Conversations: Other Faiths


Helena
It is interesting to observe that every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. And yet neither Muslims nor Christians find the other’s reasons compelling.

Sappho
So why do Christians not lose any sleep over whether or not to convert to Islam?

Helena
I think Christians feel they do not need to disprove the foundation of Islam in order to reject the beliefs of Muslims. They feel the burden is upon Muslims to prove that their beliefs about God and Muhammad are valid.

Sappho
Well, it is indeed clear to anyone who is not anaesthetized by the dogma is Islam that Muslims are simply not making claims about reality that can be corroborated. And ironically, Christians agree with us about this, “Isn’t it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves?” you can hear them say.

Helena
That is an interesting point is it not, Christians know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims.

Sappho
Indeed. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who said “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Helena
Quite so, and more importantly, I feel Christians should understand that the way they view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way we view all religions.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 4-5)

See other: Philosophical Conversations

Conversations: Faith


Helena
There are people who believe certain propositions about the world we live in, not because those propositions make them feel good, but because they think they are true.

Lysandra
I see that it is obvious that those propositions can either be true or untrue. And if one proposition is right, the contradictory proposition must be wrong. For instance, the Bible is either the word of God, or it is not.

Helena
Exactly. Consider your example, if the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, we have misused our lives in the worst conceivable way.

Lysandra
Well, if the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for people like ourselves.

Helena
Indeed, but let us return to your example so I can expand on it a little: either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it is not. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false. Now, you would think there are quite convincing reasons for believing that if you drink the blood of a fictional carpenter’s son you can live forever, but there do not seem to be any.

Lysandra
That is an interesting point. And you would think the fact that our continuous and public rejection of a collective delusion such as Christianity does not worry us in the least should suggest to Christians just how inadequate we think their reasons for being Christian are.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 4)

See other: Philosophical Conversations

On Questioning


“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

– Albert Einstein

Liberals, Moderates, Conservatives and a Tsunami


‘Even if a belief in God had a reliable, positive effect upon human behavior, this would not offer a reason to believe in God. One can believe in God only if one thinks that God actually exists. Even if atheism led straight to moral chaos, this would not suggest that the doctrine of Christianity is true. Islam might be true, in that case. Or all religions might function like placebos. As descriptions of the universe, they could be utterly false but, nevertheless, useful. The evidence suggests, however, that they are both false and dangerous.

In talking about the good consequences that your beliefs have on human morality, you are following the example of religious liberals and religious moderates. Rather than say that they believe in God because certain biblical prophecies have come true, or because the miracles recounted in the Gospels are convincing, liberals and moderates tend to talk in terms of the good consequences of believing as they do. Such believers often say that they believe in God because this “gives their lives meaning.” When a tsunami killed a few hundred thousand people on the day after Christmas, 2004, many conservative Christians viewed the cataclysm as evidence of God’s wrath. God was apparently sending another coded message about the evils of abortion, idolatry, and homosexuality. While I consider this interpretation of events to be utterly repellent, it at least has the virtue of being reasonable, given a certain set of assumptions.

Liberals and moderates, on the other hand, refuse to draw any conclusions whatsoever about God from his works. God remains an absolute mystery, a mere source of consolation that is compatible with the most desolating evil. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, liberals and moderates admonished one another to look for God “not in the power that moved the wave, but in the human response to the wave.” I think we can probably agree that it is human benevolence on display—not God’s—whenever the bloated bodies of the dead are dragged from the sea. On a day when over one hundred thousand children were simultaneously torn from their mothers’ arms and casually drowned, liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is: the sheerest of mortal pretenses. The theology of wrath has far more intellectual merit. If God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings, his will is not inscrutable. The only thing inscrutable here is that so many otherwise rational men and women can deny the unmitigated horror of these events and think this the height of moral wisdom.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 16

Doing Good for God


‘What about all of the good things people have done in the name of God? It is undeniable that many people of faith make heroic sacrifices to relieve the suffering of other human beings. But is it necessary to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to behave this way? If compassion were really dependent upon religious dogmatism, how could we explain the work of secular doctors in the most war-ravaged regions of the developing world? Many doctors are moved simply to alleviate human suffering, without any thought of God. While there is no doubt that Christian missionaries are also moved by a desire to alleviate suffering, they come to the task encumbered by a dangerous and divisive mythology. Missionaries in the developing world waste a lot of time and money (not to mention the goodwill of non-Christians) proselytizing to the needy; they spread inaccurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted disease, and they withhold accurate information.

