Sam Harris, Atheism, and the Moral Thrust of the Bible Reviewed by Momizat on . Last week I listened to Notre Dame University’s “The God Debate II: Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig”. The primary topic of the debate is morality. To briefly Last week I listened to Notre Dame University’s “The God Debate II: Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig”. The primary topic of the debate is morality. To briefly Rating: 0
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Sam Harris, Atheism, and the Moral Thrust of the Bible

Last week I listened to Notre Dame University’s “The God Debate II: Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig”. The primary topic of the debate is morality. To briefly summarize their arguments: Harris argues that theism, specifically Christian theism, leads to bad morals and that science will make us better people. Craig argues that science, and atheism along with it, have no objective morality and that Christianity is the best worldview when it comes to morals.

It may surprise you, but as a pastor, I sympathize with Harris’s position. I often hear from Christians the same struggles. It seems as though the God of the Bible is a moral monster, hell bent on destruction. One of Harris’s preoccupations in the debate is with the concept that God would send all non-Christians to hell to suffer eternal conscious torment. For Harris, and for many Christians, including myself, that concept of hell makes God into a moral monster. Fortunately, it’s a false view of hell, as I’ve argued here and discussed with Kevin Miller, the director of the fascinating documentary Hellbound? here.

The problem I have with Harris and the Four Horsemen of Atheism is that they have a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Fundamentalist believe that every verse in the Bible holds equal weight. If a verse says God demands violence, then God demands violence. If a verse says God demands mercy and not violence, then God demands mercy and not violence. These passages cannot be reconciled without resorting to interpretive gymnastics, which involves taking verses out of their literary and cultural context – something fundamentalist interpreters of the Bible, including Harris, frequently do. For example, here’s a quote from Harris near the end of the debate:

In about five minutes we could make up a religion that is better than any that exists. You just take Christianity and cut out Leviticus and Deuteronomy and already you’ve done great work … add being kind to children and you’ve made it (the Bible) a better document.

Harris’s problem with the Bible is the violence within it. When it comes to morals, if we just got rid of all the violent passages in the Bible, it would be a much better book.

Here’s the issue – there is violence in the Bible because the people who wrote the Bible were honest about their violence. But not only were they honest about their violence, they also challenged their own violence. It is a morally good and important thing that the biblical authors were brutally honest about their violence. Because you can’t challenge your own violence if you are not brutally honest about it.

In the debate, Harris specifically attacks the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is part of his accusation that the Bible needed to add a verse about “being kind to children” to make it a better moral document. This is where we see Harris’s biblical fundamentalism. The point of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is precisely to make us kind to our children. But it even goes beyond that. It challenges human violence and it provides an alternative.

The cultures that surrounded ancient Israel all told similar stories of sacrifice. They claimed that in order to appease the gods, they needed to sacrifice their children, usually a first born son. They thought they needed to show the gods their ultimate allegiance, and killing their children was how they did it. But another thing happened during ancient rituals of human sacrifice. All the conflicts, hostility, and potential violence that inevitably occur in human communities were channeled onto a victim. Ancient sacrifice was a way of appeasing the mythical gods, yes, but it was more than that. It was a way of channeling violence that threatened the survival of the community.

Israel also went through phases where it practiced child sacrifice, but Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac challenges ancient sacrifice, including Israel’s own violence. It does exactly what Harris wants it to do – it says “be kind to children.” Here’s the important literary context that is easy to miss in modern translations. The name for God in the beginning of the story is the Hebrew word “Elohim.” Elohim is the generic word for god in the ancient world, and, interestingly, it is plural. Elohim literally means “gods.” The gods of the ancient world all wanted child sacrifice and it is the gods of the ancient world that the story challenges. At the end of the story there is a change in the name of God to the specific God of Israel – Yahweh. In most translations Yahweh is translated as “angel of the Lord,” but that can lead to a misunderstanding. This is not simply an angel of Lord; this is the specific God of Israel who stops the violence of child sacrifice. As opposed to the gods of the surrounding cultures, the God of Israel doesn’t demand child sacrifice. In fact, the God of Israel challenges all human sacrifice. The ancient Israelites still had to deal with their violence, but sacrificing their children was no longer an option. The move from sacrifice to non-sacrifice was a process. So, the story replaces human sacrifice with the animal sacrifice of a ram. Yes, there is the sacrifice of an animal, but this is a huge step forward in the transformation of how humans relate nonviolently to one another and to God. That transformation continues throughout the Bible, and we see its culmination in the Hebrew Bible through the prophet Hosea who claimed that God “desires mercy (or steadfast love), not sacrifice.”

