Napoleon May Have Been A Better Evangelist Than Emperor

napeolon on jesus

 

The following is a response from Napoleon Bonaparte to Count Montholon on the question, “Can you tell me who Jesus Christ was?”.

Source:  Quoted in Henry Parry Liddon, Liddon’s Bamptom Lectures 1866 (London: Rivingtons, 1869), 148.

Well, then, I will tell you.  Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I myself have founded great empires; but upon what did these creations of our genius depend?  Upon force.  Jesus alone founded his empire on love, and to this very day millions will die for Him…I think I understand something of human nature; and I tell you, all these were men, and I am a man:  none else like him; Jesus Christ was more than a man…I have inspired multitudes with such an enthusiastic devotion that they would have died for me…but to do this it was necessary that I should be visibly present  with the electric influence of my looks, my words, of my voice.

When I saw men and spoke to them, I lighted up the flame of self-devotion in their hearts…Christ alone has succeeded in so raising the mind of man toward the unseen, that it becomes insensible to the barriers of time and space.  Across a chasm of eighteen hundred years, Jesus Christ makes a demand which is beyond all others difficult to satisfy; He asks for that which a philosopher may often seek in vain at the hands of his friends, or a father of his children, or a bride of her spouse, or a man of his brother.  He asks for the human heart; He will have it entirely to Himself.  He demands it unconditionally; and forthwith Hid demand is granted.  Wonderful!

In defiance of time and space, the soul of man, with all its powers and faculties, becomes an annexation to the empire of Christ.  All who sincerely believe in Him, experience the remarkable, supernatural love toward Him.  This phenomenon is unaccountable; it is altogether beyond the scope of man’s creative powers.  Time, the great destroyer, is powerless to extinguish this sacred flame; time can neither exhaust its strength nor put a limit to its range.

This is it, which strikes me most; I have often thought of it.  This is it which proves to me quite convincingly the Divinity of Christ.


Jesus Said Nice Things, But Did He Really Mean Them?

Jesus may be the most quoted man of all time, edging out Shakespeare and the Beatles.  His words are still hotly contested, fiercely defended and grotesquely twisted (depending of course on who you talk to). Of all the things Jesus said, it’s his words from the cross that are most profound and confounding.  With the nail still wet from his fresh warm blood and his nerves on fire–Jesus defiantly spilled soft words of peace.

Luke 23:32-34  Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

This certainly sounds nice.  But did he really mean it?  The big question about “Father forgive them…” is:

Does this prayer essentially give salvation to those offenders, there in that moment?  Did Jesus’ prayer save the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him?

Truth always corresponds to the evidence and is coherent.  Whatever the answer is, it cannot defy the evidence nor can it be true and also contradict another claim that is true.  So, what are our options?

OPTION 1

Jesus’ prayer saved the Roman soldiers.  The problem with this view is that the Roman soldiers and others would never have to place their faith in Jesus.  Salvation is simply given even if they never express trust in Jesus.  That contradicts many passages in the New Testament.  Just a few of which are:

OPTION 2

Jesus’ prayer did not save the Roman soldiers.  This resolves the problem with the first option.  The Roman soldiers and others would have to repent and express trust in Jesus.  This would be consistent with the verses listed above and all the New Testament accounts of someone being saved.  The problem with this view is that Jesus’ prayer is either ignored or answered with a, “No” by the Father.  Either option would indicate a division in the Trinity.  This opens a can of worms worse than option 1.

OPTION 3

Jesus’ prayer was intended to guarantee not that they would be saved, but that they could be saved.  Jesus was saying to the Father, “Put their sins on my bill.”  If we go back and read Isaiah 53—the entire passage outlines an exchange where Jesus gets the short end of the stick.  He takes all of humanity’s mess and in exchange all of humanity can have peaceful forgiveness.

  •          By his stripes we are healed.
  •          He took up our iniquities.
  •          The punishment that brought us peace was on him.

That exchange was true for the Roman soldiers as well.  In that moment, Jesus not only took the brunt of Roman cruelty—he was also paying the price for the sin they were committing right then.  He felt the pain of the nail and the pain of the guilt for driving the nail.  It was a double whammy.

