiction? Not when you consider that the Mount of Olives was in the vicinity of Bethany.

At any rate, accounts of the same happenings are very often contradictory. Go to any court trial, and you'll see that. Here's an example that illustrates my point here a little better, from James Patrick Holding at He quotes articles from Time and Newsweek the week of September 30, 1996:"

"On Thursday investigators learned that on June 10 St. Louis airport police had used the plane as a testing facility for a bomb-sniffing dog, and that the tiny amount of chemicals used to test the dog could be the source of the residue found on the plane parts."

"...senior officials at the Department of Justice admitted last week that the plane known as TWA Flight 800 had been used to train bomb-sniffing dogs only five weeks before its mysterious destruction July on July 17. That suggests an innocent explanation for the presence of RDX and the wreckage of the doomed plane."

So let's play Bible critic and pick these apart. Was there just one dog (Time) or more than one (Newsweek)? Was it "investigators who learned" or "officials who admitted"? How could the date of the test been June 10 when five weeks before July 17 was June 12? Why are no chemicals named in Time where they are named in Newsweek? Why isn't St. Louis mentioned in Newsweek? It seems picky, but some of these are just like "errors" that Bible critics like to pounce on - such as the "women at the tomb" issue and the story of the healing of the blind men outside Jericho. As Matthew says "two blind men" where Luke and Mark say "a blind man," it is not said in the latter that there was ONLY one! Likewise, Time's story COULD be read to indicate just one dog, but not necessarily."

Are the the Gospels hearsay? One of the purports to be written by an eyewitness. This is therefore direct testimony. John 21:24:"This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down." Now whether or not the person is lying is another matter. Hearsay is "I heard this other person say that they saw Jesus after his crucifixion", not "I saw Jesus after his crucifixion". Big difference there. Another Gospel has the name of an apostle of Jesus attached to it, someone who would have been a witness to these events if they occurred. The two other ones are based on hearsay, one is believed to be based on the testimony of Peter, and the other one is written by someone who has been considered by many to be a very careful historian. Sure it's hearsay, but then so is the work of Pliny, Tacitus, Philo, etc. Were any of these historians direct witnesses to the events that they report? No, they weren't. But is that any reason to disbelieve any event that they report? No, it's not.

All I'm saying that Harris has to do a MUCH better job critiquing Christianity if he wants me to take him seriously.