Thanks Jordan Peterson, I’ll Take Sam Harris From Here

Thanks Jordan Peterson, I’ll Take Sam Harris From Here July 30, 2018

Well, that escalated quickly.

When I published this piece on the Jordan Peterson/Sam Harris debates a week ago today, I expected it would pick up some attention. I’m active in various Jordan Peterson fan groups on FaceBook and Reddit, so like a good Patheos author I hustled it about. For a couple of days, it did quite well. Both the Peterson and Harris fanbases, typically at each other’s throats, enjoyed a rare bipartisan moment by giving me almost universally positive feedback. This was unexpected, but welcome. By the third day, however, my analytics showed the predictable downhill trend on the other side of a healthy peak. Ah well, I thought, that was nice while it lasted. Then this happened:

Needless to say, there was… a bit of a spike in my analytics, plus nice tweets, comments and fan mail from a lot more people, including but not limited to Michael Shermer and the guitarist from Third Eye Blind. So, it’s been a fun week.

Let me just say first of all, I take my hat off to the good doctor for giving the thumbs up to a piece this critical. I am, in point of fact, a big fan, in case that wasn’t clear. But while I think Peterson more or less routs Harris on his utilitarian framework for morality, I make no bones about my belief that Harris has Peterson’s number on pragmatism. And harsh as it came off, I thought Harris’s line about letting “stupid people” have their myths had a sharp point: Don’t patronize the layman. Assume he can handle the truth. Then tell him the truth. That’s a sentiment I can actually get behind.

However, I am also deeply sympathetic to Peterson’s Cassandra-like terror of what dominoes might fall if we did rock that cradle on a mass scale. At times, I sense Jordan wants to grab Sam by the lapels and whisper fiercely, “Shhhhhh! Western Civilization is sleeping! If you wake this baby up now, God help you.”

God help us, indeed. The twist for many of my readers, of course, was the discovery that I happen to believe He already has.

I gave co-conversator Douglas Murray a generous section in the piece as well, because I believe he is, in some profound sense, at the center of all this. His book The Strange Death of Europe was one of my most haunting summer reads. Unlike Peterson, Murray does not seem to have made his peace with agnosticism. As Peterson noted in an intriguing passing line, “Douglas identifies as an atheist, and I’m not sure how he’s feeling about that at the moment.” One palpably senses that Murray has left a piece of himself behind in the Church. His writing still bleeds liturgy and King James English, as does mine, thanks to my own Anglican upbringing. In conversation, I suspect we would enjoy the poignant camaraderie of two people who share the same dying language. I’m grateful that he also tweeted out my piece, and I look forward to engaging further with his work.

However, I think Murray’s doubts can be answered, not by fideistic platitudes but by solid, reasoned arguments. And when Harris presses Peterson for an answer about what evidence we have for the special provenance of the Bible, or the reality of the Resurrection, I believe we can offer those answers as well. A number of people have asked me, via email and social media, what resources I might recommend to the end of exploring that evidence. Today, I’d like to provide a small sample thereof, including a few names that I’m pretty much 99% sure most of you have never heard of, because they’ve been dead for a while. These guys are basically the vintage vinyl of Christian apologetics. Please keep in mind that this is by no means comprehensive and that there are whole areas I am leaving untouched. This includes Sam’s whole attempt to derive “ought” from “is,” which as I said above, I think Peterson has already pretty much nailed him on.

First, feast your eyes on this spiffy old-timey collage I made with Sam Harris + a couple of the old guys I’ll be introducing. I don’t think they look very impressed, do you? George Campbell down there in the lower right-hand corner be all like: “Hume again? Really? We’ve been over this.”

L: Sam Harris, Upper right: William Paley, Lower right: George Campbell

First, Douglas Murray recommends…

Just to break the ice, many thanks to Douglas Murray for quoting David Berlinski’s book The Devil’s Delusion on stage in the Oxford debate and prompting me to read it again. It’s been much too long. This is an erudite, savagely funny take-down of, as subtitled, “atheism and its scientific pretensions,” explaining that if atheists think they have “solved” everything with Science… think again, sunshine. Berlinski does not write from a fundamentalist perspective or, indeed, any religious perspective in particular. He’s just a really pissed off agnostic Jewish dude. And he can write. Oh boy, can he write. Advice: Don’t drink liquid while reading.

 Oh, it’s Hume Again

“The philosopher David Hume made a very nice point about believing in miracles…” (The Moral Landscape, p. 252)

The “very nice point” Sam is referring to, in context, is Hume’s famous assertion that “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…” Harris goes on:

This is a good rule of thumb. Which is more likely, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have sex outside of wedlock and then feel the need to lie about it, or that she would conceive a child through parthenogenesis the way aphids and Komodo dragons do? On the one hand, we have the phenomenon of lying about adultery—in a context where the penalty for adultery is death—and on the other, we have a woman spontaneously mimicking the biology of certain insects and reptiles. Hmm…

Hmm… How do I put this… Hume was wrong. Like, technically wrong. As in, if you take his argument against miracles and turn it into math, the math is wrong. Mathically. I’d recommend the agnostic philosopher John Earman’s book on this but it’s kind of pricey, so here, completely free, is a refutation from one of Hume’s own contemporaries: A Dissertation On Miracles, by George Campbell (1762). It was Campbell of whom Hume himself said in private conversation with a friend, “The Scottish theologue hath beaten me.” Earman confirms: Campbell gets it. Hume does not.