While missionaries do many noble things at great risk to themselves, their dogmatism still spreads ignorance and death. By contrast, volunteers for secular organizations like Doctors Without Borders do not waste any time telling people about the virgin birth of Jesus. Nor do they tell people in sub-Saharan Africa—where nearly four million people die from AIDS every year—that condom use is sinful. Christian missionaries have been known to preach the sinfulness of condom use in villages where no other information about condoms is available. This kind of piety is genocidal.[1] We might also wonder, in passing, 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?’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 12-13

[1] If you can believe it, the Vatican is currently opposed to condom use even to prevent the spread of HIV from one married partner to another. The Pope is rumored to be reconsidering this policy. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care, announced on Vatican radio that his office is now “conducting a very profound scientific, technical and moral study” of this issue (!). Needless to say, if Church doctrine changes as a result of these pious deliberations, it will be a sign, not that faith is wise, but that one of its dogmas has grown untenable.

Problems with Stem-cell Research


‘Your qualms about embryonic stem-cell research are similarly obscene. Here are the facts: stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. It could offer therapeutic break-throughs for every disease or injury process that human beings suffer—for the simple reason that embryonic stem cells can become any tissue in the human body. This research may also be essential for our understanding of cancer, along with a wide variety of developmental disorders. Given these facts, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the promise of stem-cell research. It is true, of course, that research on embryonic stem cells entails the destruction of three-day-old human embryos. This is what worries you.

Let us look at the details. A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

Perhaps you think that 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, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. This is a fact. The argument from a cell’s potential gets you absolutely nowhere.

But let us assume, for the moment, that every three-day-old human embryo has a soul worthy of our moral concern. Embryos at this stage occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? Two embryos sometimes fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. You or someone you know may have developed in this way. No doubt theologians are struggling even now to determine what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case.

Isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The naive idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

You believe that “life starts at the moment of conception.” You believe that there are souls in each of these blastocysts and that the interests of one soul—the soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, say—cannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a Petri dish. Given the accommodations we have made to faith-based irrationality in our public discourse, it is often suggested, even by advocates of stem-cell research, that your position on this matter has some degree of moral legitimacy. It does not. Your resistance to embryonic stem-cell research is, at best, uninformed. There is, in fact, no moral reason for our federal government’s unwillingness to fund this work. We should throw immense resources into stem-cell research, and we should do so immediately. Because of what Christians like yourself believe about souls, we are not doing this. In fact, several states have made such work illegal. If one experiments on a blastocyst in South Dakota, for instance, one risks spending years in prison.

The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 11-12

The Ten Commandments


‘Admonishments of this kind [the Ten Commandments] are found in virtually every culture throughout recorded history. There is nothing especially compelling about their presentation in the Bible. There are obvious biological reasons why people tend to treat their parents well, and to think badly of murderers, adulterers, thieves, and liars. It is a scientific fact that moral emotions—like a sense of fair play or an abhorrence of cruelty—precede any exposure to scripture. Indeed, studies of primate behavior reveal that these emotions (in some form) precede humanity itself. All of our primate cousins are partial to their own kin and generally intolerant of murder and theft.

They tend not to like deception or sexual betrayal much, either. Chimpanzees, especially, display many of the complex social concerns that you would expect to see in our closest relatives in the natural world. It seems rather unlikely, therefore, that the average American will receive necessary moral instruction by seeing these precepts chiseled in marble whenever he enters a courthouse. And what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of our universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock?

If we are going to take the God of the Bible seriously, we should admit that He never gives us the freedom to follow the commandments we like and neglect the rest. Nor does He tell us that we can relax the penalties He has imposed for breaking them.

If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible. It is impossible to behave this way by adhering to the principles of Jainism. How, then, can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 9

On A Liberal Bias


“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

– Stephen Colbert