Thursday, April 17, 2008

Letter to a Christian Apologist

For the past couple of weeks, Mike Adams has been publishing a series of anti-atheist columns - especially a series in response to Sam Harris and his book Letter to a Christian Nation. It is, in particular, the third installment that I want to take issue with.

Dr. Adams references a number of statements by Harris that are, admittedly, a little dopey, if taken at face value - in particular, this one:

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

It isn't too difficult for Adams to point out the differences between Christianity and Islam, not only in terms of their fundamental beliefs about God and the Universe, but also in terms of how the two religions view each other. But it's here that I think Adams has missed the point - and indeed, that I think a lot of modern defenders of Christianity have missed the point. It's true enough that Islam, as written, is much more violent and less tolerant than Christianity. And it's equally true that the reality of the two religions today is that Christianity is much less violent and more tolerant in practice than Islam. Let's make no bones about it: I would MUCH rather live in a Christian nation than a Muslim nation. But the operative word in the previous sentence was "today." It hasn't always been the case that Christianity was generally peaceful and relatively tolerant, and this despite its much-vaunted teachings.

Adams writes:

Indeed, for many Muslims the decision is made out of fear of the consequences of rejecting Islam. Many are not even familiar with basic Christian arguments or the evidence supporting them.

Accepting Christianity, on the other hand, is far more likely to have come from a rational appraisal of the evidence. And it is far less likely to have come from the threat of the sword.

Ah, but it wasn't too long ago that this simply wasn't the case. And no, we don't have to dig all the way back to the Middle Ages to find examples. Indigenous peoples were being forcibly converted to Christianity less than 100 years ago. Even in Europe, where such practices had ostensibly ceased, the cases of people who made public conversions in the 1800s and early 1900s out of fears for their careers and social standing are numerous. The point being: whatever Dr. Adams thinks it says in the Bible hasn't stopped Christians from behaving like savages in the past. It didn't even stop renowned scholars of the Bible from advocating savage treatment for non-believers. Consider this passage from St. Thomas Aquinas:

With regard to heretics there are two points to be observed, one on their side, the other on the side of the Church. As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death. (source)

Aquinas goes on to say that the Church is merciful, and that a man can be forgiven for rejecting its teachings - BUT

...wherefore [the Church] condemns not at once, but "after the first and second admonition," as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.

Have a look at the link and you will see that this is based on reasoned Biblical argument. And why not? Jesus himself, in the Parable of the Pounds, seems to advocate the killing of those who reject the Church's teachings. Specifically, Luke 19:27 warns:

But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

Granted, this is the King in the story speaking, not Jesus directly, but it is hard to read this parable any other way than that the King is a stand-in for Jesus. Most interpretations would have this death order apply only after the Second Coming, when the Kingdom of God is manifest. That is, only to those who reject Jesus once they are certain He is real. Fair enough. But this is nevertheless a scare tactic of the kind Harris was talking about when he said that Muslims and Christians have the same reasons for believing in their respective religions. Harris wasn't, one presumes, asserting, as Mike Adams disingenuously imples here, that Christians and Muslims have exactly the same beliefs about Jesus. Obviously such an assertion would be nonsense. But he seems to be CORRECT that both religions rely on scare tactics and ghost stories to keep the faithful in the fold.

Another statement of Harris' that allows Adams to claim he is speaking in contradictions is this one:

The Jains preach a doctrine of utter non-violence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe,they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition.

Adams points out that Harris stated earlier in the book that all religions are on the same footing for him - he rejects Christianity and Islam equally. Here, however, Harris seems to be claiming a kind of moral superiority for Jainism - something inconsistent with his earlier blanket rejection of religion.

Or is it?

