On Sam Harris’ “New Atheist” Diatribe in a Can

So a friend of my wife’s on Facebook posted this to his wall and invited Christians and non Christians alike to discuss and ruminate on Sam Harris’ soundbite from his debate with William Lane Craig at the University of Notre Dame.  The fundamental argument of said debate was the question “Is Good from God?,” meaning of course, is God the foundation of our objective moral framework or is there some other entity that could possibly be the bedrock of our moral underpinnings.  I find it interesting that Dr. Harris did not feel the need to include anything else from the debate, such as his inability to answer Dr. Craig’s questions in regard to the false synchronicity Harris tries to create between the “moral landscape” and the “continuum of well-being,” or any of Harris’ other failings to address the arguments that Dr. Craig posed, while feeling that it would be best to add this particular diatribe to his soundcloud page.  I say that because this argument is ripped directly from the typical “New Atheist” playbook circulated between such “luminaries” as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and others.  So while I applaud Dr. Craig for not following the “red herrings” being laid out by Dr. Harris, I am intellectually “slumming it” today and decided I would take a shot at Dr. Harris’ angry “Atheist rant.”

First and foremost, let me be real about the first premise.  We, as Christians, don’t really spend enough time ruminating over this first objection to Christianity and the God of the Bible.

If there is a God who is all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving, why does He allow suffering to happen?

It’s a valid question.  I think about it at almost every funeral I go to.  I think about it when stories like the tsunami of 2004 appear in front of me, or the devastation in Haiti from several years ago.  I think about it when dealing with the implications of child slavery in the chocolate trade, or the idea of clothing being made for consumption by americans being made by children in another country who are often totally devoid of the creature comforts I give my children.  Dr. Harris does a good job of pulling our focus to the question of suffering and addressing it with a huge question mark and furrowed brow.

I guess the first place to start in this is to dissect a few premises here.  Dr. Harris used the argument of these things that “ought not to be” as an argument against God.  The general premise here is that

“If there is a God, and this bad stuff happens, then He can’t really be real or good or all powerful because of seeing the bad stuff.”  

The problem with this argument of the denial of God via the presence of evil is multidimensional.  For one, the very ability to understand an “oughtness” or “should be” is to express that there is some standard by which we understand that which is good and that which is evil.  We become outraged at the problem, and rightfully so, because we understand these things to be “not right.”  But, in the absence of some objective standard, how would you know this?  I would posit that the reason why we even have these kind of debates in the first place is because our Western, First World mentality has given us the luxury of riding on the coattails of God’s goodness without actually thinking through the origins of our understanding of good and evil.  So, we are essentially spoiled children.  But, I digress.  Back to the original argument, as Dr. Craig put it, if a police officer tells you to stop your car, you are, by law, obligated to stop.  Why?  The police officer has a grounded position of authority that is upheld by the law.  So, there is an authority to what he says.  If I tell you to stop your car, there is no reason to.  In the same way, the absence of an objective moral standard that is put in place by a higher authority would leave no grounds for moral authority to begin with, much less questions regarding the dichotomy between good and evil.  What one man would consider good could possibly be considered then evil, the same way pointing with your first finger is considered inconsequential by Americans, yet offensive by Chinese (or so my wife says.  I’m not sure myself.)  Objective moralism, just as objective good and objective evil, would be impossible without some standard upon which to base it.  Outside of God (or insert higher being of choice here for the current premise of the argument), there is NO standard of good and evil.  So, I would begin with the fact that the very conversation Dr. Harris is having about what we consider “good” and “evil” is a very poignant argument for the existence of God and against his own premise.

Secondly, it is a fool’s errand to sum up the problem of human suffering with a simple pat answer that covers everything.  Dr. Harris’ argument is based around natural disasters specifically, so we can stick there if necessary.  There is a fundamental problem with Dr. Harris’ argument, and it’s this:

While we view volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters as just that, disasters, we also need to understand that we are, in essence, riding a giant spaceship that requires maintenance and upkeep that tends to happen.  So, to put this into perspective a little better, let’s think of it this way…

I have a car.  That car has lots of moving parts.  Some of them present the possibility of laceration injuries, such as the radiator fan.  Others present the possibility of thermal injury, such as a nice hot exhaust manifold.  Still others present the opportunity for puncture wounds and the like, and we haven’t even discussed the possibility of grave injury from a car accident.  Now, I could look at my car and complain that there are so many things that could hurt or injure me and demand it be re-designed, or say that there could not have been a designer of the car because it was so poorly designed with obviously no thought given to how dangerous parts of it were.  But changing any of those things would drastically affect its ability to do that which it was designed to do, namely, get me from point A to point B.  Take away the engine, and suddenly I have no possibility of laceration or thermal injuries, which is great, but then the car doesn’t run.  Add an electric motor, and now I don’t have to worry about those either, and the car still runs, but I’ve introduced the possibility of being injured by electric shock.  Ultimately I have to be resigned to the fact that, in order for my car to be operational, I have to be aware that there are some precautions and possibilities that may occur.  In order to avoid injury, I don’t do some obviously stupid things, like grab the exhaust manifold when it’s hot, or allow my children to ride in the engine bay.  I obey the rules in terms of traffic (mostly) and then, at the end of the day, I still have to be aware that there is the distinct possibility of getting killed or mangled by another driver.

In the same way that my car can be dangerous, yet must necessarily be so in order to adequately function, so too is the earth.  Natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanos are simply part of the mechanisms that have been put into place for earth to be a habitable planet.  Plate tectonics is necessary for altering and regulating our climate and in fact contributes to the biodiversity and habitability of this planet.  So, yes, we can bemoan the tragedy of people being killed by a tsunami or an earthquake or volcano, but to use it as an argument against God would be the same as me being angry at Chrysler for the exhaust manifold burning me on my van and then saying “this thing couldn’t have been designed because I was hurt by it and that’s just EVIL.”  Of course it would be ridiculous.  So it is with using natural phenomena that happen to be dangerous as an argument against God.  Of course there is a possibility of a tsunami hitting the beach.  Of course there is the possibility of Mt. Saint Helens erupting and spewing hot ash and lava all over Washington.  But all of these things are inherently necessary for the survival of the world at large.  Could you or I envision a world that works better?  We think so, but that’s doubtful.  Limited by laws of nature, being allowed only to work within the confines of a logical and rational universe dictated by the precepts of physics and chemistry, it’s doubtful we could ever, ever, ever, ever come up with anything better.  So, we are left again, being whiny, spoiled children insinuating that we could have done far better, while never really understanding every facet of the equation.  How do we eliminate all natural phenomena and still have a world capable of supporting life?  In short, I think that’s unreasonable.  Should we mitigate the possibilities of collateral damage and loss of human life?  Absolutely.  That’s why I don’t own land near Mt. Saint Helens.  Should we be aware that, in spite of our best efforts to avoid disaster, they do still occur?  Absolutely.  But to fault God for not wrapping His creation in bubble wrap for us is to then argue against the very rational and logical properties that make our earth distinctly capable of supporting life in the first place.

We’ll take a look at Dr. Harris’ next premise, the evil behind the exclusivity of the Gospel, next post.

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