Debates can come off mean. I certainly would not want to be in one… unless it was a little more fun! I recently watched a Notre Dame debate held in April of 2011 between Philosopher, Sam Harris (known as one of the New Atheists) and Christian Philosopher, William Lane Craig. Overall, in my opinion, Dr. Craig had the best answers, but Dr. Harris had a better delivery. Harris was quit witted and charmed the audience. Craig is of keen intellect but came off a bit more distant and less personable. Guess who the university students warmed up to? Yes, Harris. They laughed at Harris’ comments, who obviously made a better impression on them, albeit with less plausible answers. Even though Craig’s responses were more logical and were the best answers to what grounds morality, the students didn’t seem to care—they liked the sarcasm of Harris.
This made me think… could I have debated in a witty way to gain a favorable audience reaction answering the same questions? I can’t compare in the slightest to Dr. Craig, but if I had the chance, just for kicks, I adapted his answers, mixing in what I’ve learned studying apologetics at Biola University, and came up with some hopefully winsome responses. Here’s my take:
Dr. Harris is a Naturalist, which means he does not believe anything immaterial exists. Naturalists have come up with theories on how to explain morality through the lens of biology. I argue that the Christian worldview has the best answer for why morals exist. (All the answers from Harris are taken from the Notre Dame debate.)
- Where does our sense of morality come from?
Harris argues that moral truth must be based in the context of science. “Belief in morality should not be rooted in religion, and belief in God is of itself a result of moral blindness. Our values of right and wrong have been drummed into us by evolution, and then modulated by culture.”
Lisa Q— “If all actions are causally determined, as the theory of evolution presupposes, it follows that people really shouldn’t have free will. If we’re simply programmed through evolution to behave a certain way, could we honestly be morally responsible for our own actions? If moral responsibility is a social construct, evolved through communal, subjective experiences, then no person should be held responsible for the actions they perform. There is no objective moral duty because, as this worldview suggests, we have no control over what we do since we’re biologically programmed towards certain behaviors.
With no objective moral duty, since evolution states there is no moral lawgiver, we merely express biologically determined actions. It’s every man for himself; a free-for-all, if you wish, because ultimately, right and wrong do not even exist. In this worldview, everything is determined.”
- What is moral?
Harris: “The minimum standard of moral goodness is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. If we have a moral duty to do anything, it is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. That would be HELL – just sayin’.
It’s possible this will fail because you can be wrong in your beliefs in how to navigate this space.”
Lisa Q— “Mr. Harris, ‘wrong’ in your beliefs based on what, may I ask? Who determines what is wrong?”
Harris: “Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, depend upon minds and the possibility of experience. Minds are a natural phenomenon that depend upon the laws of nature in some way.”
Lisa Q— “Who made these natural laws? Since natural laws exist, it is possible that a lawmaker created these laws. Wouldn’t it be plausible that this lawmaker would also provide moral laws, too?”
- What is moral equivalency?
Harris: “In talking about these things, we all can talk about the facts that influence conscience creatures: genetics, neurobiology, psychology, sociology and economics, to name a few. Space of all possible experience as a ‘moral valley’ with peaks that correspond to the heights of well-being, and valleys that correspond to the lowest suffering. There may be different but morally equivalent ways of human beings to thrive, but there are many more ways not to thrive. There are clearly more ways to suffer unnecessarily in this world, than to be sublimely happy.
It is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality.”
Lisa Q —“Mr. Harris, if we have all evolved into moral beings, then what happened to the gene pool of those in the Taliban? Is this just an evolutionary flaw? It’s not cool to call actions out as “sin” today, but this is what Christians call it—the sinful nature. We all have it, which is why it must be redeemed.”
- Can being smart solve the moral problem of bad behavior?
Harris: “It’s clearly possible to value things that reliably make you miserable in this life.”
Lisa Q — “HUH?”
Harris: “If you were only intelligent and knowledgeable to want better experiences, than you could have them.”
Lisa Q —“So, believing something against whatever you describe as this ‘better experience’ is stupid?”
Harris: “It’s possible to not know what one is missing in this life.”
Lisa Q —“Is it? From whose perspective? Have you asked everyone alive today if they know what they’re missing? You’re making a huge assumption here.”