Wouldn’t this view also create more difficulties?  How do we resolve the tension over Jesus paying for all sin, but not all people go to Heaven?  It should be helpful to know that this tension is affirmed in Scripture:

1 John 2:1-2  My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

 Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for all sins.  Salvation is not granted to every person simply because he paid the price for sin.  Salvation is granted to any person who places their faith in him.

Ephesians 2:8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.

In that agonizing prayer from the cross, Jesus asked the Father to put their sin on his tab, to include it in the payment he was making on the cross.  The butchery committed by the Roman soldiers wasn’t  in a unique category of sin that the cross did not cover.  Jesus’ prayer made it clear that they could be saved, not that they would be saved.  The Roman soldiers,the thieves on the cross, all those in the crowd, as well as you and me are only saved by placing our trust in Jesus Christ.

So yeah.  He did mean it.


World Vision Reversed It’s Decision

Christianity Today is reporting that World Vision has reversed it’s decision to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.  I applaud their courage as they are about to face another backlash.  I fear this one may be far more intense than the first.  I was wrong in my doubts about their commitment to Jesus Christ and his Word as their guiding authority.  I gladly stand corrected.

Below is a statement released by World Vision.

 

Dear Friends,

Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its recent decision to change our employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We are writing to you our trusted partners and Christian leaders who have come to us in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express your concern in love and conviction. You share our desire to come together in the Body of Christ around our mission to serve the poorest of the poor. We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness.

In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners. As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.

We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority. We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent. We are asking for your continued support. We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead.

While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.

Please know that World Vision continues to serve all people in our ministry around the world. We pray that you will continue to join with us in our mission to be “an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice, and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.

Sincerely in Christ,

Richard Stearns, President

Jim Beré, Chairman of the World Vision U.S. Board


WORLD [DI]VISION: why homosexuality is not the issue

This week World Vision announced a new hiring policy.  They have lifted a ban on hiring gay Christians who are in same-sex marriages.  You can read more about the announcement in Christianity Today.

World Vision’s decision is applauded by some and appalling to others.  Preferences aside, whatever this announcement is, it is certainly not neutral.  Any commentary otherwise is naive mythology at best and calculated deception at worst.  I’d like to suggest that before the fundies pull funding or the libs empty their wallets, let’s first consider how we should think about this.

This announcement should outrage both the Christians who affirm homosexuality and the Christians who denounce it.

All of us approach truth with our fists tightly clinched to our haggered bag of things we want to be true, desperately hope are true and notions we’re hell bent on pretending are true regardless of what evidence and authority say otherwise.  This reality is as true for middle-aged white men, with bad suits and obvious comb-overs as it is for tattooed, hipster Christians, who are heavier on cynicism than orthodoxy.

Because we’re human, we likely read the announcement with a heart that was primed to affirm our preferences first.  For those of us who have cast our lot with Christ, we don’t stop there.  Instead of going with our gut.  Instead of going with consensus.  Instead of any other standard–we defer to the words of Jesus.  This commonly means that a paradox plays out in our hearts and minds as we submit our opinions, with glad reluctance, in exchange for truth.  This humbling affair is not lost on the serious reader of the Gospels.

Matthew 10:38-39 38  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. 

In short, following him means turning away from all other flashing beacons of enlightenment.  Covered in the dust of our rabbi, we press on in his wake.  We stand under his Word as we consider all things convenient and controversial.  We follow him even when and especially when doing so means denying ourselves.  If we are Christians who want homosexuality to be wrong–we submit that preference to him.  We choose his way over our own.  If we are Christians who want homosexuality to be right–we submit that preference to him.  We choose his way over our own.  As Christians, we affirm that his way is revealed in his Word, the Bible.

So what does this have to do with World Vision?

By their own admission, this  new stance is driven by the current events within American Christianity.  It isn’t that World Vision’s understanding of Scripture has changed, but that the moral landscape within churches and denominations is changing.

