May 2007


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Archive for May, 2007

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part V

Friday, May 25th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 25, 2007, Wausau, Wi— The previous parts (I, II, III, IV ) of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, focused on how distorted Harris’s view of religion was, and pointed out that his critique does not really apply to Christianity.  In part IV we looked at how Harris tried to support his erroneous views with an erroneous understanding of scripture.  But Harris not only has problems with his views of religion and the Bible, he also has problems when it come to the alternative he is supporting.

Towards the end of his book Harris says that “it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed.” He then charges that “The problem with religion is that it blends this truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason.”  As an example of unreason, he cites that Jesus was “the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory.”  (pg. 204) But why are these beliefs unreasonable? We saw in part IV of this review, that it was Harris’ use of the Bible in an attempt to discredit the belief in the virgin birth that was itself grounded in error and irrationality. Earlier in his book he simply dismisses the virgin birth as “an untestable proposition.” What he means by untestable is not clear.

It is certainly is untestable in the sense that we cannot duplicate the virgin birth in a laboratory, as by definition are all miracles untestable in this sense. They are unique acts of God, not repeatable events governed by natural law.  In a similar fashion all of history is made up of a series of unique acts of men. We cannot put the holocaust into a laboratory and run experiments on it to see if we can duplicate it, nor would we want to if we could. But to deny the holocaust is correctly seen as itself irrational.  Some believe in the Holocaust because the suffered through it. Most believe in the holocaust because of the historical evidence, i.e. the records and sources which because of examination are deem to be reliable and trustworthy. When the last holocaust survivor dies this will be the only way.

This is normally how we get all of our history. It is the same for the virgin birth, Christians deem the writers of the Bible to be not only reliable and trustworthy, but inspired by God.  Not only is this proposition testable, as I show in my book, Evidence for the Bible, it is the rational conclusion to reach. And despite Harris, testing is not a concept foreign to the Bible.  After all Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 “Test everything, hold on to the good.” In 1 Corinthians 15, writing about some who rejected the resurrection, he pointed out that Jesus “appeared to over five hundred of the brother at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” Paul clearly saw the resurrection, not as some abstract theological belief, but as a testable historical event, and there was a implicit challenge in his reference to “most of whom are still alive” that if you do not believe it, you should go and talk to the hundreds who saw it.  Of course with the passing of the first century, and the death of the last eyewitness, all that we have left are the sources, but the fact is that there are more sources for Jesus than we have for most events in antiquity and with the discoveries made during the twentieth century, once again it has been the critics that have had to revise their view of the Bible, and believers who were supported.

In fact, when you look at the arguments for and against the reliability of the Bible critically, as I point out in my books, the critics have a huge problem for at best their arguments are based on an a priori rejection of the supernatural and at worst are circular.  When you get past all the blustering, and boil it down, they start with the belief that there is no supernatural. Since there is no supernatural, there can be no real miracles. Since the Bible contains descriptions of miracles, either the writers did not know what really happened or they lied. Either way they are unreliable, and thus we cannot trust anything they say unless it shown to be true by other means. This is a nice and neat little package and everything flows from the initial premise, but notice that no actual evidence is required.  Sure evidence is often thrown in, often haphazardly as we saw in part IV with Harris’ attempt to refute the virgin birth from scripture, but it is really just window dressing and not really needed to reach their conclusion.

What Harris neglects is that all worldviews have fundamental propositions that must to some extent be based on faith.  Within the confines of his worldview, the automatic rejection of things like Jesus really being “the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory.”  (pg. 204) may seem unreasonable leaps of faith.  But that does not change that fact that Harris also must have faith in his fundamental premises.  As such, in many respects, is argument is self-refuting.

This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking  you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.   

Part I     Part II    Part III     Part IV    Part VI 

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part IV

Friday, May 18th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 18, 2007, Wausau, Wi— So far, in our review (I, II, III)  Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, we have seen how Harris’s irrational view of religion has lead him to many false conclusions and beliefs.  Harris attempts to back up some of his claims by pointing to scripture. Not too surprisingly his use of scriptures is just as uncritical as the claims he is trying to support.

For example, Harris writes, “Anyone who imagines that no justification for the Inquisition can be found in scripture need only consult the Bible to have his view of the matter clarified.” (p 82)He then goes on to cite Deuteronomy 13:12-16 which calls for the total destruction of any town that turns to worship other Gods.  For Harris, this is evidence enough that the Church was following the “Good Book.”  For Harris, there are no questions of historical setting or context.  That these were instructions to the Jewish nation, given before they entered Israel, and thus, might not be applicable Christians in the Middle Ages seem to be irrelevant. The Bible said it, and that is good enough for Harris to use for his attack. 

