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.