“Same-sex marriage has only been a huge issue in the church in the last decade or so. There used to be much more unity among churches on this issue, and that’s changed.”-Richard Stearns, President of World Vision

“World Vision is committed to our Christian identity. We are absolutely resolute about every employee being followers of Jesus Christ. We are not wavering on that.”  -Richard Stearns, President of World Vision

Clearly they want to maintain their Christian identity (following Jesus) and maintain the broadest unity possible.  What are Jesus followers supposed to do when maintaining unity with others requires pretending that Jesus’ words are not clear on a controversial matter?  If World Vision’s leadership legitimately believes that scripture is not clear, this is an issue of hermeneutics.  If they believe it is clear but pretend it’s not, this becomes an issue of integrity and authority.  It would seem that World Vision’s decision falls in the latter category.

Regardless of your preferences, if you are Christian who wants to trust and follow Jesus above all else, why would you entrust an organization with your dollars who will abandon Jesus for another authority when facing adversity and difficult decisions? 

I disagree with and am disappointed by World Vision.  Not because they risked standing for convictions, but because they risked conviction by daring not to stand.

 


What In The Hell Is Christian Love?

In this post I will use verses from the Bible to explain my answers.  I don’t expect atheists or non-Christians to accept them as authoritative.  Rather, it is my intent to show that my answers are representative of what Christians have affirmed throughout history.  This is sometimes called historic, orthodox Christianity.    Further, these verses are used to help illustrate the misrepresentation of Christianity by some of its critics, what is sometimes referred to as a Straw Man Fallacy. 

Recently I was tweeted by one of my online atheist friends that my belief in Hell was contrary to the concept of Christian love.  How can the God of the Bible be good and loving and willfully send people to Hell?  This question is sometimes asked in a friendship affirming way and sometimes asked as a philosophical declaration of war.  Either way, it and the person asking it deserves an answer.

First, it is easy to condemn God as immoral.  What is not so easy is to validate (not articulate) a moral standard if God does not exist.  But let’s follow along with the decision that God is a moral monster.  According to what standard is God a moral monster?  To this point, my friend’s reply has been,

Defining what is objectively “good” is not easy even if it comes from god because there is no clear source.

I appreciate his honestly, but I don’t think the full weight of his admission has struck him yet.  To be fair, this answer was given through Twitter, and his thought was restricted to 140 characters.  Brevity is often the enemy of clarity and should not be a mark against him.

But for the moment, let’s take his answer at face value.  If there is no clear source, by what standard has he clearly condemned God (should he exist)?  Imagine that I said Atlanta is closer to Zippy than it is to Zappy?  The first question you might ask is if Zippy and Zappy are real places.  Then you might ask where are Zippy and Zappy.  If I told you that they are real but aren’t clearly able to be located—you would have sound reason to distrust my affirmation that Atlanta is closer to Zippy than to Zappy.  I may be right, but how could you or even I know it?

Now, imagine someone tells you that God’s decision to condemn someone to Hell is closer to evil than it is to good.  (True, the analogy isn’t perfect, but it works well.)  You may feel inclined to agree or disagree.  That is understandable.  But why would you trust that person if they did not possess the ability to define good from evil with clarity?  This is the problem that faces every atheist who seeks to condemn God, my atheist friend included.  Someone else recently stated this as,

They have to sit on God’s lap to slap him in the face.

Should an objective or meaningful standard be given, like well-being, empathy or do no harm—they all fall short.  First, these supposed standards are really statements and would need to be shown as valid.  Another way to say it is that the moral truth claims need to be grounded in something.  Every single time, the real grounding that emerges is a subjective one that is either based in biological evolution or human preference.  No objective standard or morality can be given once God is rejected.

So where does good come from?  In Biblical Christianity, good is based in the unchanging character of eternal God.  God didn’t arbitrarily say good is good.  God didn’t recognize something as good.  God is good and anything consistent with his character is good.  Anything inconsistent with his character is evil.  It is also important here to point out that the Bible is not the source of good.  Good, or God’s character, is revealed in the Bible.

Now, does believing in Jesus make someone good?  No.  Belief in Jesus does not make someone good.  The message of Christianity, and it may be better to say the message of the Gospel, is that Jesus alone is good and he is good on behalf of those who believe in him.  That is what the cross is about.  Jesus paid the penalty that all men must pay, but no man could pay.  This what Christians mean by atonement, or substitutionary death of Christ.

Here is another question that was recently posed to me:

Do I really believe that a Christian rapist gets to go to Heaven and his Hindu victim will be condemned to Hell?