Harris is right. There is violence in the Bible, and that violence is morally troubling. But there is violence in the Bible because humans are violent. The Bible doesn’t hide our violence, or our justifications for violence. The Bible remains important for this very fact – we moderns are still violent. We are threatened with more destructive forms of violence than ever before. The Bible makes us uncomfortable because it forces us to be honest about our own violence, and it warns us that if we don’t find another way, our violence will create hell on earth.

The alternative that the Bible proposes to sacrificial violence is mercy and steadfast love. For Christians, the Gospel culminates in the assertion of the Good News that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. There is no darkness, no violence, within God. As seen in the Abraham and Isaac story, God is weaning us away from violence into another way of being – the way of relating to our fellow human beings with nonviolent mercy and love – even a love that embraces our enemies.

That is the moral thrust of the Bible. If we moderns want a better world, we had better listen.

Comments (8)

  • andrew marr

    This article is very helpful in helping us understand the presence of violence in the Bible. Projecting violence on to God seems to be a human instinct. Atheists do it at least as much as believers do. I should know. Back in a time when I didn’t believe in God, or at least a benevolent God, I was very angry with God about that. C.S. Lewis wrote about how angry he was at God for not existing. This ease of projecting violence on God leads to huge distortions of conscience even, actually especially for believers. My blog post “Two Ways of Gathering” points out how the Gospels & apostolic preaching reveal the truth of human violence & its mendacity. See Much of the fantasy literature I read struggles with these issues. Non-believing (or often pagan) writers struggle to make sense of goodness in a world where goodness is not ultimately supported. My article “Baptizing the Imagination” discusses the grounding or lack thereof of some fantasy works in a “friendly” universe at Science can lead to good will when it genuinely tries to be truthful, but Girard suggests we need to see the truth of the victim before we can see the truth of science. One of Girard’s famous quips is: We didn’t stop burning witches because we had science; we got science when we stopped burning witches.

    • Adam Ericksen

      Thank you, Andrew. I look forward to reading your articles! Your comment about fantasy literature and the goodness in the world is very interesting. We will use whatever we can, the Bible and science included, in destructive ways until we see the truth of our victims. The problem is that few of us who engage with the Bible, atheists and Christians included, are able to see the Bibles critique of it’s own violence – ultimately in the love/nonviolence of Christ. Hopefully the future of Christianity will emphasize this point as a tool for peace. Thank you for your work in that direction!

  • Tom Nicoll

    It would seem that Harris and his tribe deny not only the existence of God but also that of non-fundamentalist Christianity. Might we surmise that the new atheists are locked in scandalous rivalry with fundamentalist, violent religion? Have any of the new atheists acknowledged that the object of their derision is only one version of Christian belief? Their refusal to be bothered by this distinction is a form of violence in itself.

    • Adam Ericksen

      I think that’s exactly it, Tom. When I engage with atheists on some of my youtube videos, they insist that fundamentalists have the correct interpretation of the bible, and so I’m not really a Christian. In fact, they assert that there is no interpretation of the bible because it clearly says what it says! They can’t see how Judaism has a history of arguing about biblical interpretation, and how Jesus, within that history, offers his interpretation of the bible to his followers on the Road to Emmaus. We are always interpretating, the question is who’s eyes are we interpreting through. Hopefully Christians will interpret through the nonviolent love of Jesus.

  • Brendan

    Points a lot to Old Testament, but those practices, laws and sacrifices were rectified by the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus spoke of Hell himself, and speaks of it as a place, not a state apart from God. We need to stop searching for ways to make Christianity more comfortable and start teaching God’s word for exactly what it says. It’s like we think we know better, and once we start altering the Bible, and cherry picking verses to say what we want, we are pushing a whole new religion, because it’s not of God and Christ. This film, unfortunately, is very dangerous to the heart and soul of Christianity, much like Rob Bell’s book. I hope people don’t take it as fact, but instead search deeper for what the bible, in its given context, has to say about all subjects, but mainly regarding hell and salvation.

    I think that the subject needs to be better addressed in the church, but this film has a clear agenda as to what view they want to push on the public, with the way it portrays “hell believing Christians,” especially when a representative from Westboro Baptist is apart of the post-film Q&A that has travelled across Canada being one of the main proponents of hell. Seriously, it is a FAMILY church, WHY does it have a place in this film and travel?? It should maybe be a 30 second perspective max in the film because it flies so far from the true Gospel of Christ, and clearly those people do not know Jesus.