Technically, yes, I suppose it is. And to the extent that Harris' earlier claim was meant to say that all religions are equally bad, let me go ahead and publicly disagree with him. Some religions are better than others. But I think I understand what Harris is getting at with this point, and I agree with it, so let me defend it. It's true that some religions are better than others, but it doesn't follow from that that any of them are ultimately good for humanity. It's rather like if you go to any lower-middle class street in the US and have a look at everyone's bank accounts, you will find that some people on the street are better-off than others, but that none of them are exactly wealthy. Jainism can be more peaceful than Christianity and still a bad idea - because it leads people to believe goofy things about the universe without reason (or, as Harris charitably puts it, "...Jains believe many improbable things about the universe..."). But I think the real point here is to serve as a preemptive response to the kind of argument that Adams just gave: i.e. that Christianity and Islam are not equivalent because Christianity, as written, is less violent than Islam. And since we just saw Dr. Adams give exactly that argument, we would really want to know what his response to this is. So, Dr. Adams, if Christianity is better than Islam because it does not convert people through threat of violence as Islam does (never mind that it did just that for large portions of its history), then why is Jainism not better than Christianity by this standard? That was a clear question put to you, the believer, by Harris, which I notice you have sidestepped.

Now, I imagine what Dr. Adams will eventually be reduced to saying is simply "Jainism isn't true; Christianity is. That's why Christianity is better." But of course this is a completely useless response to anyone who hasn't experienced some kind of revelation. And that, indeed, is precisely Harris' earlier point when he says that Christians are Christians and Muslims are Muslims for the same reason. That reason is a wilful belief in things for which they have no independent evidence.

Indeed, Adams flatly contradicts himself on exactly this point not two paragraphs later. Taking this quote from Harris:

Anyone who believes that the Bible offers the best guidance we have on questions of morality has some very strange ideas either about guidance or morality.

Adams responds

The two key words are "best" and "we." There is, therefore, a superior moral code by which "we" can all live. But it does not come from God. So what is the source of this superior moral code to which we may all subscribe?

In other words, Adams' earlier statements to the effect that Christianity was superior to Islam because it left believers free to their own conscience turn out to be the kind of things that, by his own code, he cannot direct at non-believers anyway. That is because - if this response is to be believed - Adams thinks that people who have no religion (who do not know God) have no basis for moral judgement. What's good for the goose isn't, apparently, good for the gander. It's fine for Adams to assert, based on the moral code that comes from his belief in God, that Christianity is superior, and for him to couch this in objective terms that non-believers can presumably also relate to, but when it comes time for a non-believer to criticize Christianity, then suddenly morality is something that only Christians have, because it "comes from God." Of course, it's possible that Adams believes that morality comes from God, and that all people, as God's creations, have an inkling in their internal makeup as to what its precepts are, and that they can judge religions on this basis and come to the conclusion that Christianity is the True one. That would be a respectable, Kantian approach. But in that case, the criticism still applies: Harris, as a creation of God under Adams' belief system, presumably has access to this set of standards, whether or not he acknowledges that it comes from God.

Of course, I suppose Adams' point here is to offer some kind of sly "proof" that God exists - by asserting that moral truth can only come from God, and that if Harris is basing his position on moral truths then either he covertly believes in God or he has some difficult questions to answer about where morality comes from. Which is far enough as far as it goes - just that it doesn't go very far. Just because an atheist has difficulty explaining where something like morality comes from, ultimately, is hardly an argument against atheism. Religion has it easy here: whatever in the universe is unexplained can be brushed away with reference to "God," despite no knowledge on the believer's part of the mechanism that underlies it. If we asked Adams where moral precepts come from, he would no doubt say they are the "Will of God." But this is useless. Knowing that moral precepts are "God's Will" tells us nothing about how they work or why they are the way they are. Adams and people like him simply push their explanation onto something external-but-mysterious. "It is not for us to question God." To the extent that he can give indepdent justification for why God chose this or that moral over another, then Adams believes in some kind of standard outside God by which to judge morality, and thus must admit that he and Harris can have a discussion about it. If he reduces all morality to God's whims, then his source of morality is no less mysterious than Harris', and this is therefore not a valid basis for criticism.
But I'm being too charitable. Mike Adams, simply put, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Morality is objective, available to everyone whether or not he shares' Adams' belief system so long as Adams needs it to be to convince them of Christianity's superiority, but once they turn it back on him, suddenly morality is something only Christians really have access to. This is exactly the behavior I was talking about a couple of days ago with regard to Frank Turek and his book "I don't have Enough Faith to be an Atheist." It's a typical believer's trick - because on a level playing field they don't have a chance in a battle of rationality and they know it.

The last trick up Adams' sleeve is another common deceptive tactic that Christians pull.