Questions are intended to reveal more from the one who is being asked.  Sometimes questions reveal something about the one who is asking.  A possible assumption behind this question is that some people clearly don’t deserve Heaven and others likely do deserve Heaven (should it exist).

I trust what the Bible affirms.  No one is good enough for Heaven nor deserving of anything good from God.  There is one magnificent fact that both Heaven and Hell share in common.  No innocent person enters.  In consideration of the question above, it is important to note that Biblical Christianity maintains that neither the rapist nor the victim deserve Heaven.

Romans 3:23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Romans 3:10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;

It is also important to clarify what it means to be a Christian.  A Christian is any person who places his or her life in the trust of Jesus Christ.  That is what we Christians mean by, “faith.”  Becoming a Christian is not like saying the pledge of allegiance—it’s more like jumping off the high-dive.   Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved.  Even murderers?  Yes.  Even IRS agents?  Yes.  Even people who do things sexually that I don’t agree with?  Yes.  Even rapists?  Yes.

Ephesians 2:8-10 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Any person who places their trust in Jesus will be saved.  It is a gift.  It can never be earned.  Any person who doesn’t will not be saved.  Is belief in Jesus a license to do whatever you want?  No.  That attitude is an indication that such a person loves themselves, not Jesus.  Again, following Jesus is not merely the words you say but handing over all of your life to him.

Romans 6:1-2 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

I’ll accept it as theoretically possible that a Christian can or may commit rape.  Would that Christian still go to Heaven?  Yes.  Not because he is deserving, but because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for his moral rebellion (sin) on the cross.  Jesus paid the penalty for every person’s moral rebellion on the cross.  That gift is called grace and it is given freely to any person who trusts in Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:1-8 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

So what is Christian love?  It is loving others the same way that Jesus has loved us.  If God is real and good, if all people are destined for Hell, if God has lovingly made a way of salvation and freedom from sin—the most loving thing we can do is to share that good news—even if people don’t want it to be true.

The most hateful thing we could do is withhold that good news.  This article does nothing to prove that God does exist.  It should demonstrate that Christians are not being incoherent by affirming objective moral good, sincere love for others while also affirming belief in the reality of Hell.

Your comments are welcome and wanted.  I can’t promise that I will respond.  I will be in Asia spreading the good news of God’s love and grace.


A Final (and hopefully friendly) Response to James A. Lindsay Ph.D.

This post is my final offering in an exchange with James A. Lindsay Ph.D.  His responses to me can be found on his blog here.

I realize that a number of things I wrote are easily described as bizarre by atheist readers.  Akin to a question like, “Which taste better, adjectives or seven?”  It simply makes no sense.  I think most of the discrepancies between our understandings of one another could be quickly cleared up over cold beers or deep cups of coffee.  Since that is not an option available to us, I will settle for this exchange.

The dilemma I posed was not intended to be a slick trick or word games.  Rather, I wanted to be focused and clear.

  • Either objective morality is real or it isn’t.
  • If we affirm objective morality, either the truths we hold most fundamental can make sense of that assertion or they can’t.
  • The necessary implications of atheism either can or they cannot make sense of objective moral truth claims.

You and I disagree both on the necessary implications of atheism and whether or not objective morality can be sufficiently grounded in a godless universe.  While you reject how or that I define the necessary implications of atheism, certainly you believe there are implications.  If there are no implications then atheism would be an inconsequential idea.  That would have to be a demeaning label after reading how you eloquently argued for your position.

I remain unmoved by Dan Barker’s and your responses to my 3 necessary implications.  I can’t help but wonder if they were misread or misinterpreted.

1.  If there is no god then the universe is only material or natural.  If there is a supernatural reality of any kind, how could any expression of atheism continue to be affirmed?  I will take you and Dan Barker at your word when either assert,

We atheists are open to new knowledge, and would be astonished to learn that there is ‘something more’ out there.”

Being open to new information does nothing change this necessary implication of the assertion the truth claim, “God does not exist.”  True, there are many nuanced expressions of atheism.  It is not my intention to lump all into one pot.  Rather, I’m concerned with the implications of there being no god.