    • Adam Ericksen

      Hi Brendan. I’m a bit confused by your comment. It’s a little off topic of this article, but I think I see what you are getting at. I wonder why in your first paragraph you accuse Hellbound? for offering a view of the Bible that is not biblical, but in your second paragraph you criticize Hellbound? for including a voice that believes in what you think is the biblical view of Hell. Would you disagree with Westboro? After all, they look to the Bible just like you do for its position.

      To your broader point, yes, Jesus did talk about hell more than anyone else. But the word he used was Gehenna. What nuances does that word have? It was a literal place outside of Jerusalem where babies were sacrificed – and it may also have been the city’s garbage dump. Jesus warning was that human violence was leading us straight into a larger Gehenna on earth. Hell matters, especially since we continue to ignore Jesus’ warning and create hells and Gehennas on earth today! The rest of the New Testament rarely talks about hell and instead emphasizes God’s plan through Jesus to bring about the reconciliation of all things (see Paul especially), and they believed they were in line with Jesus. Throughout Christian history, people have argued about what the Bible says – prominent theologians disagreed about it. For example, Augustine (emphasized eternal torment in hell) and Gregory of Nyssa (emphasized restoration of all things) disagreed. Christian orthodoxy makes room for both arguments. I’m open to hearing arguments about hell, but right now I lean toward the restoration of all things. For more, listen to my interview with Kevin Miller here and read my review of Hellbound? here:

  • Adam Garland

    I just came across this post, so you’ll have to pardon me for commenting on such an old thread. Mr. Erickson, I do not agree with your position that the violence in the bible is acceptable simply because the authors should be inclined to be honest about their actions. What you seem to be suggesting is that God was ashamed of these brutalities and later condemned them. While the bible states god’s disappointment in certain acts of violence, in a large number of cases god is not only permitting the killing of men, women, and children without their consent (as well as the keeping of the virgins for an undefined purpose, assumably for the purpose of reproduction) he is encouraging this behavior. He directs his people in multiple passages to perform these actions and mentions that those actions glorify him. This is in complete contradiction to your argument that the violence in the bible is merely a matter of maintaining and preserving the historicity of events.
    In reference to your discussion on the binding of Isaac, the mistranslations of the original Hebrew text that you suggest are debatable. The majority of Hebrew scholars agree that the passage is used as a test of Abraham’s loyalty to god. Hebrews 11:17-19 lends strong credence to this view. What I find questionable is that the passage does not mention Abraham’s or Isaac’s desire for proof that Abraham was being informed by god and not merely possessed by a desire rooted in insanity. The fact that the story is unclear on this matter suggests that it is irrelevant to the moral implications of Abraham’s behavior. In addition, the possibility of any story in the bible to be interpreted in a moral way by using assumptions of the exact nature of the event undermines the story’s reliability. Any assumptions that a person has on the nature of god can fill the gaps left open by the vagueness of the story to create whichever morality the reader desires. The fact that the bible is vague enough to allow the myriad number of interpretations ranging from morally acceptable to absolutely reprehensible is reason enough to discard it. You may remember instances in recent history of parents killing their children because god told them to. The lesson of the story of the binding of Isaac has absolutely no conflict with the behavior of these people. If you find these acts to be morally right and that Abraham’s actions were in any way obligatory, I can only conclude that your moral code and mine are founded on entirely different concepts.

    • Adam Ericksen

      Hi Adam. I’m glad you came across the post and I’m thankful for your comment. You disagree, but you disagreed in thoughtful and kind manner. Thank you for that.

      Please note though, that I never said the violence in the bible is acceptable. I said it is plainly there for all to see because the authors were honest about their violence. Yes, there are times when they projected their violence on to God by saying that God demanded it, but there are also passages that challenge that view of God. There is moral ambiguity in the bible because it was written by morally ambiguous human beings. And, I’m afraid that if we through our the bible because it was written by morally ambiguous human beings, we should throw ourselves out, too. Believers and atheists are all morally ambiguous – but we’d rather not admit it. The bible admits it. There are different strands in the bible, specifically, one that desires sacrifice and one that “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 and lived his life by it, and that’s what I think followers of Jesus are called to do.

      As for the Abraham and Isaac story, there is no debating that the names for God get changed from Elohim to Yahweh. Elohim calls for the sacrifice while Yahweh stops it. Elohim is the general name for “gods” in the surrounding culture; Yahweh is the specific name for the Hebrew God. One desires sacrifice, the other stops it. It’s an anti-sacrificial text just like Hosea 6:6. Any parent who uses that as a text to kill their child is tragically doesn’t pay attention to how the story ends.

      Best wishes to you,


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