Responding to Famous Atheists: Part One

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By Lane Noble

I haven’t had very much time to write lately, and now that summer is rolling around and I seem to have more time on my hands, I’ve decided to get back on it. Now, I started this blog mainly so that I could improve in my writing, and one of the areas in which I wish to write is within the field of the philosophy of religion. That is a topic that I haven’t written on as much as I would have liked to, as it requires a bit more time and research than other topics that I write about. For example, one of my previous posts about how my life has improved since I stopped using social media didn’t require much time at all. Now, I would like to get back to what I love writing about most. The existence of God.

I’m going to devote a seven part series that will probably not come out sequentially, but will be published within the timeframe of a couple of months, that responds to arguments from some of the most famous atheist figures of recent. Make no mistake. I don’t intend to malign or ridicule these figures. They don’t deserve that kind of disrespect. I merely wish to contribute to an important conversation about the existence of God and the importance of religion, particularly Christianity, in society by responding to some popular claims made by the most influential atheists. I hope that all of my readers find this response thought provoking and perhaps even enlightening.

The figure that I will be responding to today is atheist philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris is one of the so-called “four horsemen of the new atheism” that has influenced Western culture in particular over the past few decades. I want to make it clear that I think that Dr. Harris is a respectable thinker and has some valuable insights that he often makes in his podcast, the Making Sense Podcast1, however, the argument that I am about to break down that he makes about religion is one that I think needs to be responded to, because it is not just a common argument that is made about religion, but an increasingly common attitude that has become sort of a default position of people who live in the west. Especially in places such as Australia and Belgium, where secularism has been highly influential.

Without further ado, I will let you watch the video from Dr. Harris where he makes his argument, so that you can get it in full, and then I will respond to it:

The question that is posed to Harris before he begins to speak is, “Is there a possibility of a creator?” Now, in this particular time in history, the year 2021, that question seems to be a bit less common and it sounds a bit strange to the modern ear, because the disposition of atheists and religious people towards the debate over God’s existence has changed, because today’s secularists seem to be arguing that “atheism” is the default position for any rational person. Secularists at the time that this video was made, the year 2011, would be more prone to arguing that the existence of God should be the default position for any rational person. The United States today is essentially becoming New York City, where it’s just generally agreed upon that “fundamentalist” religion, or religion that seems to hold to its historic teachings, are probably wrong and that anyone who does believe it usually lives in the deep south somewhere with an inferior education and grew up in a community where most everyone was religious, and thus their religion was probably not criticized very often. In a less demeaning way, this is basically the perspective that Harris is arguing for.

Now, because in the year 2011 the United States had more religious people, especially mainline Protestant adherents, and since the trauma from the September 11, 2001 attacks hadn’t drained away yet, Harris realized that he was still living in a world where religion held a tighter grip on the average person in the world. It wasn’t yet possible for an outspoken atheist to become president. Not even Barak Obama, who was president at the time and was the most secular president to take office at that point, (President Biden has since taken that spot), had made appeals to religious texts and teachings when campaigning for office and for particular policy positions. All of this to say that Harris knew that he was living in a deeply religious world that wasn’t quite as secular as it is now in the year 2021, and thus this was a point worth making. To sum it up, the point that Sam Harris is making in this video was a clearly articulated philosophical argument at the time that he made it. Now it has become more of a default presupposition. It wouldn’t make much sense to bring this point up nowadays, because our secularized culture would just see this as an obvious fact. Questioning this would be like questioning that the Earth is round.

It is worth noting that a majority of the world is still religious. Western culture, however, is becoming increasingly secular, and we need to note that, unless religious people double down on evangelism efforts, the United States will probably look more like Australia does now.