You are right to assert that abstract thought is a serious problem for naturalists.  And I don’t pretend that all atheists are naturalist, though I do believe naturalism is the only reasonable choice if no god exists.  My personal opinion is that trying to avoid this dilemma explains why Sam Harris and others affirm determinism and reject free will.  Perhaps the most troubling reality for naturalists is the reality of the laws of logic.  But that’s a discussion for another time.

2.  The universe is scientific.  You may have me on this one.  I’ve been repeatedly accused of writing at a level that is higher than the average person reads.  In an attempt to be accessible, I may have been inaccurate.  The issue here is the word I chose, not the idea.  The intent is to communicate that universe is knowable and yes, governed by the laws of physics.  I completely agree with you when you write,

“Natural laws, like the laws of physics, are descriptive, not proscriptive. That is, natural laws do not govern how nature operates. Instead, they provide us with a method of describing the operation of nature. Those descriptions, the “laws of physics,” are abstract entities that exist in our minds; they are tools by which we try to understand the world we live in.”

A great question is why nature operates the way it does.  But like the laws of logic, that is a discussion for another time.  We operate as though the way nature operates is fixed.  We believe it has always operated this way and will continue to do so, even if we can’t explain why.

“Altogether, there are fifteen physical constants whose values current theory is unable to predict.  They are givens: they simply have the value that they have.  This list includes the speed of light, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces, various parameters associated with electromagnetism, and the forces of gravity.  The chance that all of these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal.  And yet, those are the parameters that we observe.”                                               - Francis Collins (The Language of God)

If we open the door to the possibility that all of this could change, we open the door to the possibility that we don’t really know what we think we know.  Or, if we are open to the idea that natural explanations could be inadequate to explain the universe we have left the door open to the supernatural.  Again, the furthest this would allow us to remove ourselves from theism is agnosticism.

3.  The universe is impersonal.  Both you and Dan Barker have misread this point.   The assertion was clear, though muddied in your responses.  The universe does not have a consciousness or will and it is not guided by a consciousness or will.  That does nothing to refute that there are conscious, volitional species in the universe.  You may have missed the point, but not the blow this levies against atheism if denied.

Allow me to be clear, again.  Any atheist is free to ignore or reject these implications.

I won’t spend much time referring to the rest of Dan Barker’s attempt  at defending meaning.  Though he may find it loathsome, I believe he has conceded the point of my article.  There is no objective meaning so people create their own meaning in life.  That is by definition subjective and possibly an illusion.  Further, this view lacks any moral imperative for one to honor another’s sense of meaning.  The gate is left open for the most horrific worldviews to run rampant.

It’s at this point that I fear we both retreat to our respective corners.  Our own views make the most sense to us.  You have a robust and thoroughly integrated view of Harris’ Moral Landscape.  I hope that I can count you a friend and not an enemy in our shared insistence of objective moral value.

There are many areas in which we continue to miss one another.  I’ll only address two of them.  I don’t expect our differences to be remedied in this exchange.  You countered with a number of caveats to rebuff the “horrors in the reaches of my imagination.”  That was a clever line that I’m sure made it easy for your readers to dismiss me.  I live in the real world.  It is grotesque.

While your caveats appear to counter what I submitted as defeaters, they do not adequately account for possible actions or possible worlds in which your caveats would be accounted for.  (Man, I just used the word caveat a lot.)  I’ll leave it at that because I’m not interested in arguing for the moral neutrality of such actions.

Here is the biggest point of difference.  It is a contention that has been continually side stepped by Sam Harris and you.  In Harris’ own words, avoiding the worst possible suffering has to be assumed.  I agree with him that it should be.  Where I don’t agree with him or with you is that doing so is an objectively true moral imperative derived at by observation.  Various definitions of “faith” not withstanding, Harris is asking us to take it as a given.  This moral imperative simply is, even though we can’t observe it or find evidence for it.  I expect that you will find this confounding.  In all seriousness, the moral imperatives he asserts are non sequiturs.   One could assume his same starting point and reasonably argue for nihilism.  Another point I’m sure you will dismiss.

Finally, I have read Dan Barker and many others affirm repeatedly that the Bible endorses slavery the raping of women.  That is utter nonsense.  Giving an account of horrific acts is not the same as giving an endorsement of horrific acts.  Yes, God did command acts of violence against people who transgressed his holiness.  This will make absolutely no sense if the idea of a holy God is nonsense to you.

