Sam Harris on the Bible

No surprise that he doesn’t think much of it, but Harris has a number of eloquent bits on the Bible. Here’s one of them (via Facebook):

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  • richardhowland-bolton

    Too true, apart from one tiny quibble, and I’m not even sure that it makes a difference to anything, but there is surely not a single line in the Quran that could have been authored by a person any time before the early seventh century. :-)

  • Emu Sam

    The counter to the quibble would be if Mohammed quoted people who lived before him. We’d need a Qu’ranic scholar to tell us if that were the case. The 1,001 Nights, which might have been assembled within a couple centuries of his life, was full of quoting poets by the time it was translated to English a millenium later.

  • Dave Allen

    Maybe, but I don’t think that’s his point.

    If I write “you can use a clay mould to cast bronze spearheads” then this is a line that is written by a person in the 21st century – me.

    But it is also not a line that could not have been authored by a person in the first century.

    There’s no information or idea there that wasn’t well understood by many people 2000 years ago.

  • Chris Hallquist

    Yeah, I noticed the thing with the Quran. It’s an interesting question–what are the distinctively 7th century things in the Quran, aside from it being in 7th century Arabic? Maybe references to Christian traditions that took a few centuries to develop. What else?

  • sumdum

    The quran describes how Mohammed flew on a winged horse to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 621 CE.. while the mosque itself was built in 705 CE. That would put the date of the Quran even later. Or at the very least, that verse would be a later addition, but Islam holds that the Quran can not be altered and is protected from alteration by Allah himself.

  • mnb0

    The first line is very true; the Bible is a product of its time. I even know several christians who freely admit it.
    It’s a non-sequitur though that we cannot learn anything from it. See the Skeptic Annotated Bible, section Good Stuff.

  • Axxyaan

    Well in on way we can always learn from the Bible, we are just not sure we will be learning good stuff from it.

    But there being good stuff in the Bible doesn’t imply we can learn (good stuff) from the Bible. The authors of the Skeptic Annotated Bible, section Good Stuff, didn’t learn this good stuff from the Bible, they already knew how to recognize good stuff. Learning (good stuff) from the Bible, means the Bible would somehow learn us how to recognize the good from the bad stuff. But since the Bible is advocating so much bad stuff, I don’t see how it can help in this way.

    • mnb0

      “not sure we will be learning good stuff from it.”
      That applies to every single source.
      My main point is that I refuse to consider the Bible as something special, in any respect. Sam Harris does, in a negative way. That’s too flattering as well.

  • Jonathan

    I don’t see why atheists should have a particular negative attitude about the bible. Not all of them do: Robin Lane Fox once wrote that he “doesn’t believe on God, but does believe in the bible,” or similar. What does Harris expect the bible to do? Tell us more than any classical work of fiction? The Odessey doesn’t tell us much about electricity or DNA, it contains barbarism and superstition, but still I learned much from it.

    A christian is not obliged to see the bible as having the same kind of relevance to today’s society as any recent book. The fact that fundamentalists are trying to force this image of christianity on the rest of the world does not change that rational point. Christians are just as capable of reading the bible with a critical eye as we are. I should know, having been brought up in a family of theologians who never took a biblical story at face value in any way.

    It is a pity that when Harris walked blindly into that bookstore, he did not happen to pick up one of Ronald Numbers’ books on creationism. Because Numbers has made it abundantly clear that the creationist ‘biblical literalists’ who try to annex science for a literal interpretation of Genesis are a relatively new phenomenon. Christianity has not inhibited the growth of science throughout the majority of history, and the bible has primarily functioned as a source of faith, not a science book.

    A skeptical attitude towards the bible demands that it is read as what it is: a collection of very old stories and fragments handed down through generations. As such, it has value. It should be acknowledged that the inspiration the bible offers is not caused by what it contains in the way of technological or scientific information, but because of the tradition that it represents. Like we might feel moved by letters from a dead person we are related to, the bible moves christians because it contains the testimony of long-dead people with whom they want to connect. Their intellectual ancestors, as it were. Is that so hard to understand? Are we really allowing ourselves to be that dim-witted that we restrict ourselves to a kind of “flat reading” of the bible, like the infamous Johann Eisenmenger used on the Torah to prove that judaism was a terrible religion? Will we really delude ourselves into thinking that the Odessey is about nothing else than how the elastic properties of wood relate to the strength of the human arm?

    • Mark D.

      Many people DO expect the bible to be more than a classical work of fiction, that’s the entire point of Sam’s words here.

      And now, I must ask the obvious question: If your Christianity (presuming you still are one) is not based entirely on the Bible, what is is based on? Feelings? “I think, therefore it must be so”?

      Biblical literacy is new because it was only in the last 150 years that science (read: evolution) started to encroach so closely into religion’s sacred origin myths. Before that time, you might have been able to get away with non-overlapping magisteria nonsense, but in the present age it’s nothing more than burying your head in the sand.

      Roughly 40% of the people in this country (US) see the story of Genesis as a literal, historic account of creation. Until you can provide of similar figure for believers in Odyssey, your comparison is worthless.

    • mnb0

      I don’t see why atheists should have a particular positive attitude about the Bible either. As if it special. It’s not for me. There is no way the book answers my questions concerning my daily life. There is some stuff I like; great, I would have accepted it anyway. There is some stuff I dislike; I reject it anyhow. The fact that something is in the Bible or not is completely irrelevant to me.

  • Jonathan

    Many people DO expect the bible to be more than a classical work of fiction, that’s the entire point of Sam’s words here.