Sam Harris begins by asserting that the existence of a creator of the universe is an unfalsifiable claim. He goes on to say that there are many things that we can reasonably believe without proving them. He uses the idea of the matrix as an example.2 In other words, he says that the idea that someone created the universe should be lumped in with the other things that we’re not tempted to believe, such as the existence of ghosts or leprichans. He says that the idea of a God, especially the god of any particular religion, is damaged even further when you consider the theology and the history of the various religions, especially the religions that still exist today. Here are his exact words:

“The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that Jesus is the Son of God, really the Son of God, and you have to believe this, otherwise you’re gonna spend eternity in hell. The Koran says twice that Jesus is not the Son of God, and anyone who believes he’s the Son of God will spend eternity in hell. This offers as much room for compromise as a coin toss. Let’s say that we just knew that one of those claims was right. We’ve eliminated all the other possibilities. We’re living in this challenging universe where God has given us this highly imperfect book and asked us to grapple with it. But now we have the biblical claim, the New Testament claim, to the divinity of Jesus and the necessity of believing in it and the Koranic claim that belief in the divinity of Jesus leads to damnation. Which one of these is more likely, that one of those is right and the other one’s wrong, or that we have these competing tribes who are toiling in the context of abysmal ignorance about the world and the birth of the cosmos and the destiny of any individual soul after death? I would put my lot in with a wider view of the circumstance…”

Let’s just pause there for a second. Now, if you’re familiar at all with the debate over the existence of God, then you’ve probably heard some form of this argument before. It essentially boils down to this point: How do you know that your religion is the right one when there are so many religions out there? Harris is basically using an altered version of this argument. In fact, I would say that this argument is stronger than the traditional version of it. Harris is using a more empirical version of the argument. Another way of putting it would be this way:

“We have no evidence that there’s a God. We know that ancient civilizations were ignorant about how the world works. We know that not all of these religions can be true. We also know that the religious texts and teachings of these religions resemble more of the thinking of ancient cultures that didn’t know as much as we do now. In light of all of this, I think it’s safe not to exert too much mental energy wondering whether or not I’m wrong about the truth of these religions.”

Please note that that’s my paraphrase and not Harris’s actual words, but that is essentially what he is arguing. He is basically making a probability argument, as the question that was posed to him was a question about the probability of a creator. He is, in a way, shifting the burden of proof on to religious people, without really expecting that burden of proof to be met.

To put it another way, it would be like someone telling us that ghosts exist. If someone were to come up to us and say, “Is it possible that ghosts exist?” odds are you would say no. The reason that you would say that is because there really isn’t any reliable evidence that ghosts exist, and there does seem to be a pattern amongst the claims that ghosts exist. They all seem to have holes in them. Harris is basically putting the existence of God on par with ghosts.

Now, here is the problem. There are many people out there that believe that the existence of a creator is not an unfalsifiable claim, as Harris says. In fact, you could fill hundreds of libraries with all of the literature that has been produced, even today, on the existence of God. Now, I understand that Harris has interacted with a few pieces of this literature, and I would say that he probably only has a superficial understanding of what the top scholars are saying on these topics. I say that not as an insult but just as a note to say that there is more to the story than Harris probably realizes here. However, he doesn’t explicitly say, in this particular video at least, that there’s no evidence for God’s existence. It’s just sort of implied. The main argument that he makes against Christianity in particular is that the Bible is a highly imperfect book. Now, he goes into why he believes this in other places, but the main point that I want to address here is this: Bible scholars and theologians are well aware of these objections and they’ve filled hundreds, if not thousands, of volumes answering these objections. Many of these theologians specialize in other fields along with theology, such as the hard sciences or philosophy. They make it their vocation to understand these objections and then to respond to them as appropriately as possible.

For example, skeptics often point out that the Bible is constantly making scientific errors. One such instance of an alleged error is in Leviticus 11:13-19, where God says, “And these birds you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.” (ESV. Emphasis mine.) In this scripture, the Bible seems to identify a bat as a bird. Now, we know very well that bats are not birds. So was the Bible wrong?

No. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even call bats birds. It was just a poor choice on the part of those who translated the Bible into English. The original Hebrew word that the word bird replaced here is “owph” which can be literally translated as a “fowl/winged creature.” This word includes everything that has wings and can fly. That would include bats.3

In many instances, critics like to point out “internal inconsistencies” in the Bible. One such internal inconsistency that is often mentioned is a contradiction between the resurrection accounts in Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, and Luke 24:1-12. The first two passages say that there was one angel in the empty tomb of Jesus and the passage in Luke says that there were two. Do we have a contradiction here? No, and I would say that to make that assertion so confidently is symptomatic of intellectual laziness. The late theology professor and pastor Dr. R.C. Sproul put it well:

“…would it not be possible for one eyewitness to be more concerned about who wasn’t there-Jesus-than he was about the number of angels present?…If there were two angels, we know there had to be at least one; thus, since Mark and Matthew don’t say there were was only one angel there, there’s no contradiction between them and Luke. Instead, there’s various in persepctives because they’re relying on different eyewitness reports of the same event. Such variation is exactly what we should expect from different accounts.”4

Just a bit of background: the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection are recorded in four different books of the Bible, each having its own author. If the details of the accounts were exactly alike, they would actually be considered suspect. We would have reason to believe that the authors collaborated to make a plausible sounding Jesus legend. That’s not what we have. What we have are authors that focused on different details and aspects of Jesus’ death and resurrection in their own writing styles.

Does that mean that these accounts are wrong in some areas? No. Let’s say that my friend Keith and I witness the same event. Let’s say we are out walking, and suddenly, we get robbed. After the robbery, we report it to the police. We’re talking to two police officers, and one of them officially says, “I’m sorry boys, but there’s nothing that we can really do if you don’t remember what the thief looked like.”

After this, Keith and I go and tell the story to our parents. I say to my parents, “The police officer that we talked to said that there wasn’t anything that he could do for us.” Keith, however, tells his parents, “One of the police officers that we were talking to said that there wasn’t really anything that they could do for us.” Was I wrong in telling my parents that one police officer said that there wasn’t anything that they could do? Absolutely not. I was a little more concerned with the fact that the police couldn’t do much for me rather than the number of police officers that were sitting in front of me. The way that I spoke didn’t bar the possibility of there being two police officers, I just didn’t mention one of them. It’s the same situation when it comes to the two angels in Jesus’ empty tomb. The writer is more concerned the fact that Jesus’ dead body wasn’t where it had initially been put. Mathematical precision wasn’t at the forefront of his mind. Yet the language that he used doesn’t contradict the fact that there were two angels there. The authors were just more concerned with the claim that the angel was making.

In the very same article in which Dr. Sproud addresses this alleged problem, he says this, “The main thing I want to say about this issue is that most alleged contradictions turn out not to be contradictions at all.” 5 As my pastor would say, “Christians have been answering these questions for two thousand years. Pick a century.”

There are many ways in which atheists make accusations against the Bible’s perfection, but they are usually the result of biblical/theological illiteracy or just not thinking very hard about the issues at hand. Like I said before, Bible scholars and theologians are well-aware of these issues and their are perfectly sound answers for them. Alongside this, we have to much external evidence confirming the Bible’s truth, such as evidence within archeology, science, and philosophical arguments.6

I say all of this to argue that there are good reasons to believe that the Bible is a perfect book, and thus comparing it to other religious texts is a misguided comparison at best.

Now here’s the final nail in the coffin of the argument that is being made: the criteria for truth that I just laid out for the Bible is the standard that atheists use for their believe in naturalism, or the belief that everything merely came about by natural processes. Evidence. Which means that what we have here really are two competing views of the world: Christianity or naturalism. This makes Christianity immune to the argument that Harris just made. If it weren’t, then we would also have to throw atheism into the mix. We might say something along the lines of “If you were born on one of the coasts of the United States, then of course you would choose to be an atheist.” Yet, if we have any shred of evidence for naturalism, then we can’t possibly speak of it in that way whether it’s true or not. If we have any evidence for the Bible’s accuracy, then it is in the same boat.