If there is a holy God who created, and that God gave commands that emanated from his character and agents rebelled against that God—how could he be immoral for holding his creation accountable for transgressing his holy commands?

I have no doubts that this will evoke all kinds of responses from you and your readers.  I hope you can trust that it was my intention to rile people up, but not to insult you or any others.  I believe that atheism, like Christianity is a serious response to serious questions.  I believe that you are a serious minded person who has meaningful questions that deserve thoughtful, serious responses.

I will end our exchange here.  If ever you find yourself in the Salt Lake City area, I’d love to buy you a beer.  I’m always open to new friends, even if our deeply held ideas are contentious.  Should you choose to write a response, I will leave the last word to you.


Sam Harris Is Great, But He Isn’t a Good Atheist Either

This post is a response to Can there be good atheists? A response to Pastor Rick Henderson by James A. Lindsay, Ph.D.  I would like to state that I have benefited from this exchange.  James is probably much smarter than me and I appreciate that anything I have to say would merit a thoughtful response by him.

For some time prominent atheist thinkers have been laboring to demonstrate a foundation for objective moral values.  If they cannot do so they are left with only two choices.  The first is to reject the notion of objective moral values all together.  Some have.  Thankfully, many others like Sam Harris find that unconscionable.  The only other option would be to jettison their claim for atheism.   That is not to say that they would be theists.  Rather, the furthest they could remove themselves from theism is agnosticism.

This sort of option isn’t suitable for those with a keen mind like Sam Harris.  Should he retreat to agnosticism, there would be no discernable foundation for objective moral values, leaving us defenseless to the movements of those who assert a worldview that is hostile to our own well-being.  A third possible option is to muddle along in an endless web of self-contradictions.  But this has no appeal to any serious minded person.

Of all the heroes of atheism, I believe Sam Harris comes the closest to providing a foundation for objective morality that is consistent with atheism.  Since we are not tossing horseshoes or hand grenades the question is, does he succeed?  Getting close doesn’t really get us anywhere.

Before getting into the meat of Sam Harris’ proposal, we should first define what we mean by objective morality.  It is any moral value that is true independent of human construct, opinion or agreement.  We don’t have to like it for it to be true.  We don’t have to want it to be true.  We don’t have to develop a system of thought to make it true.  It would be true regardless.

You can digest his thoughts for yourself by reading his book, The Moral Landscape.  For further enjoyment you can watch him defend his claims in a debate with William Lane Craig here.  Because we are also talking about worldviews, it’s important to identify the necessary parameters of a worldview.    Below are 3 necessary affirmations of any expression of atheism.  You can certainly refuse these but you can’t refute them and be a consistent atheist.

1. The universe only material.  If the universe is not purely material (natural), then we are conceding the existence of things beyond the natural.  These would be things that exist beyond natural explanation. That is by definition supernatural.  If there is supernatural reality atheism is not true. This is not offered as a proof of Christian theism.

2. The universe is scientific.  If the universe is not knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics, we have no confidence in asserting atheism. That would allow for unknown and unexplained forces, i.e. the supernatural or a god. This allows room for agnosticism, but not atheism.

3. The universe is impersonal.  If the universe has a consciousness or will, we are affirming pantheism at the very least, so atheism is defeated.  If the universe is guided by a consciousness or will, we are asserting some kind of theism or polytheism, so atheism is defeated.

These are the unforgiving boundaries of serious minded atheism.  Prominent atheists have noted repeatedly and forcefully that there is no basis for meaning in such a universe.  It is in opposition to his brethren that Sam Harris steps into the arena.

In The Moral Landscape and the debate mentioned above Harris asserts that the bedrock of moral value is the avoidance of unnecessary suffering and the promotion of well-being.  Further, these ideas are woven deeply and strongly into the core of every person demonstrating that they are actually the real and best understanding for our ideas of evil and good.

It is at this point that we should note one very serious problem.  He has essentially redefined good to mean well-being and evil to mean unnecessary suffering.  If you watch the debate you will see how Harris is talking in circles by modifying moral terms.

