Sam Harris, Evangelical Atheist

Let me preface this by saying I realize it’s written for Baptist Press (“News with a Christian Perspective”).

John Avant writes:

I just read one of the great evangelistic books of our day — “Letters to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris.

Actually, there’s just one “Letter.” It takes up the whole book. Seriously, how do you “read the book” but get the title wrong?

Anyway, Avant mentions that Harris is an “evangelical atheist”: passionate, wanting to defend his faith, sharing his beliefs with others, etc. He then adds that Harris is not actually “evangelical” (by Avant’s definition) because for that adjective to be true, you must be “sharing good news with friends” and atheism is not good news.

Why not?

According to [Harris] there is no God, no ultimate meaning or purpose in life, no design for the universe, no ultimate justice from the hand of God and no loving plan from the heart of a Redeemer-God. After just a few short years on a small insignificant place in an accidental universe, it will all be over for you. You then will rot in the ground, just like any dead animal you see by the side of the road. Not exactly good news.

So instead of opting to find value in the life we do have and understanding the beauty of the world we actually live in, Avant opts for the fairy tale of religion. What bothers me is that Avant and others like him would rather live in a world of false hope and beliefs instead of actively searching for the truth and come to a better understanding of our place in the universe. One of the false dichotomies religious people often create is that a religious life is one of hope and optimism while atheism can only bring you sadness and depression.

It’s not surprising Avant would say this, though. He goes on to say:

But if I really believed what [Harris] believed, I would be in despair. I would be living every moment in emptiness and maybe even terror –- the dread that all that matters is ticking away with every passing second. No hope. No future.

That really would be a wasted, worthless life. Thankfully, atheists don’t feel that way at all. We know this is the only life we have– there’s no evidence of reincarnation or hopes of an immortal life in Heaven– and because of that, we cherish life even more fully.

I’m fortunate to never have gone to an atheist funeral, but from what I hear, that is one of the greatest celebrations of a life-well-lived you will ever see. Sure, it’s sad to know the person is gone, but everyone shares memories they had with the deceased and talk about how they were impacted by the person.

Avant seems to think death would be a happy reprieve from an atheist life.

At least Avant mentions that he is appalled by any so-called Christians who write mean, threatening emails to Harris– that’s not what Jesus would do.

A better journalist might have at least contacted an atheist to see if these views were accurate. Avant’s lack of understanding of what atheists do believe in just perpetuates the stereotypes that atheists are these nihilistic people who have no beliefs.

We have plenty of beliefs. Positive beliefs. Knowing that we’re not the center of God’s universe doesn’t make our life any less precious.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Baptist Press, Christian, John Avant, Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris, evangelical, God, reincarnation, Heaven, Jesus[/tags]

  • MTran

    We know this is the only life we have– there’s no evidence of reincarnation or hopes of an immortal life in Heaven– and because of that, we cherish life even more fully.

    Exactly! Life is more precious to me as an atheist than it ever was as a believer. And not just my life, but each and every life.

    Can anyone explain to me how believers get this simple and obvious reality completely reversed?

    Do theists make an incoherent rationalization in order to justify belief and marginalize non-believers?

  • Will

    Well said, Hemant.

  • Richard Wade

    Can anyone explain to me how believers get this simple and obvious reality completely reversed?

    I think they’re fed propaganda. Deliberate, consciously fabricated propaganda.
    We really need to contradict this loudly. I’m sick of this stereotype.

  • MTran

    Thank you Richard Wade,

    I’m not totally lacking in imagination but this twisty thinking has really puzzled me. Your explanation feels unpleasantly realistic.

    And I concur that this stereotype needs to be loudly shouted down.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Can anyone explain to me how believers get this simple and obvious reality completely reversed?

    The problem is that not enough Christians actually know real atheists. We just know the stereotypes that we’ve been fed by our apologetics books.

    (I’d also add that atheists often sometimes seem to only know the negative stereotypes of Christians as well.)

    That’s why sites like this and the OTM message boards are such great things. It enables all of us to go beyond the stereotypes and really see things through the other’s eyes.

    I’m not sure that what we need are louder voices. I think what we need is more dialogue and more real relationships. That, in my experience, is what really starts to change minds.