Not too surprisingly Harris not only ignores questions about context, he also ignores all the passages that conflict with his views.  Passages such as 1 Peter 3:15-16 which says we should treat unbelievers with “Gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” because “Christ died once for all.” Romans 12:14 which says we are to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” or 1 Corinthians 6:12 where Paul asks “What business is it of mine to judge those outside… God will judge those outside” and of judging those inside the church Paul said “Expel the wicked man from among you.” Based on this it is far more likely that it was Pope Leo the IX who was following the teaching of the Bible, when he said the maximum penalty for heresy should be excommunication, while later Popes took the inquisition, not from the Bible, but from a revival of Roman law, as mentioned in Part I.

While this scriptural error completely undermines one of Harris’ key claims, it is hardly the only one he makes.  In his attempt to discredit the virgin birth, Harris incorrectly claims that the Greek word parthenos (virgin) was an “erroneous translation” of the Hebrews word alma which simply means “‘young woman’, without any implications of virginity.” (pg 95) While it may be in today’s culture that there is no connection to being a young woman and a virgin, that is hardly the case of the time of Isaiah, and in fact every use of alma in the Old Testament refers to a woman who was a virgin. Nor was it Matthew and Luke who were first to translate this as parthenos, as this is how the Septuagint, a Greek translation made several hundred years before Christ,  translates Isaiah 7:14.

Harris’ further compounds his error by claiming that Mark and John “seem to know nothing about [the virgin birth]” because they do not mention it. Yet just because they do not mentioned it  hardly means they don’t know about it. To claim that it does, commits the logic fallacy called argumentum ad silentio or an argument from silence. Then Harris finishes with yet two more errors. First he cites Romans 1:3 “born of the seed of David” and tries to claim that Paul meant by this that Joseph was Jesus’ father.  The problem with this is that Joseph is not even mentioned in the passage, David is. Thus the two options would be that Paul was attempting to say that David was the father, or that Jesus was a descendant of David. Given the context, and the fact that David had been dead for about 1000 years, it is pretty easy to conclude that the latter was Paul’s point.

Harris concludes this comedy of errors with the truly bizarre claim that Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:4 and its reference to “born of a woman” also shows that Paul knows nothing of the virgin birth because he does not mention Mary’s virginity, which is again the irrational argument from silence. 

Much the same could be said for his discussion of the verses that are supposed to teach anti-Semitism, though sadly here he can cite many examples of Christians throughout European history to support him.   It is significant however, the many Popes taught against anti-Semitism, and the papal states were one of the safest places for Jews during this period.  Nor is it insignificant that American Christianity looks to the Bible to justify their support of the Jews, in particular the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 to “bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.”

Harris is correct, that Christians have during their history done great evil.  But I would argue that it was not caused by following the Bible but was more from disobedience to God and his word.  If Harris wants us to use reason over religion, perhaps he should start by taking a more rational approach to understanding what the Bible actually teaches.

This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.   

Part I     Part II    Part III  Part V    Part VI

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part III

Friday, May 11th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 11, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I ended part II of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.  , by pointing out that the view of religion which Harris was refuting was entirely artificial and that it did not represent any actual religion, much less Christianity.  It was also on display in his fundamental belief that religion is at the root of most wars, a false claim we exposed in Part I. 

In fact,  it would seem according to Harris, that while virtually any evil attributed any religious group can be taken as an example of the core problem with religion in general, nothing good done by any religious group can be legitimately  used to counter this.  In fact he says “Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance and has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism.” (p 21).  Fundamentalism, for Harris being the use of violent against those who disagree.  In short, this boils down to if it is bad, it is the result of religion, if it is good, it is the result of something else. In Harris’ world view this something else is often the use of reason, which he sees as the alternative to religion.

It is hard to take such simplistic Black and White thinking seriously; especially when it is being cloaked in the guise of reason and runs so contrary to the evidence.  The problem with Harris’ approach can be seen in the following passage when he writes, “The only reason anyone is ‘moderate’ in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights and end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc). “ (p 19)

What makes this claim so strange from Harris’ point of view is that this period when religious moderates were doing this assimilation is the Christian era.  Now we must be careful not to fall into the opposite error of Harris and assume that everything good during this period resulted from Christianity and everything bad resulted from something else. The record is much more mixed.  But as I argue in my book Christianity and Secularism,  any objective look at the historical evidence will show that Christianity has on the whole been a very positive force.

For example, the claim of earlier historians that Christianity caused the downfall of Rome, is now rejected by most. In fact the secular historian Will Durant argues that Christianity played an important role in preserving the culture from the onslaught of barbarism. The church maintained order as civilization crumbled around it.  He goes on point out that as Rome fell leaving the Church to fill the vacuum,  for the first time in European history, “the teachers of mankind preached an ethic of kindliness, obedience, humility, patience, mercy, purity, chastity, and tenderness.”  (cited in Christianity and Secularism, pp 100-101)

Again as I document in my book, the earlier view that the Church took civilization into the Dark Ages, and it was only when people began to break free of the Church’s hold that we had the Renaissance is a distorted view of history that is no longer accepted by historians.  Even in areas where the church clearly did great evil such as the inquisition, things are not quite so clear cut as Harris would have us believe. According to Harris, the Inquisition resulted because “the medieval church was quick” to follow the “Good Book.” (p 81) Yet reality is not quite so simple. In the eleventh century, Pope Leo IX held that maximum penalty for heresy was excommunication.  Then came the early parts of the renaissance and a revival of Roman Law that started in the city of Bologna in the 12th century. It was from the Roman legal concept of an inquisiti, that the Church developed Inquisition.