Crisis of Doubt

Unfortunately this was one bit of The Strange Death of Europe where Douglas Murray showed he just has a gap in his history, because this whole notion that all the really intelligent religious people in the 19th century discovered higher criticism, became atheists and never looked back… yeah, it didn’t quite happen that way. This book deserves and will probably get its own post, but Timothy Larsen has pretty much put this to bed with his work Crisis of Doubt. Yours truly actually gave Jordan Peterson a copy of this book during a brief but memorable meeting this year. (Memorable for me that is.) Basically, the freethinking movement ran into this little problem where a bunch of their best guys started reconverting to Christianity after becoming adult deconverts. It was, like, really embarrassing. Especially since these reconverts then started going around explaining that this was because they had decided the evidences for Christianity were actually good. In fact, really good. These were guys who could truly say they had been there, done that. They had read, literally, all the things. Thomas Cooper basically memorized large sections of Strauss’s Life of Jesus. So if he tells you “Yeah, I read Strauss… not convinced,” you might want to give him a listen.

Unfortunately, Crisis of Doubt is OOP and a little pricey, but fortunately all the stuff written by the dudes in it is out there for free. I really like this little gem by Cooper, The Bridge of History Over the Gulf of Time.

Another one of the several formidable scholars who took on Strauss & Co. at their own game was J. B. Lightfoot. I confess I still need to tackle his Essays On the Work Entitled Supernatural Religion, but to say it looks thorough would be an understatement. (This particular collection brutally dispatches the British Tubingen popularizer William R. Cassels, who wrote anonymously at the time but was eventually revealed.) As with all these PD works on Google Books, note that the pages are much less densely packed than in contemporary books, so books that look intimidatingly long might actually not feel as long as all that if you actually dig in.

“Let’s put this probabilistically…” 

Sam asked Jordan to do this apropos of the Resurrection and I am so glad he asked, because actually this has been put probabilistically, and it’s really neat! It’s a bit of a doozy though, Sam. Like Eric Weinstein’s tweets, may contain math. You sure about this? From the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, I give you “The Argument From Miracles: A Cumulative Case For the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” (McGrew & McGrew).

Don’t have time to read a 75-page article? Here’s a reader-friendly blog post by one of the authors that ties it back to Hume’s central probabilistic error in a clear, accessible way, asking and responding to the question “Is the Resurrection Unbelievable?”

Interruption: But look, I made a chart showing all the contradictions in the Bible!

Oh right, I guess we should pause and mention that Sam really likes this graphic, a dazzling display of graphic design purporting to be the ultimate CHECKMATE to Christians who take the Bible seriously. Each line in the rainbow represents a place where two passages contradict each other, about anything.

Anything at all.

Fun drinking game: Take a Bible, and start going through the contradictions in the chart. Take a drink every time…

*Context is ignored to create contradiction.

*Silence is confused with negative statement (“X DID NOT happen” as opposed to no record X did happen)—this is called the argument from silence and it is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad argument. Seriously. It’s just bad.

*Fact that multiple people may have the same name is not considered.

*Fact that some people have more than one name is not considered.

*Fact that words can have more than one meaning depending on context is ignored. (Actual example: 1 Corinthians 13:7 says love “believeth all things” meaning that’s a “Yes” to the question “Should we believe everything?” whereas in Proverbs it says don’t be gullible and believe everything you hear, so that’s a “No.” CONTRADICTION, CHECKMATE. You think I jest? I jest not. Here’s a link.)

And so on, and so forth. These constitute entire classes of drummed-up “contradictions,” all of which collapse under a minimal amount of careful reading. That doesn’t mean there are none left at all. There are a few that require somewhat more specialized knowledge, and the occasional textual tension for which there isn’t an immediately satisfactory resolution. Of course, the rainbow wouldn’t be nearly as impressive for Sam Harris to use in his PowerPoint slides then. Hey. Not my problem.

Back to the books…

Sorry about that. I’m not sure where I was so when in doubt, I’ll just recommend Paley. His classic A View of the Evidences of Christianity may be a bit outdated, but it surveys everything from theistic arguments to textual authenticity to resurrection evidences. His famous “blind watchmaker” argument for design doesn’t make an appearance in this work. However, I’ll throw out that in the realm of design arguments in particular, contemporary breakthroughs have only strengthened his case. (See Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell, and Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, for a couple examples.)

So yes, that was a little random, but this should get you started, eh?

For further questions, comments or snark, you’re welcome to check my About page and avail yourself of the e-mail there. Thanks for reading!

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