Sam Harris' opposition to slavery is due to the role the God-inspired Bible has played in shaping our Christian nation. Christianity taught America that slavery is wrong,and America taught Sam Harris that slavery is wrong.

Technically, I suppose this is a form of the genetic fallacy. If cultural opposition to slavery in the US has its roots in Christian teaching (which, fair enough, it does), then it cannot have been the case that there are other plausible sources of moral opposition to slavery? I cannot for a minute accept that Adams honestly believes this. More to the point, Adams is deliberately ignoring the role that Christianity also played in justifying slavery. Using the Bible passages that Harris quotes, no small number of Christians came to the conclusion that God had no particular objection to the institution. More accurate would be to say that certain subsects of Christians were behind the anti-slavery movement, not necessarily the bulk of the religion as a whole. Which is true, really, of just about any number of other policies in American history, both good and bad. Adams, of course, would prefer to cite only those instances where Christianity has informed modern moral consensus, such as in slavery, and ignore those instances where it was on the other side, such as in Prohibition or subjugation of natives, etc. Again with the tilted playing field.

For what it's worth - I agree with Adams that Christianity deserves more credit for its pivotal role in ending slavery from modern liberals. To listen to a lot of them, you would think that Christianity were the Source of All Racism - which it clearly is not. My main bone to pick here is that you cannot conclude inevitability from historical fact. In layman's terms - it may well have been the case that Christianity played a role in getting slavery abolished, but one can hardly conclude from this that Christianity was necessary to the Abolition of slavery, or that Abolition would never have happened without it. More likely is just that when you're confronted with a situation where the overwhelming majority of the population is Christian, then you more or less have to speak in Christian terms to get them to behave as you want. Let's imagine, for a minute, that we go to Africa and want to persuade people not to forcibly mutilate their daughters' genitals, as is the custom in some Islamic regions. Well, since these regions are heavily Islamic, then we can hardly make a moral appeal to the practitioners without invoking Islam. We would have to couch our arguments in Muslim terms in order to be heard, it's safe to say. Let's say we're successful in persuading the population, by use of some Koran-based argument, that genital mutilation is not what Allah wants. Now flash-foward 100 years. What Dr. Adams is doing with slavery is essentially what anyone in these countries would be doing in response to an atheist on the subject of genital mutilation. The atheist quotes whatever scripture it was that seemed to have justified the practice to people in the past, and the Dr. Adams-analogue responds by saying "Ah, but it was ISLAM that stamped out the practice" - completely ignoring the role that Islam played in justifying the practice for so many years before it decided to switch sides. So it probably is with slavery.

In any case, Dr. Adams' diatribe here is poorly reasoned, as usual for his Christian rants.

The point of interest to take away, of course, is the same as a couple of days ago. Christians seem to be suddenly concerned about their image as irrationals. This was not always the case. Indeed, in the past, the line was always that reason would only take you so far - a leap of faith was necessary for real salvation. Now they're selling off faith and attempting to present themselves as the reasonable parties - picking on people like Harris in the hopes that the public will come to see atheists as the unreasonable party. To the extent that this strategy is successful, it plants the seeds for its own failure. Few, if any, Chrsitians come to the faith by process of reason, for the very obvious reason that God is NOT obviously manifest in the world and it is NOT obviously true that Jesus raised from the dead to redeem the world from sin. There is no rational argument which leads one to this set of beliefs, nor is there even a rational mechanism by which Jesus' death would accomplish such a feat. The belief system itself is not internally consistent once accepted, and there is no process of reason that even leads one to accept it to the exclusion of others in the first place. If Christianity is now trying to appeal to our reason, it is playing a losing game - something I hardly think it would do if it were not showing signs of getting desperate.


At 9:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write with a lot of enthusiasm, which I think is good.However, I would suggest that you read about Islam from some 'objective' source before talking with such certainty about practices that are not part of Islam, but were / are being done by people who claim to be Muslims. There is a great dichotomy between what Islam really is , and between what some people in the Islamic world may be doing. I imagine that you have the resources and the critical thinking abilities to look for the facts. You may not be interested, and that's totally up to you, but please do not make generalizations before you look up facts from an 'original source'.


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