  • Karen

    Anyway, Avant mentions that Harris is an “evangelical atheist”: passionate, wanting to defend his faith, sharing his beliefs with others, etc. He then adds that Harris is not actually “evangelical” (by Avant’s definition) because for that adjective to be true, you must be “sharing good news with friends” and atheism is not good news.

    Interesting, Hemant, thanks for pointing that out.

    Harris is creating quite the backlash recently. Talk2Action is a website mostly populated by liberal Christians and some secularists, all dedicated to battling against theocracy and the religious right. They also featured a rant against Harris this week that touches on some of the same points the Baptist article makes.

  • Karen

    Can anyone explain to me how believers get this simple and obvious reality completely reversed?

    It’s easy to understand if you’ve been raised with evangelical/fundamentalist doctrine that centers on the “hope of the resurrection” and the idea that Jesus’s bodily resurrection vanquished the power of death and hell.

    The idea that life would be worth living – all by itself, without hope of an eternal existence – is really anathema to believers. This earthly life is very much devalued in a literal reading of the bible, where it’s compared to a blade of grass that withers and dies inside of a short season.

    So believers are taught from the earliest ages that there’s a spiritual reality where good is battling evil, and good will ultimately win out on the cosmic stage in the “final days.” This provides a much grander scheme to everything if we’re all linked in as players in this large, supernatural story.

    The idea that our short, often painful lives is “all there is” seems incredibly sad and depressing to someone whose mindset dwells inside this metastory. The leap to valuing and even cherishing this life – which atheists do – is a huge one for certain Christians to make. It’s really counter-intuitive to them.

  • MTran

    Karen,

    Thanks. I didn’t attend fundamentalist, literalist churches when I was young so my understanding of that mindset is quite limited. Your explanation is very helpful.

    I’m not sure that what we need are louder voices.

    I don’t raise my voice very often in real life, but I think it is important to speak loudly enough to be heard. Plus, I’ve got to agree that more dialogue is an important part of any solution to these misunderstandings. How to go about initiating that dialogue is another matter.

    This site and Off The Map are two places where dialogue is being attempted. But in the real world I get the impression that most of the “loud” believers don’t want dialogue, they want to either convert or condemn non-believers. On the other hand, the atheists that I know have no interest in talking about their non-belief, it just isn’t a topic of conversational interest.

  • Mriana

    It doesn’t sound like Avant has a clue.

  • http://yet.typepad.com/round_dice Anime

    Great post, Hemant.

    An extended comment:

    Perhaps beliefs– positive, negative, complex, and hyperreal– are mostly irrelevant as far as religion is concerned. It’s a convenient mask to hide the real issue: that it’s an acceptable form of mental illness.

    Just like we don’t really ever talk about our true fantasy lives (a la Walter Mitty) and instead prattle about fetishes and what not, it’s safer for a theist to argue about the rationality of one’s beliefs than to discuss with an atheist whether one suffers from a variant of OCD or not.

    My recollection– I used to be religious as a kid– is that it wasn’t so much a matter of belief as of a kind of direct necessity. I could be out-argued and my beliefs shaken, but the necessity itself couldn’t be touched. I think that’s the predicament of religious people. They need to do X, but don’t know why they need to do X, and all they can do is to keep reiterating that they “believe in their need to do X” and that they believe that their belief is a true belief, and up the chain, ad infinitum. I don’t remember how the necessity faded; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t due to any logical process.

    It’s a lot like an OCD sufferer. He/She can be told and re-told that such-and-such repetitive action is pointless, that it has no bearing on any consequence whatsoever, that millions of people are much better off not doing it, and that his/her belief in the action is not just irrational, but also erroneous. The OCD sufferer simply cannot help it. Indeed, the immunity of the act to external influence is its security.

    When the discussion turns to whose beliefs are bigger, they’ve already secured one key victory. It’s the kind of thing Harris accuses moderates of doing. They provide a cover for religion; it’s a bit like discussing whether schizophrenia is a better belief system than paranoia or number theory.

    Harris’ “are you kidding!” approach is the right one, I think. I’d supplement it with: “there’s treatment for that, you know.”


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