Harris: “The truth is, science has always been in the values business.”
Lisa Q —“Really. What about the man who developed the nuclear bomb? Or Hitler’s doctors who performed atrocious acts on Jews that I won’t even repeat here because of the horror of those inhuman experiments?”
- What about the problem of evil?
Harris: “What is wrong with spending eternity in Hell?”
Lisa Q —“Oh emgeee, Mr. Harris! The whole point of Christianity is to safeguard the eternal well being of souls. You can’t defend atheism in regards to objective morality, so you go after what you perceive as wrong in the Christian worldview. You’re avoiding the weaknesses in your own worldview.”
Harris: “Nine-million children die every year before they reach the age of five. A Tsunami killed a quarter of a million people. These people probably prayed that their children will be spared, and their prayers were not answered. Any god who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them or doesn’t care to. He is, therefore, impotent or evil.”
Lisa Q —“Evil exists on this planet with or without belief in God. In your worldview, these kids die and that’s it. They cease to exist. In my worldview, Deuteronomy 17 suggests that children who die before they can discern between right and wrong go to heaven. My children go to heaven! Yours just cease. You obviously don’t understand the hope of heaven.”
Harris: “Most of these people will be going to hell because they are praying to the wrong God. Through no fault of their own, they were born into the wrong culture with the wrong theology, and they miss the revelation. 1.2 Billion people in India who are Hindus, which are polytheists. In a Christian viewpoint, they are doomed. You’ll be tortured in hell for eternity.”
Lisa Q —“Mr. Harris, for a man who likes evidence, there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of Hell in your worldview, so why does this concept even bother you? Nonetheless, I can say that only God knows the motivations of a person when they die. If they never got the chance to hear the gospel, then God will judge that justly. He knows the soul conditions of us all. He is the judge for eternal salvation or damnation. The Bible even says that some people who claimed to be Christians won’t go to heaven because they never really knew Him. So, we can’t assume anyone’s eternal destination.”
Harris: “A serial killer on death row, if he repents, can go to heaven, while innocent kids die?”
Lisa Q —“This has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability! But okay… here is my answer: Children who are innocent and die are possibly ushered into heaven. We can’t know with certainty what happens;it’s speculative. But someone who truly repents and believes, which only God knows, will go to heaven.”
Harris: “You claim Christians are merely limited in capacity to understand God – that He’s mysterious – yet you claim he is good. How can we know this? It is tiresome when intelligent people speak this way, and morally reprehensible.”
Lisa Q —“Oh Sam, Sam, Sam… we know God is good by what He’s created, by the character traits attributed to Him in the Scriptures (when taken in context of the entire Bible), and by the numerous changed lives of people who have become Christians. This is enough evidence to know that God is good. Also, if God exists, He would have to be the most perfect being because that is the definition of God—a perfect, eternal, intelligent, and loving being. God is love, and that is good!”
Harris: “This kind of faith is the perfection of narcissism “God loves me.” Given that somewhere someone is suffering right now, this kind of faith is obscene. To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings.”
Lisa Q —“Perspective is everything, and you are not seeing clearly! When someone says, “God loves me,” it is an admittance of grace—that He loves me despite myself! I am far from perfect, yet He loves me anyway. I used to reject Him, just like you, and He loves me anyway. He loves all of humanity to the point of choosing to become one, a mere man in the body of Jesus Christ, and took the penalty of crimes we committed against Him because we reject His sovereignty. He is Holy. Rejecting God is a crime against Him, and instead of rejecting us, He died for us to make a payment for this sin.
Sin must be punished because God is Holy and holiness is an attribute of His character. He can’t act contrary to Himself. And because of that kind of love, Christians turn outward to love on the hurting. Who established the Red Cross? The Salvation Army? World Vision? Even hospitals and universities were established by Christian monasteries! There are literally thousands of Christian humanitarian aid workers devoting their lives to help the hurting, and finding adoptive homes for orphans. In your worldview, being merely products of evolution, isn’t survival of the fittest the motto? Why help the weak?”
- What is the Universe ruled by?