Much of the same can be said for the items in Harris list of thing moderates supposedly assimilated.  Many have noted that science grew out of the Christian world view with most early scientists being Christians.  As for the concern for Human Right, the whole concept of human rights was born out of the idea that we are created in the image of God with certain abilities given by God, and that what God has given, no man, not even the King is in a position arbitrarily take away. This religious foundation can be seen in the Declaration of Independence when it says “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”   It is no coincidence that the recent attempts to remove God as a foundation for rights have thrown the whole concept into turmoil, as no other suitable foundation has yet been found.

Given Harris’ view that sees only bad in religion, and tries to attribute any good to some other sources, it is no wonder he reaches the conclusions that he does. But such an irrational approach cannot be the foundation for a claim that is trying to contrast religion and reason. 

Part I     Part II   Part IV   Part V    Part VI

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part II

Friday, May 4th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 4, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I pointed out in Part I of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, that rarely have I encountered a book which starts out with so many errors in so few pages.  Further reading has not changed my opinion. In fact the detailed analysis and review I had intended will have to be abandoned as there are simply too many errors (often several per page) and it would take far too long to catalogue them all.

 One of the problems is that Harris’ style leads him to make frequent bold and clearly false statements with very little justification. For example in one paragraph Harris claims that “The idea that any one of our religions represents the infallible word of the One True God requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and art even to be entertained.” (p16)   To support this Harris simple points to evidence of “cross-pollination” among religious beliefs.  There are numerous problems with this claim, but the simple fact is that there are many people who do not have encyclopedic ignorance in these areas, but to the contrary are quite well informed, and yet who not only entertain, but believe that the One True God has given us his infallible word in the Bible.

Harris then closes this paragraph by making the claim that “There is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh, and Satan, than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the seas.” (p 16)   Again, the facts are contrary to Harris’ claim.  Skeptics have for hundreds of years attempted to undermine Christianity, and as I detail in my books, contrary to Harris claims, the evidence for Christianity has grown stronger, and it has in fact been the claims of the early skeptics that have been show to be lacking, and have often been refuted by more recently discovered evidence.  For example, given the strength of the evidence, few would now argue that Jesus never existed.  Where is all the similar evidence for Poseidon, or Zeus?  Such false, but bold claims may be music to the ears of Harris’ fellow skeptics who love to see religion bashed and ridiculed, but it hardly make for the sound reasoning that Harris claims is the alternative to religion.

So rather than a detailed refutation of Harris’ errors, perhaps of more interest would be to apply one of Harris questions to him. Harris asks “How is it that, in this one area of our lives, we have convinced ourselves that our beliefs about the world can float entirely free from reason and evidence?” (p 17)  To apply this question to Harris, just how is it that he, while claiming to uphold reason can become so irrational and detached from the evidence when it comes to religion?

We can begin to see this process at work in his classification of religion.  Harris first states that people of faith fall onto a continuum, from those who accept diversity to those who would “burn the world to a cinder” to destroy heresy.  But Harris immediately proceeds to ignore this and present religious belief as just two groups, moderates (those who accept diversity) and extremists (those who would presumably burn the world to a cinder).  Though a highly artificial division, this by itself, this would not necessarily be a problem, except that Harris then goes on to describe moderates in ways that do not fit his previous classification, and herein lays a major error.

Harris claims that 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God. The problem is that clearly 35 percent of the American people do not fall into his category of extremists. In fact very few if any Christians would. Harris tries to justify this, by claiming most Christians and Jews do not read their Bible enough.  While it is undoubtedly true, that still does not explain the millions who do read and study their Bible do not fall into Harris category of extremists.  In Short Harris’s categories simply are not an accurate description of reality.

This is the first of several key problems with Harris’ attack on religion.  Harris treats religion as if it were, fundamentally, a single entity, centered around a belief in God.  In my book “Christianity and Secularism” I go into detail about want is a religion and the errors with views such as Harris.  There are simply too many different religions with too many different views to treat them all as a single whole. And yet this is what Harris does as he links extremist suicide bombers to tolerant faithful believers as if they were at the core one.  So while Harris’ arguments may seem devastating to skeptics, they are not refuting anything any one person actually beliefs in.  

A refutation of some abstract construction called religion is not a refutation of what Christians actually believe. A refutation of some abstract construction call “God’s word” is not a refutation of the actual word of God found in the Old and New Testaments.  In short Harris’ arguments are aimed at something that “can float entirely free from reason and evidence” and not at Christianity.

Part I   Part III     Part IV   Part V    Part VI