Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Straw Men

At first glance, we have to ask, who the hell is Sam Harris talking about? His letter is addressed to a Christian nation. He must be talking about Mexico, where according to some sources, 99% are Christian (mostly Catholic, with some Protestants).

Surely he isn’t talking about the USA, where only 76% consider themselves Christian, and that is more of a cultural identify than a meaningful understanding and acceptance of Christian theory. I’ve lived in the US about half my life, and never once have I encountered somebody who turned the other cheek.

Although I’m a confirmed agnostic, I went to Christian schools. I went to three Christian schools, in fact, and was expelled from all three. My family was religious. Bible believing religious, and politically Conservative.

So I know Christians. And Harris’ glib descriptions of their beliefs do nothing to indict Christians; it only undermines his argument by predicating it an untrue premise.

The real crime Sam Harris is committing here is one of waste. If you’re going to write books attacking Christians, then attack them honestly and with sincerity. Arguing against a straw man who sacrifices babies to sharks wastes everybody’s time.

Christianity does need to be questioned. Not because it poses some unique and horrific threat to civilization, but because in questioning the Christian beliefs, we may cause them to become more engaged in an intellectual dialogue. And an intellectual dialogue benefits us all; attacks and counter-attacks force us to scrutinize our own beliefs, to question our own beliefs, to adjust or even abandon beliefs which are untenable.

Consequentialist Moral Realism

With that out of the way, I’ll address specific shortcomings of the book. The first and most prominent is Harris’s consequentialism. I recently addressed the consequentialism of Dawkins, and followed that up with a more explicit criticism. Harris’ consequentialism appears to be identical, the college freshman sort which belies ignorance of the theoretic fatal flaws of the theory.

Harris’ consequentialism is first encountered on page 8, where he states as fact the very thing which consequentialists have yet to prove: “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering.”

At this point, I had no reason to assume that this consequentialism played anything more than a peripheral part in Harris’ thesis.

As I progressed through the book, I became more and more aware that this consequentialism, which the idiot Harris has the nerve to assume to be scientific fact (page 21) and objectively true (page 23), is the very foundation of his thesis. It is on the basis of consequentialism that Harris attempts to condemn Christianity.

This is a grave mistake. Academic philosophers are all too aware of the problems of consequentialism. Consequentialism can never be implemented. All but the most blindly dogmatic know this. Consequentialism is intellectually untenable.

Think about it. A man nobody likes is killed. Let’s say it was a Black man in a racist country full of racist Whites. He is brought before the judge. The judge, a consequentialist, asks, “How much pain and suffering did you cause to society?”

The defendant responds, “none, your honor! I killed him in his sleep. He didn’t feel a thing. On the contrary, there was rejoicing in the streets when people learned he was dead.”

“Very well then,” the consequentialist judge says, “you are free to go with the sincere gratitude of the nation.”

Why is it that even a child can see the flaws of this theory, but Sam Harris cannot? It’s his intellect. It’s got something I call partisan hack syndrome. Allow me to elaborate.

The intellect of an honest man is like a spotlight with a Gatling gun attached. It’s set up so that when the spotlight hits a structure, if the structure has any cracks in its foundation, any inconsistencies in its articulation, or any untrue components, the Gatling gun goes off automatically. This prevents inconsistent, irrational or untrue propositions from entering the mind and taking hold.

The person, Sam Harris in this case, who suffers from partisan hack syndrome assumes a position and does not allow the spotlight to fall on his own beliefs. Those beliefs are uncritically held. That’s the difference between somebody who is intellectually honest, and a partisan hack.

If you can say the first syllable of “consequentialism” without your Gatling gun going off, then the bulb in your spotlight is dim or it has never shone upon the premises from which consequentialism is derived.

Without dwelling on the many fatal flaws of consequentialism, I refer you to Consequentialism and Its Critics, published by Oxford Press and edited by Samuel Scheffler.

It should be noted that Sam Harris has a BA in philosophy from Stanford. This is enough to indicate that he ought to be well aware of the widely recognized flaws of consequentialism. Notwithstanding this knowledge, he acts as if consequentialism was settled, “scientific fact.”

That’s dishonest. It would be like a young earth creationist who, while being made aware of the theoretical difficulties in his theories, decided that in order to avoid the academic process he would simply take the theory directly to the uneducated masses and present it as settled, scientific fact. That dishonesty permeates Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.

