On Sam Harris’ “New Atheist” Diatribe in a Can Part 2… The Exclusivity of Christianity

So in moving forward, we see from last time that first difficulty with Harris’ rejection of Christianity based on suffering is a fundamental misunderstanding of suffering being necessarily a function of evil.  So, moving forward, let’s speak to Sam’s rejection of the exclusivity of Christianity.

The argument is a common one.  The point of the argument essentially boils down to this:  It is absurd for Christians (or any other religion for that matter) to assume or interject that they, and they alone, are correct.  It’s the height of arrogance, in fact, to make such a claim based off of the scant evidence for any religion.  The attitudes of many can be summed up like this…

I am absolutely against any religion that says that one faith is superior to another.  I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism.  It’s a way of saying that we are closer to God than you, and that’s what leads to hatred.

~ Rabbi Schmuley Boteach

toleranceReligious racism.  That’s an emotionally charged accusation that is somewhat akin to throwing red meat to a pit bull.  How should one address the exclusivity of Christianity?  Is it foolish?  Evil even?  Rabbi Boteach, Sam Harris, and many others would agree.  The folks driving around with “coexist” and “tolerance” bumper stickers would absolutely agree.  President Obama would agree.  So, what is the right answer here? And how would you deliver the right answer in such a way as to not incur the wrath of the “Tolerant Coexisters?”

The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding between the cornerstones of truth, opinion, and evidence.  What am I saying here exactly?  Well, let’s start at the nature of truth.

Think back to when you were in school.  Imagine you have just been given a chemistry exam (I hated chemistry, so it seemed the perfect choice), and imagine, given a multiple choice question with the correct answer of ‘D’, you choose ‘A.’  Do you, at any point, feel that you should have been given credit for giving the correct answer?  Of course not!  That would be foolish.  Did you accuse your teacher of being “bigoted towards those students who chose the letter ‘A’?  NO?  Why is that?  Because in this particular instance, you have a distinct grasp of one of the fundamental tenets of truth, which is this:

Truth is necessarily exclusive.

The nature of truth and its exclusivity precisely mean that answer D is not equal to answer A.  In no possible world will answer A equal answer D.  So, it is unreasonable and irrational then to assume that if I answer ‘A’, I should get the same credit as thought I had answered ‘D’.  The two are in fact exclusive of one another.  Consider these two statements:

“I am sick.”

“I am healthy.”

It would be a logical fallacy to equate these two sentences.  I could not declare both at the same time and not be contradictory.  There is of course the possibility of that if we were to assume that the two were not speaking in the same context, such as if I was saying I am mentally “sick” and physically “well,” but if the two are located in the same domain, they can’t both be true.  That is to say, I can’t say “I am not currently suffering from a disease brought on by microbes”, and then in the next sentence say “I am currently suffering from a disease brought on by microbes.”  The two are contradictory and can’t possibly both be true.

So where am I going with that?  Well, first, I hope we are okay with saying that truth is exclusive.  Otherwise, everyone should get 100 on their multiple choice tests since every answer is just as good as another (Oh if ONLY that were the case).  The reality is that in the realm of truth, there is a right answer and a bunch of wrong ones.  What does this have to do with religion?  One’s faith is in essence a truth statement.  Of course you believe what you believe to be true IS true.  Otherwise, why believe it?  So, if we are discussing religion as a truth statement (I don’t really believe it can be looked at in any other way), then it is not only acceptable to evaluate one’s truth claims as exclusive, it is reasonable and rational and IRRATIONAL to do otherwise.  So, making a truth claim on what you believe to be true is not religious racism, or foolish, but the proper thing to do.

Where the debate turns askew is of course on the value of these truth statements, or “why does Christianity claim to be true?”  This of course is an argument in the context of evidence for Christianity being equal to the evidence of all other religions.  So, the crux of the question is not “is it reasonable to be exclusivistic in regards to religion,” but rather, “does Christianity have a right to claim exclusivity based on its evidence.”  I will therefore spend the rest of this post arguing why Christianity is a superior revelation of truth compared to all other religions.

First, let’s consider the reliability of the Bible in regards to history.  In doing so, I think it is important to deal with the Bible in light of its attempt to root itself within the confines of human history.  Put another way, “is the Bible long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away or is it meant to fit itself within archaeological verifiable confines?”  Secondly, I think it best to examine the Bible in light of the reliability of its manuscripts, which is to say, “Does it say exactly what it’s supposed to say, or has it been hopelessly botched by years upon years of scribal error.”

