Following the release of avowed American atheist Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up, columnists Frank Bruni and Gary Cutting of the New York Times take the opportunity to review the new book and interview Harris respectively. I managed to read through both articles (online) in an effort to try and understand what I could about Harris, his book and the NY Times writers’ keen interest in the work of this particular atheist.
Admittedly, I am somewhat fascinated by atheism and atheists in particular as I find both pique my interest – in the classic definition of the word. I have spent so many years working out my faith in God in Christ and growing in that faith in His redemptive love that atheism has become to me a subject much like studying entomology. I’m both drawn to understand it and repulsed by it at the same time. The few instances I’ve had in sharing my belief with avowed atheists have been pretty much exercises in developing restraint and gentleness for myself awhile experiencing the disappointment in seeing their resolve on display. Like many Christians I suspect, I am not always certain how to deal with God-deniers’ rigid belief in non-belief.
But I find Mr. Harris’ unique life-long progress in atheism particularly revealing in a notable way. Sam Harris offers little new or insightful about atheism that hasn’t already been posited in some variation down through the ages regarding the desire to argue against God. But he, at least for me, is pulling the curtain back in a particular secularist age response to even the most ancient of arguments. I think it deserves our attention if for no other reason than to prepare our own apologetics through comparison and understanding of the other side of the argument.
From Gary Cutting’s interview this is exposed in the opening question and answer:
“Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?
Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.
The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.”
In other words, “It’s all about me”. I hope Harris won’t be too disappointed to learn there’s nothing new here to see – so move along.
Nagel, Searle and Chalmers – and evidently Harris – all come close to the jump off point to believing something in faith but are firmly mired in naturalistic exploration, or materialistic explanation and therefor have little idea of what people of faith (or religion as they would express it) must first possess before they become open to the knowledge of God. But it is spiritual knowledge that is the only real form of understanding about human intellect, consciousness and humanity’s place in reality. In other words, only spiritual knowledge reveals the truth of human spirituality. We know we are made in God’s image as we come to know God. They don’t know God and don’t want to. And they really don’t understand His image – humans. Here is what Frank Bruni wrote in his column reviewing Harris’s book:
“[It] caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”
Does the Gospel of Christ make sense or not? Is Bruni right in saying that? Are the numbers growing who cannot find peace and joy in God in Christ? Or are they honestly looking?
Harris’ form of contemporary atheism arrives like this via post-modernistic rationale, a particularly insidious and absurdly ridiculous popular philosophy. But of course it is far more than just a philosophy – it is a determined form of rejection of testable truths and the farthest departure from reasonable thinking I can personally think of. But adherents to atheism will of course scoff at that and roundly denounce such criticism as, well, irrational.
But Sam Harris is now claiming that indicting religion is not really his aim. “I’ve ridden that hobby horse” he says smugly. Instead, writes Bruni, Harris has increasingly redirected his energies “to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it.”
Bruni then continues with this remarkable observation:
“During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: ‘May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.’ That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.”
Really. Is God indeed the default vocabulary? If so, why is God in so little evidence in the personal lives of so many people, and not our deepest convictions as a society? Is it possible there is some form of confusion about the role of vocabulary and a genuine belief in God?
“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said. Then he continues, “There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.
Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.”
Yes they do. The great irony of course is in concluding that prophets who are purged of doctrine are to be our guides for the “vast landscape between faithlessness and piety”. It is the very prophets who hold fast to doctrine who are the only qualified guides America and the entire world desperately needs to hear from in this dialog. The entire history of atheism is a history of denial through invented doctrines. Atheist’s every thought is held captive to this one concept: There is no God. The ancient Psalmist wrote, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. Psalm 14:1. Show me the true prophet who will say there is no God!
But I hope you did not miss the most significant statement Harris makes:
“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears”.
Of course there is no secular alternative! But there is most certainly an alternative. Rational? How about reasonable? “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18 (KJV)
We who study scripture and hide it in our hearts understand it is doctrine that holds scripture as inspired, inerrant and authoritative word of God; this is because the Bible says it is and we as believers read it and know it to be true – not to mention century upon century of failed efforts to dispute it. Sound doctrine flows from faithful exposition of scripture and provides the basis for ordered thinking, wisdom and discernment. Whenever we begin to stray from sound doctrine is when we lose our way and rely only on our own intellect to carry us.
So, we are now at the point in our cultural dialog today when we are willing to arrive at a personal point of view using some form of naturalist rationale and then add to it the highest level of credibility – our own personal experience.
Harris describes a moment where he experiences a deep moment of peace and inspiration, then dismisses it by offering a personal rationale for the experience and not a spiritual one. I couldn’t help thinking of my old art school days when I first read Marcel Duchamps’ reply to critics of his bizarre constructs using bicycle wheels and urinals and similar found objects by simply saying, “Art is what I say it is.” As if that were supposed to settle the issue.
So what then are we to say to Sam Harris and the New York Times Op Ed writers?
Not much that hasn’t already been said thousands of times – ten thousand times thousands of times. But in the end the best response may well be simply: Deny all you want, but that will not prove He doesn’t exist. Proving someone or something doesn’t exist is impossible. Proof of anything must require evidence and what does no evidence prove? Sorry, nothing. There can be no proof only denial. On the other hand, we of faith and our belief in God are compelling evidence just in ourselves by what we believe and know through our faith. At least we should be. But compelling archeological, traditional and historical evidence exists on an indisputable level as well. Atheism is constantly outmatched in arguing against it.
Today we are witness to the most startling devolution to overtake any culture or society in perhaps the entire epoch of humankind. In only arguably two – perhaps one generation, traditions, values and beliefs are falling away to an entirely humanistic secularism; a life of assuming the role of God as gods without God. Humankind of course is not up for the job and we are slipping into eternity without hope, without purpose, without meaning and ultimately without life. It almost seems as if atheists, as least some are struggling with the awful enormity of that possibility. And so, sadly, they are too far from the realization that truth is already been made available to see. Luke 14:6
My faith compels me to pray for the soul of Sam Harris. His salvation may not be as unlikely as we might think. I get the impression he is seeking the hope real truth offers. As soon as gets past himself he may see it.