Egalitarian Collectivism

Also permeating the book is rabid socialistic presumptions. Complaining, for instance, about CEO’s earning higher wages than employees, is a groundless complaint if one doesn’t presuppose an egalitarian version of collectivism. The implicit suggestion here is that once the Christian abandons Christianity, he will eagerly embrace egalitarian collectivism (socialistic democratic totalitarianism). That suggestion alone may effectively prevent Christians from examining their beliefs. God knows it would scare the snot out of me to think of waking up one day as a collectivist. I’d embrace Islam before I’d let that happen.

Intellectual Honesty

It’s ironic that Harris would have a section of his book entitled Intellectual Honesty. I’ve already mentioned his dishonest presentation of consequentialism as “scientific fact.” Several other instances of dishonesty appear throughout the book.

“Perhaps you think the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being. Everytime you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. The argument from a cell’s potential gets you absolutely nowhere.” (page 30)

This is sophist sleight of hand, and Sam Harris has a BA in philosophy so I’m inclined to think he knew of this mendacity as he wrote it.

A human blastocyst is a human organism. It doesn’t have potential to become human, because it already is human. The argument from potential is a false argument. It’s untenable. But the argument from potential does not apply to humans. It applies to semen or perhaps to ovum. Saying that a human organism has the potential to become human is absurd.

Either he knew of this piece of intellectual dishonesty and included it anyway, or he is a rather sophomoric intellectual unable to recognize obvious errors in his reasoning.

On page 32, Harris writes, “There is, in fact, no moral reason for our federal government’s unwillingness to fund this work [embryonic stem cell research].

Again, holding Sam Harris to the standards of a public intellectual with a degree in philosophy, this is dishonest. Ask the most rabidly liberal academic philosopher if there are any moral reasons why the government should not fund embryonic stem cell research, and he will probably provide you with several. To name a few moral objections, democratic moral theory would suggest that the majority will must be honored; libertarian moral theory would suggest that the government has no authority to spend money on health or medical care; certain voluntarist moral theories would prohibit the stem cell research on the grounds that the human, in his embryonic state, has not consented to the research which will deprive him of life.

Harris’ statement is wildly false.

Next up, page 34 reads, “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?”

The argument by innuendo is that Christians help people because they greedily await a heavenly reward for the help they render.

I have a step-brother who is a missionary in Indonesia. Not somebody who preaches to people. He is a pilot. He flies a small float plane into villages and provides communication to the mainland, first aid, help with building homes and schools and that type of thing. I know this guy well, and he doesn’t do it to earn points with God. He does it because his character, his values are such that “worldly” things are of no significance. He genuinely cares about people. Harris’ innuendo is simply offensive.

Another entirely dishonest argument Harris uses is the one that suggests “blue states” are low crime and “Christian conservative” (his words) “red states” are high crime.

The state with the highest violent crime is not a state at all; it’s the uber liberal District of Columbia. It has a violent crime rate of 1,371.2 per 100,000. Compare that rate to the “most Christian state in the Union,” Utah: 236.0 per 100,000. Typically, crime rates are not discussed by state, but by city.

By city, the top 5 cities by rate of murder are: Detroit, which is also ranked #1 most liberal city (http://govpro.com/content/gov_imp_31439/), Baltimore (ranked 14th most liberal city), Philadelphia (ranked 18th most liberal city), Memphis (seems liberally inclined, given its current mayor, but I’m not very familiar with the city), Chicago (ranked 17th most liberal city).

Seems to me that liberalism, not conservative Christianity, is associated with crime.

There are many more fundamental theoretical errors in Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. I suspect that he knew of those errors and included them anyway in order to feign a stronger theoretical position than he could legitimately lay claim to. The reason I suspect he knew of the errors and included them anyway is this: I don’t think he’s honestly stupid. And there’s another thing. He had to have known about the fatal flaws of consequentialism. Those errors are too widely discussed for a philosophy major to acquire a degree without knowing of them. And yet he presented consequentialism as scientific fact.

A pattern emerges here. Ignore the theoretical difficulties and present your theories in a stronger light than they warrant. Entirely dishonest, but if you believe that the average American is an idiot, it’s the shortest distance between point A and point B.

The Identification Error

There is one other error Sam Harris commits. It’s now just Sam Harris, though. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett also commit the same identification error. I’ll discuss that error in a follow up post.

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