Harris: “There is no reason to believe we live in a universe ruled by an invisible monster, Yahweh. True horror of religion—it allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own.
What kind of God would make salvation require believing in Him on bad evidence? Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice.”
Lisa Q —“So, when one gets desperate, one attacks by naming calling and degradation. That’s an ad hominem argument, and its weak. The true horror is atheism, where there is no ultimate meaning to life, and no life after death. This is all you get and then you’re gone! You are a random accident, and life is all about finding your personal “happy,” and that’s it. Atheism is definitely the less moral worldview. It’s man defining his own concept of meaning for his life. So who could say anyone else’s meaning is better or worse in this worldview? In a world without God, there is no reason to be good or bad. You just need to find your “happy,” and who cares about anyone else. It’s a self-centered existence.
…And a cult of human sacrifice? Oh, come on! If you consider all the humanitarian things the Christian faith has brought to the world (much more good acts have happened than bad), I guess you could say it is a ‘selfless sacrifice’, where you’re taught it’s better to give than receive. If that is what you mean by “human sacrifice,” then yeah, Christianity is all about giving in acts of charity, grace and mercy.”
- Faith in what?
Harris: “We don’t have to take anything on faith or lie to our children about the nature of reality. If we want to understand the nature of reality, we have to do it in the spirit of science. We rely on axioms.”
Lisa Q —“Hmmm…. ‘relying on axioms’…. Isn’t that just like faith? I didn’t think you believed in a “spirit” of anything, Mr. Harris, yet you do things in the “spirit of science”? I suppose we do take a lot of science on faith. There are things that are self-evident, like the knowledge of math, which science is based on. Mankind did not create these equations—we simply discovered them. These laws and properties sustain and govern the universe so that we can actually DO science. These are absolutes truths, and one can then infer that because these exist, they were created by an Intelligence.”
- Faith in whom?
Harris: “Jesus has a narrow worldview not any better than an Afghan warlord today. This vision of life can’t possibly be true—the one in the Bible. Governing over 9 billion people on this planet with sectarian views on an invisible God is not the way to do it. The only tool we need is honest inquiry.
Lisa Q —“Jesus is like an Afghan warlord? Oh dear, Mr. Harris, you’ve been reading the wrong Bible, or maybe the Koran, or some science fiction novel. Better get a copy of a New Testament – most hotels have one. Warlords are military leaders who fight and battle their way to power. Christ said we are to turn the other cheek, and we are to pray for our enemies. It’s ignorant to compare the two.
As far as being narrow, yes, Jesus said the road to truth was narrow, and that He is the only road a person can walk on to gain eternal life with our Father in Heaven.
Regarding honesty… can we truly be honest for “honest sake”? Who is Mr. Honest? I’d like to meet him in your atheistic-worldview.
Conclusion: Naturalism states morality is based in evolutionary biology. As I have shown, however, this worldview falls short of plain, common sense. Does the lumpy, bumpy gray-brain matter inside a person’s head just fire off patterns of behavior with no true meaning? Is calling morality a “biological mental-state” the best explanation for consciousness, intentional thoughts or moral sense? One does not need to be a scientist or a philosopher to see this is not the best answer to explain consciousness or moral processes. Common sense tells us differently.
It is quite self-evident that we do have intentional thoughts and actions, and innately seem to understand the difference between good and evil. There is a property of the mind, which is intentional and personal. It cannot be described biologically. It exists in the immaterial reality of the mind, our soul. Morality is not just a social construct. People at all times, all places, and all cultures have a basic sense of right and wrong. They are intentional in their thoughts and actions. Free will is evident by how we exercise moral choices—sometimes making very bad ones. These things are inherent in the human race, not derived from institutions or the luck of evolutionary chance.
The problem of evil is real, and we should never minimize people’s pain, but evil actually proves God exists because without Him, no objective moral values or duties would exist. Moral objectives are grounded in the character of God, His goodness and His love. Since people have gone their own way, it’s our disobedience that causes evil.
Author’s note: I have no desire to debate Sam Harris, or anyone for that matter, in “real” life. I am not trained in debating or have the necessary PhD to qualify. I just did this blog as an exercise to see how I would handle these issues in a more friendly-style, with a bit of humor thrown in.