Now let’s look at the rest of Harris’ argument:

“It’s a very strange sort of loving God that would have created this sort of circumstance that by mere accident of birth you are rest to believe, let’s say rightly raised to believe, that this book was the perfect book, but if you happen to be born in China, you go for centuries without hearing about this. It’s a totally provincial and I think implausible scenario…”

Well we know that because of the evidence that Christianity and its claims are not implausible, but let’s look at the argument at face value here. Christianity is is the most adhered to religion in the world.7 Now, there are many people who are living in countries that are under cover Christians. That is to say, they wouldn’t exactly be labeled as Christians because their governments have illegalized it. Therfore, Christianity is not limited to a particular geographic area. It’s a global religion. It is a religion that has grown largely because of Jesus’ command to spread it to the nations (Matthew 28:20) Not only this, but in Romans 1:18-32 makes it very clear that creation makes the existence of God along with what He expects of us morally evident to every person but that we distort the truth in exchange for a lie, which would explain why most people in history have been religious, and would explain why there are so many religions that are and have been limited to specific geographical regions. This is why virtually every civilization had its own god or set of gods. Israel was unique in that it was their mission to add converts to the kingdom of God. This is why Judaism in its truest form was not merely an ethnic religion.

I’ve thrown a lot of information out, but in summary, Harris is making an argument about the probability of the existence of a creator. He argues that it’s improbable because the idea of a creator is unfalsifiable and in the end there’s not explicit reason to believe it. He also believes that it’s improbable because the theology of the various religions are inconsistent with what we know from modern science and because the religious texts of the various religions are imperfect and reflect ancient ignorance rather than what we would expect from an omniscient and omnipotent creator. I’ve made the case that the Bible is a perfect book that can be trusted and that the probability of a creator is made much higher by the fact and that the presence of other religions doesn’t lower the probability of the truth of Christianity. We are living in a secular age that discourages serious conversation about the topic of religion. Indeed, many don’t even realize that such serious conversations can take place. I urge my readers to take this subject seriously, because it is fundamental to our understanding of morality, science, politics, beauty, and what it means to live a good life. I hope you take it seriously from now on. When you do, you can see why arguments such as the one made in Sam Harris’ video are not very persuasive. I hope that Harris comes to see this. He is an intelligent thinker. I would say that it’s possible that he will in the future.

Footnotes:

  1. Harris, Sam Making Sense Podcast samharris.org https://samharris.org/podcast/ Please keep in mind that I don’t agree with everything that Harris says in this podcast. Many of the criticisms that he makes of religion are not substantial at all. However, he does have some valuable perspectives and a healthy skeptical attitude when it comes to current events and certain philosophical issues.
  2. There are great philosophical works that argue that we are not living in the matrix, as a few people actually believe. If you’re interested in reading content like that, check out Meek, Esther Longing to Know (Grand Rapids, MI Brazos 2003) for what I believe this the best response to the topic.

3. Hodge, Bodie “Bats of the Feather: Did Moses make an error when he called a bat a bird?” Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions: Exploring Forty Alleged Contradcitions Vol. 1 Ham, Ken 2nd printing, (Master Books: A Division of New Leaf Publishing Group November, 2012), p. 56. The author’s source for this information was F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Brigg Hebrew and English Lexicon, 9th printing (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers 2005) p. 773.

4. Sproul, R.C. March 24, 2021, “Are There Contradictions in the Bible?” Ligonier Ministries https://www.ligonier.org/blog/are-there-contradictions-bible/

5. Ibid.

6. If you’re interested in any of this evidence, there ae so many different books that you can look into. Lee Strobel and Norman Geisler’s books are a good introductory into the subject. Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig is a good author for intermediates. William Lane Craig also has a lot of advanced and introductory material as well. You can also look into Josh and Sean McDowell’s resources. Fantastic authors that do a fantastic job at teaching about the evidence for the Bible’s accuracy. If you’re not a huge reader, Capturing Christianity’s website is also really good: https://capturingchristianity.com

7. Hackett C., McClendon D., April 5, 2017 “Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe” Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/

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