    Many people? More than a work of fiction? Those are vague expressions that could mean what Harris is saying or something else entirely. Harris seems to demand that the book tells us about DNA and electricity, which is more specified and an utterly ridiculous demand.

    I’ve never been a Christian, so the question is irrelevant to me. I do wonder what you would mean by “based on the bible”. There is no logical necessity to read the bible as a science book when it is a source of faith. In fact, I would expect these functions to be different.

    Biblical literacy is new because it was only in the last 150 years that science (read: evolution) started to encroach so closely into religion’s sacred origin myths.

    That is simply not true. A skeptical attitude towards Genesis as an actual historical truth is much older than the theory of evolution; even Augustine did not subscribe to what is now known as biblical literalism. Allegorical interpretations are almost as old as christianity. It has been known for a long time that an interpretation at face value is problematic; for example, theologians knew before Darwin that Genesis contains two contradictory creation myths. So neither literalism or allegory was a given, evolution hardly changed that at all.

    The theory of evolution also did not change the idea of natural theology, i.e. that God can be rationally known from the study of nature. What did damage it was the Great War, which influenced the theology of neo-orthodoxy, or the idea the God can only be known through his revelations. This divided science and religion in a way different from Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria. Debates about what parts, if any, of the bible should be interpreted literally have taken place from the beginning. The atheist who only want to pretend there is only one Christian viepoint in this are burying their head in the sand more than anyone else, especially because of the so often touted token commitment to ‘science’, ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’. These are hollow concepts to people like Sam Harris, because he drops them the moment they do not serve his purpose.

    The argument that 40% of the US population believe Genesis is literally true is fallacious and does not support in any way what Harris is saying. First, it does not prescribe what a skeptical view on the bible should be: if I see the bible as a myth, it is irrelevant what 40% of the population of the US thinks of that. Second, there is no way it is indicative of what can reasonably be described as the Christian viewpoint; dogma should be recognized through writings on dogmatics, not by popular vote, and a debate on Christianity as a theistic way of thinking should recognize its diversity and not resort to one part of the Christians of one country to decide on what is supposed to be the universal interpretation. So what if 40% believes it? That settles it? Why does Harris think these people matter so much that he follows them in their ideas about the bible? That is not eloquence, it is willful stupidity.

    • Stevarious

      Your words are an oddly jumbled mess that I can barely make sense of, full of non-sequiturs and false comparisons. If your thinking is similarly jumbled then it’s no wonder you are having such difficulty understanding the point. But there is one question in there worth addressing:

      So what if 40% believes it?

      Because some of them hold office and write laws for this country. Some of them get elected to school boards and use their position to make sure that this nonsense is taught to children as fact.

      Sam Harris is not assuming that there is any one ‘correct’ way of reading the bible. His criticism is is addressed only to the christians who believe the crazy things that he is criticizing, not ‘all christians everywhere’. The fact that ‘christians who believe crazy things’ is such a huge percentage of ‘all christians’ is hardly his fault.

      I disagree with Sam Harris on a number of subjects. His criticisms of religion, however, tend to be spot on.

  • Annatar

    The Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.

    • Stevarious

      It’s not really all that good.

      Certainly ‘important’, culturally. I think everyone should read it (or at least try to read it). But not good.

  • Taz

    There is nothing about DNA, electricity or any other science in Beowolf, Shakesphere’s plays, or Virgil’s works. Therefore they are worthless and not worthy of our study.

    • Elle

      Except Virgil’s fans don’t go around claiming that his works are the Truth. And that quote doesn’t say anything about non-scientific subjects being worthless anyway. Please don’t make stuff up.

      • Jonathan

        When does fiction contain truth? If you watch youtube, you might notice that one piece of fiction that is debated ad nauseam is the second Batman movie, The Dark Knight. One scene that struck me is where a group of criminal inmates on a boat can save themselves by blowing up another boat full of innocent people. They don’t do it. In fact, one huge (black) guy throws away the detonator, assuming it basically means he and his fellows are dead.

        The movie is fiction. It never happened, and the logistics of such an operation make it extremely unlikely that it will happen. The Joker does not exist, and I don’t think an anarchist terrorist could handle the complex preparations. Batman is not about facts.

        Or is it? Listening to the many analyses of The Dark Knight, one would be forgiven for thinking the movie reveals some kind of truth. I see it being used for statements about ethics, about freedom and anarchy and even about human nature. Thinking about the inmate doing something that goes against his apparent character, I also get the feeling that I’ve learned something, perhaps about prejudice, maybe about my emotions. But how could that be if the story is not true? I have no answer to this, but, thinking of David Hume’s famous quote, I would refuse to “commit it to the flames” as “nothing hut sophistry and illusion”, because it contains no tangible facts. That is, no facts about electricity or DNA.

        I can see why a Christian would be gripped by the often morally ambiguous stories in the bible, keeping in mind that regarding them as myth or allegory was surely something that was a part of the earliest traditions.

        After all, you don’t paste two conflicting creation stories right after each other if you want to write a factual history. Only if you recognize some deeper mythical, allegorical or social/political meaning in them would that make sense. 

        The only identifiable difference between classical tales, biblical stories and modern myths are the traditions surrounding them. There is no reason to have special disregard for the bible just because it has a certain tradition, even if one specifically rejects that tradition.

  • cl

    It’s weird to me that so many “freethinkers” fall hook, line and sinker for this sort of crap. For example,

    There is nothing about infectious disease, the principles of infectious disease. There is nothing particularly useful…

    That’s false. Leviticus addresses infectious disease in great detail. There is much useful information for avoiding infectious diseases. Hell, had the “enlightened” Europeans followed it, they could have avoided or at least severely curtailed the plague.