One contention leveled against the Bible is that it is, for all intents and purposes, mythology.  A telling admission comes from Iron & Wine singer Sam Beam when, in an interview, he says in reference to Christianity…

That was my mythology as a kid. Those were the stories that we learned how to live life (from). I didn’t have Zeus and Athena. We had Jesus and Job.1 

But is that really all that Christianity is?  Is it just a cleverly crafted set of mythology that we have transitioned from Mount Olympus to Jerusalem?  I would wholeheartedly disagree.  First and foremost, mythology has consistently been, throughout history, a metaphysical attempt to explain heretofore inexplicable physical events.  For example, “Why does it rain?”  “Baal, the storm god, brings rain.”  Or “Jupiter, the god of thunder and weather, has brought us rain.”  In either instance, the desire is to explain natural phenomena.  The aim of Judeo-Christianity is not, in fact, to explain inexplicable natural phenomena.  Rather, it’s purpose is to explain and reveal God’s relationship to man and vice versa.  For example, concepts in Judaism and Christianity exist that are absolutely foreign to mythology.  Concepts like salvation and damnation have no real counterpart in mythology, because again, the primary aims of the two are entirely different.  Yes, mythology does have a certain “afterlife concept,” such as the Elysian Fields and Hades.  However, the similarities stop there, because the afterlife in mythology (and any other religion outside of Christianity that I can think of) is only attainable by one’s merit.  Christianity and Christianity alone invite the practitioner to participate in a meaningful personal relationship with a God who has created them and brings them to leave in everlasting peace based not in personal merit but in a right relationship with that God (incidentally, I think this is a major stumbling block to a lot of atheists, because the concept of a rewarding afterlife that you don’t EARN is anathema.  God’s grace is that we don’t get what we earn.)  So, hopefully we can agree that mythology and Christianity are separated from one another by CONTENT and INTENT.

Now, to fully answer the question of the Bible’s pragmatic relevance in regards to being verifiable and testable within real world conditions, the Bible consistently tries (and succeeds) to root itself within human history.  We have real, existing humans (Pontius Pilate, Tiberius, Darius, Cyrus, Xerxes, David, Jehu, and the list goes on) who have appeared in human history both within the timeframe and within the context that they were represented biblically.  That is to say, Tiberius was accurately portrayed as the Roman emperor at the time in which he was acting as emperor.  Additionally, places and events were described accurately.  For example, the Pool of Siloam, mentioned in the Gospel of John, has been found and matched the biblical description.  The city of Jericho has been found and studied.  The Hittites, who were previously thought to not exist, have been verified and studied.  The historical veracity of the Bible has been so persuasive an argument that many an atheist has set out to prove the Bible hopelessly inaccurate only to leave the endeavor as a believer in Jesus Christ.  So, unlike other world religions such as Hinduism, the Bible tries to firmly root itself in history and offers itself as a historical document to get the reader to test its words for truth.

The second point is the relative health of the text.  There are, again, two factors I consider in the “health” of scripture.  One, has it been accurately passed down to us?  Bart Ehrman, a textual critic of the Bible, says that it has NOT been accurately passed down to us.  Ehrman likes to claim that there are more errors in the New Testament than there are WORDS in the New Testament, and he is right.  What he doesn’t admit, however, is that none of the errors affect a single major doctrine of Christianity, and they only slightly affect some minor doctrines.  Ultimately, all of the errors end up being scribal in nature and are totally inconsequential in nature to the essential doctrine and faith of Christianity.  In the same way, the Dead Sea Scrolls find allows us to be much more confident in the reliability of the Old Testament since it contains copies of nearly every book of the OT (except for Esther) and the differences are minimal between them and already existing manuscripts.

Another portion of the argument for the veracity of the text is the number of manuscripts and the length of time passed between when the events occurred and when they were written down.  We have over 5600 manuscripts of the New Testament.  In fact, if all of our existing NT manuscripts were stacked upon each other, the stack would be over a mile in height!  That equates to a very strong witness.  In addition, the earliest writings of the New Testament can be reliably dated due to existing manuscripts to about 90 AD.  It is even within the realm of possibility that the entire NT was completed before AD 70 (seeing as how no one mentioned the destruction of the temple, which surely would have necessitated some kind of mention seeing as how the temple was the very symbol of Jewish sacrifice, which served as the typology for a thorough understanding of Jesus and His sacrifice.).  As such, the entirety of the NT witness could have been compiled within 40 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This would be the equivalent of a push notification in the ancient world!  When we consider that the earliest existing copies of writers such as Plato and Homer date from up to 1000 years after the author would have written them, why do we assume that what we have from them is what they meant for us to have?  In addition, this kind of manuscript evidence simply isn’t available in other religions, and especially in cultic offshoots such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, who have both continuously revised their holy books.

So, sure, if the witness for Christianity were no better than for Hinduism, or Sikhism, or Islam, then absolutely it would be absurd religiously for anyone to declare Christianity superior revelation of truth over the others.  However, that simply isn’t the case.  Christianity has every right to declare that it has an exclusive grasp on truth based on the reliability of its manuscripts combined with its compatibility with archaeological study.  No holy book can even come close in terms of exposing itself for open dissection and study.


1.  The Mythology of Iron & Wine, http://iamdeclan.blogspot.com/2010/05/mythology-of-iron-wine.html


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