  • Good produces well-being.  Well-being produces well-being. 
  • Well-being is good.  Well-being is well-being.
  • Evil produces unnecessary suffering.  Unnecessary suffering produces unnecessary suffering.
  • Unnecessary suffering is evil.  Unnecessary suffering is unnecessary suffering.

These statements are identical.  Yet, this serious problem is not his most pressing problem.

Harris is smart, engaging and funny.  I’d love to share a beer with him.  His argument for objective morality is stimulating and at points compelling.  But if we take him seriously, he utterly comes off the rails before moving one significant step toward his desired end.  Tragically, his argument, though grand, rests on no foundation at all.

Logical Suicide:  killing his own argument before he even starts

Harris admits that every branch of science is built on certain axiomatic assumptions.  He goes on to concede that you have to assume that the worst possible suffering is bad and worth avoiding.  While Harris will not have a hard time finding people who want to avoid suffering and enjoy the sublime, he asks us to take this supposed objective truth on faith rather than evidence.

Let’s not gloss over the fact that Harris has let the cat out of the bag.  He is right when he contends that assuming axiomatic truths does not render science unscientific.  This shows that science, though absolutely indispensable, is insufficient on its own to account for knowledge.

Additionally, this is where Harris commits the same fault of all others who attempt to build a moral argument from reason.  You have to assume a moral starting point.  That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence.  It has to be assumed.  That is the same as saying it must be accepted on faith.

If it’s not a necessary implication of atheism nor demonstrated by evidence, upon what basis would any good atheist accept this as objectively true?  Harris is now asking us to ignore the confines of atheism and play by a new set of rules.  If he has the authority to do so, he has not taken any effort to demonstrate why would should trust him as the authority.

His response to this objection is that the only way to object to his view is if there is something wrong with you.  Though he is not a religious fellow this sounds suspiciously religious.  It is rather god-like to say, “If you disagree there is something fundamentally wrong with you.”

If there is any evidence for his case it is that all people, unless there is something fundamentally wrong them, concede that this is true.  One, that is another way of saying since we want it to be true it must be true.  Or, since most of agree that it is true then it must be true.  This falls perilously short of demonstrating any objective moral values.

If by some evolutionary chance in the future the number psychopath’s outnumbered the non-psychopaths the continuum of human well-being would look quite different from what it does today.  The well-being of psychopaths is expressed in their utter disregard for others and delight in suffering.  William Lane Craig points out that this means that the continuum of human well-being is not identically the same as a moral landscape.  You can read more on that here.  Seen in this light, Harris’ moral landscape could be ever changing, thus not objectively true.

This should be enough to dismiss Harris’ serious but unsuccessful attempt for grounding objective morality.  But if we press it even further, the unravelling becomes inescapably clear.  Harris’ view can be summarized, since we all prefer well-being we should necessarily prefer the well-being of all.  That is not a necessary conclusion.  One could start at the exact same point as Harris and just as reasonably argue for personal well-being, ending up at nihilism.

Moral Absurdity

Finally, consider 2 cases that could not be considered immoral in Harris’ world:

  • Raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug.  There is no diminishment of well-being for the supposed victim.
  • Stealing $500,000 from a billionaire.  What possible diminished well-being could the billionaire experience?

If we were to take Harris’ position seriously what grounds would we have to punish those who committed these acts?  We could conceive of many other similar immoral actions in which no perceived well-being is diminished.  Yet, we all, or at least most, would feel a sense of justice if we were to convict such persons.  Is that sense of justice objectively true or a common delusion?

Conclusion

When I say that Sam Harris is not a good atheist I am not saying he is not a good person.  Rather, I am pointing out areas where he thinks, acts and advocates in contradiction to the necessary implications of his own atheism.

I will happily concede that there is nothing in this post that serves to validate my own position of objective morality being rooted in the character of an eternal God.  I’ve already written too much for a single blog post.

So, what can we know?  We can know that Sam Harris is caught on his own hook.  Rather strangely he does not attempt to respond to these objections.  He prefers to attack the God and morality of Biblical theism.  He is free to do so.  He may be right about atheism.  But if he is, he is wrong about objective morality.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,929 other followers

%d bloggers like this: