A review of Letter from a Christian Citizen. By Douglas Wilson.

American Vision, 2007.

The anti-theist blitzkrieg shows no signs of abating, with angry tomes from militant God-haters pouring from the presses. It seems each new month another anti-God book is published, joining the burgeoning ranks of the secularist assault on faith and religion.

And as many have rightly noted, the fundamentalist character of these volumes rivals anything found in the religious camp. These can be some very ugly and nasty pieces of work. One of the leaders of this new militant atheism has been Sam Harris. His 2006 volume, Letter to a Christian Nation was an embittered attack on Christianity in particular and religion in general.

It is to that particular volume that Douglas Wilson here responds. The American Christian pastor offers a chapter by chapter interaction with the Harris volume, and makes some very telling points along the way.

Wilson points out that Harris uses an awful lot of “ought” language in his book. That is, he is often claiming that this or that behaviour ought not to be, that certain things (mostly about religion) are wrong and we ought to move away from religion altogether. But it has to be asked, why?

Image of Letter from a Christian Citizen: A Response to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
Letter from a Christian Citizen: A Response to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris by Wilson, Douglas (Author) Amazon logo

Why, given Harris’s atheism, should certain things be preferred above other things? Where, in other words, does morality come from in a system that is amoral at best? What standard does Harris use to make his moral judgments?

Asks Wilson, “Who has defined this standard? You? Your friends? Is it published somewhere so I can read it? You write as though it exists. Where is it?” It seems Harris and his atheist buddies are really living on the borrowed moral capital of Christianity here.

Since there is no God, no soul and no religious authority that we must submit to, what is the basis of morality for Harris? He says seeking for happiness comprises his version of ethics. But such vague notions of happiness really just amount to the capacity of pleasure or pain which the nervous system can handle. But why are the preferences of one nervous system to be preferred over another? Indeed, “what gives pleasure to certain sub-groups of human nervous systems gives pain to other sub-groups. How are we to sort this out?”

If morality is ultimately subjective and arbitrary, as an evolutionary atheist must argue, then why should anyone submit to it? Why is an imposed secular morality to be preferred to any other?

Wilson also exposes numerous logical inconsistencies of Harris. For example, Harris says he is quite taken by the “utter non-violence” of the Indian religion, Jainism. Jainism says we should not injure or kill any living creature. Yet evolutionary theory is based on the survival of the fittest – it’s a dog eat dog world out there, with nature red in tooth and claw.

Does Harris really see Jainism as morally superior to Christianity? Does he really want us all to wear masks to avoid breathing in and killing insects? And should we abandon antibiotics so as not to kill those poor microbes? Is this really a moral advance on Christianity?, asks Wilson. Moreover, why does Harris condemn Christians for being pro-life, at least in terms of embryonic stem cell research, if Jainism is such an ideal to be followed?

And when Harris says that the most advanced and prosperous nations today are the most secular ones, he is simply being disingenuous. Almost all of these nations are in the position that they are today because of, not in spite of, their Christian past. They became prosperous when they were predominantly under the sway of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and many people are asking how long that prosperity will last, now that the religious foundation has been largely rejected.

Harris is no better when seeking to deal with the problem of evil. He of course rejects the Christian account of it. But how is the atheistic version of events any better? Harris rails against God for allowing hurricanes and tsunamis. But Harris doesn’t believe in God. Thus God is not responsible. So who is?

But under the premises of atheism there is no who. Stuff just happens. End of story. If all we have is sky above and dirt below, then Harris has “no right to exhibit the slightest bit of indignation over ‘the neglect’ that is being shown to these particular end products of mindless evolution. There is no neglect. Nature eats her own and will do so until every last sun has gone out. Deal with it.”

Indeed, regarding the calamities of life, there are really just two options: either they have a purpose or they do not. Biblical Christianity does affirm there is purpose and meaning in life, even when we cannot fully discern it, and that one day everything will be put right. But in atheism, there is no rhyme or reason for anything. Crap just happens and that is just the way it goes.

As Wilson demonstrates, Harris is not really a hard core atheist. At best, he is a sentimental theist. He has concern for what happens in this world – which is good – but he has no basis for this concern. He rejects God, but is not willing to live with the consequences of such rejection, as other more consistent atheists have done.

Instead, he is concerned about suffering and evil. But again, why, under his premises? He rejects the notion of a benevolent God, but doesn’t realise that with that he had also destroyed the very notion of benevolence itself. “Benevolence is simply a chemical reaction that some organisms experience in their bone box. Other organisms (like the criminal organism that rapes and kills the little girl organism) don’t have very much of it. But this is all just time and chance acting on matter.”

Harris should simply embrace the ramifications of his atheism, and not keep nibbling on Christian leftovers. The very ideas and concerns of Harris are “nothing but epiphenomena in that curious chemical vat of [his] that we are pleased to call a brain”. More consistent atheists like Holmes could ask, “I wonder if cosmically an idea is any more important than the bowels”. At least he sees the implications of his worldview. Harris doesn’t want to.

And the claim by Harris that he will follow science wherever it leads is simply false. As a philosophical naturalist – a position atheists hold on faith – he has ruled out ahead of time certain things, and will not follow the evidence.

When the disciples were told that the tomb of Jesus was empty, they ran to see if it were so. This was simply an honest appraisal of the evidence. But if one has an a priori assumption that such things cannot happen, one will not even bother to examine the evidence. So who is the real scientist here?

The truth is, Harris operates on faith just as much as any believer. “You have faith also – faith that the universe is a closed system and that something like a resurrection is inconceivable. But this is not something you discovered by looking into a microscope. It is a philosophical axiom of yours – it is an article of faith.”

And such a closed system is “impervious to any evidence to the contrary”. Atheists have simply decided ahead of time what they will and will not believe. So much for following the evidence wherever it may lead.

In the end, the books by Harris and other atheists are really not worth taking seriously anyhow. Says Wilson, “on your account I am one set of complex chemical reactions secreting something that I falsely believe to be arguments to another set of complex chemical reactions who falsely believes that he is reading them.”

Wilson concludes by agreeing with Harris that religion is really of not much use. But Christ is. The concept of religion is not what is needed. Those who are not well – all of us – need more than concepts. “We need actual medicine, not the idea of medicine. And this is why we need Christ, not religion”.

The legitimate concerns Harris has are there because God exists, and he is made in God’s image. But the only way his concerns will be adequately dealt with is if he stops pretending that he is the god of the universe, and allows God to be God. But that will take some humility. But it is the only way forward.

At best Harris can only raise some questions and concerns. Wilson in this helpful volume gives us some solid answers.

[1422 words]

11 Replies to “A review of Letter from a Christian Citizen. By Douglas Wilson.”

  1. I confess to having neither the gift or mental energy to follow scientific or philosophical argument. Perhaps like the blind man, all I can claim is that “once I was blind but now I see.” However I am reminded of the dishonesty and self-serving motives behind much of atheism and humanism. Bertrand Russell once confessed that he only peddled his philosophy because it suited him, ie., it enabled him to exploit others.
    Edward Skidelsky, writing in the New Statesman http://www.newstatesman.com/200010090052 said “One person to be frustrated by the shallowness of Russell’s ethical writings was his daughter Kate: “They all offered the same solutions: reason, progress, unselfishness, a wide historical perspective, expansiveness, generosity, enlightened self-interest. I had heard it all my life, and it filled me with despair.”
    Kate eventually found an answer in Christianity: “The doctrine of original sin gave to me, when I finally understood it, the same sense of intoxicating liberation my father had received from sexual emancipation. (which was): It was normal for me to be bad, and I need not feel ashamed.” She came to understand what Russell never could: it is only by acknowledging our sins that we can hope to gain freedom from them.”

    Though the Christian faith may well bring unspeakable comfort, it does not start like that; it is not a convenience or a crutch for those who cannot face the harsh realities of life: it leads inevitably to suffering. Atheists are not courageous or honest in not needing a crutch. Refusing the aid of climbing gear simply gives them the excuse not to climb at all.
    David Skinner, UK

  2. [quote] Though the Christian faith may well bring unspeakable comfort, it does not start like that; it is not a convenience or a crutch for those who cannot face the harsh realities of life: it leads inevitably to suffering. Atheists are not courageous or honest in not needing a crutch. Refusing the aid of climbing gear simply gives them the excuse not to climb at all.
    David Skinner, UK [/quote]

    Thank you, Mr. Skinner! That’s as good an explanation and response as I’ve ever seen to those who claim Christianity is merely a crutch. May I feel free to quote you from time to time as the need arrises?

    And thank you, Bill for posting the review. It’s unlikely I would ever see any of this were it not for your website.

    Yours in Christ,

    M.E. Huffmaster

  3. Dear Mr Huffmaster, like you, I am grateful for Bill’s website. I don’t know any other Christian site that deals day to day with such a range of cultural issues, that are effecting us all. Bill, you seem to have a special ministry for keeping us awake to the attacks that are coming to us from so many different quarters. Here we can (hopefully) listen carefully, share, learn and encourage one another, perhaps even offer one another answers – yes and even pray for one another; this is no academic forum but a real spiritual arena. God Bless
    David Skinner, Uk

  4. I concur with this review. American Vision gave me a personal copy when I was at their conference a few weeks ago. Wilson demolishes Harris’ antitheism, and shows how his attacks on Christianity actually undermine his own foundation.

    Another good splattering of Harris is Letter to a Maladjusted Misotheist by James Patrick Holding.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  5. What a pile of vapid, intolerant trash. I have read Mr. Wilson’s rebuttal to Sam Harris’ book and I am appalled that a seemingly erudite man can write such ignorant tripe.

    I have nothing against Christianity or religion in principle; however to live your life by a set of rules laid out in a book which was written many centuries ago is simply ludicrous. The fact of the matter is god does not exist, in any of the various shapes and forms he has appeared throughout history. We calmly discredit ancient pagan beliefs such as the Greek Pantheon or Norse Gods – yet Greeks and Vikings pre-dating your good book held their beliefs in as high regard as you do yours now. Somehow they evolved beyond needing them. Loki, Odin, Hera and Zeus have outlived their usefulness in the modern world. The Christian god and Islamic Allah may be more sophisticated, or at least may have evolved to be more pertinent to the lives of people now but are no more real than Thor the god of Thunder.

    You would ridicule someone if they believed that Thor’s hammer blows were the source of thunder – science has long since given reasonable evidence to suggest that thunder is the resulting noise of charged particles colliding with each other in the air – yet you are happy to believe that an omnipotent invisible man in the sky watches your every move and listens to the prayers of millions of people. If that wasn’t written in old book and I claimed it as truth you would laugh at me before having me wheeled off to the loony bin.

    You theists are also happy to pick and choose the relevant parts of the holy book whose scripture you live by (but have probably never read in its entirety). According to Yahweh the god of the old testament – and father to Jesus (or so some of you believe) – it’s okay to keep foreigners as slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46) and sell your own daughter into sex slavery (Exodus 21:7-11). This is evidence that the book that you believe to be the teachings of an omnipotent god is no longer relevant and has ‘outlived it’s usefulness’ and coincidentally, is evidence that god doesn’t exist.

    If he did, and he listened to the prayers of his followers he would write a new book that says – “Forget the Old Testament. That’s a load of old crock– here’s some more relevant stuff to worry about… Like tolerance to other religions. Let’s forget about the penalty of death for idolatry – it’s not really relevant to us in the modern world. Instead it would be a lot more useful if we all just got a long. Then Islamic separatists might not fly planes into your skyscrapers.”

    But he hasn’t. For someone who is omniscient and omnipotent he certainly didn’t predict that he would have to fend off lucid arguments against his existence from the likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. And if he did use his omniscience to predict this why didn’t he use his omnipotence to arm his spokespeople, like Mr. Wilson, with better debating skills and… dare I say it… a shred of factual evidence for his existence.

    Better that you suffer to atone for the sins of your fathers… Whatever the hell that means?! God knows all about suffering. How cruel that he sent his son to Earth to be martyred knowing (because he is omniscient) that Jesus’ death would spark thousands of years of anti-Semitism amongst Christians. He didn’t stop there, Adolf Hitler (though often mistakenly labeled an atheist) directly attributed his awful crimes against the Jewish people to his belief in the Christian view of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’. Surely an omniscient or omnipotent god would not have allowed anyone to commit such evil in his name? Even if Hitler was lying to convince the German people that what he was doing was okay, god could still have just stopped him – a well-timed car accident or virus would have sufficed – he kills plenty of innocent Christians this way. Why not kill an evil murderer?

    Your faith will allow you to believe that there is some (usually preposterous and irrational) reason that god could have allowed Hitler to live and commit these crimes. Or why god might have killed your god-fearing grandmother with a stroke but let a child-molesting murderer commit heinous crimes in your home town. But you are wrong. And if you are able to justify god allowing these crimes – or the genocide in Darfur, or the tidal wave that destroyed much of Thailand and Indonesia, or Saddam Hussein’s horrific treatment of the Kurds – then you should be the one rotting in hell.

    Tom DeFoy

  6. Thanks Tom

    But might I respectfully submit that it appears you have graduated from the same Atheist Academy as all the other atheists that have commented on this site. You simply parrot the same tired arguments, the same twisted objections, and the same red herrings and straw men. The atheist idea of argumentation seems to be to make a lot of reckless and wild accusations, and repeat them ad infinitum, and think they have somehow made their case.

    Of course all these points have been dealt with by me and others, both here and elsewhere. But let me just pick up on one point you raise: your obvious dislike of God’s loving provision for your (and my) salvation. You use examples of suffering to make your case.

    But as an atheist, where do you get this sense of outrage over injustice? It makes no sense from a purely materialistic and evolutionary worldview. Life is a bitch, and then we die, as the saying goes. With your belief in the survival of the fittest, and your understanding of humans as mere “survival machines” for their “selfish genes” (as Richard Dawkins puts it), then why should you care in the least about suffering?

    Concern about suffering makes perfect sense in the Christian worldview, but absolutely none in your worldview. God made us with free will to have a love relationship with him. But we abused our free will and chose to reject God and his love. We are now engulfed in our selfishness, pride, and hatred of God. No wonder things are in such a mess.

    The suffering we see breaks God’s heart, and is not the way he created us to be. He sent his son as a supreme act of sacrificial love. He would have been fully just to simply let us go our own way of rebellion and defiance of him. But he has sought to woo us back with the most loving offer anyone can make: to die for one’s enemies, and hope they will be reconciled to God.

    The fact that you care about suffering and injustice has nothing to do with your atheism. It has everything to do with the fact that you are made in God’s image, and you share with him in a very small way his passionate dislike of evil and injustice.

    But as long as you shake your clenched fist at God, you cut yourself off from the very means by which things can be made right, our pride can be challenged, and our hatred turned to love.

    It is as if a person is drowning at sea with no hope of self-rescue. At great sacrifice to himself, a sailor comes along and offers the man a lifeline. Yet he clenches his fist, curses the sailor, and complains about the way things are. Not only is he rejecting his only hope of rescue and life, but he arrogantly spurns this great offer of love. Most people would consider such a person to be mad to take such an irrational and arrogant attitude.

    If you really care about injustice and suffering, the first thing you should do is stop pretending that you are God, and humble yourself and try to hear what God in his love is trying to say to you in his son Jesus. But if you harden your heart, and reject his only provision of rescue, then there is nothing more that God can do, or that I can tell you.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Bill,

    I shall provide a more complete response as soon as I have more time, and once I have read Mr. Wilson’s book. For now I wish to leave you with a single thought.

    Clearly you dismiss the possibility that our sense of morality could have evolved alongside our biological make-up as part of the evolutionary process. I am certain you have absolutely no evidence to support that point of view, other than your strongly held belief that morality originated with your God.

    In fact, I am certain that faith alone provides a number of examples of precisely the type of moral evolution of which I write.

    I believe history clearly shows the evolution of morality, and it is not unreasonable or irrational to believe that morality evolved out of necessity. After all, if we fail to care for, or choose to kill our neighbors, how long do you think the human race would last? Some state of morality long predated the writings and teachings of your faith….had it not, it is unlikely our early ancestors would have survived long enough to adopt it.

    Joe Martins

  8. Thanks Joe

    But is the atheist who must provide evidence that morality arose from the purely amoral; that life arose from non-life; that personality arose from the non-personal; and that something arose from nothing. Not only is the evidence lacking for such claims, but they are philosophically absurd positions to cling to.

    That fact that some people may not choose to kill their neighbours of course has absolutely nothing to do with the claim that morality somehow simply evolved out of nothing.

    The Judeo-Christian position makes perfect sense of morality in general and particular cases of people caring for others. Neither make sense in the world of atheism and naturalistic evolution.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Good evening Bill,

    Thank you for your prompt response. I appreciated it.

    I don’t believe there is a burden of proof on atheists. Our non-flat earth revolved around our sun long before we understood either to be true. Gravity and DNA pre-existed our understanding as well. There is a difference between falsity and that which we do not yet understand to be true.

    I believe you would agree that a lack of evidence doesn’t render a hypothesis implausible or untrue. One of the advantages of science is its willingness to challenge that which we historically believed to be true with new evidence, fresh understanding and criticism. Such scrutiny should be applied equally to Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Aquinas, Aristotle, Paul, Origen, Augustine, etc.

    I don’t believe the points of view raised in my earlier comment are philosophically absurd. I do believe we have yet to fully understand them. Our tendency to automatically attribute that which we do not yet understand to faith outcomes seems embedded in our psyche. I have found that many people of faith are simply not willing or prepared to accept the possibility that their understanding of the world may be incorrect. And many of them dare not critically question their beliefs as new information becomes available.

    Regarding morality, if you have not yet had an opportunity to do so, I highly recommend that you read the recent work of Marc Hauser and Austin Dacey. Both men have put a great deal of thought into morality and moral evolution.

    Joe Martins

  10. Thanks Joe

    But you raise several different issues here, including the nature of science, the limits of science, the relationship between science and religion, scientism, and so on. I have discussed these elsewhere and so will not go over old ground here.

    As to atheism and morality, yes I am familiar with the attempts by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists to seek to explain morality (and all other non-material realities) from purely Darwinian and naturalistic means. I still believe such attempts are hopelessly misguided. Even skeptics like atheist philosopher David Stove could point out the absurdity of such attempts. See his Darwinian Fairytales in this regard.

    Sorry, but I just do not have enough faith to be an atheist. The wild, speculative, counterintuitive (a term even Dawkins is forced to employ) attempts to explain away reality by forcing people into the reductionistic straightjacket of materialism is far too foolish and desperate.

    Better to go with what the majority of mankind has always known: there exist non-physical realities which cannot be explained away by reductionist philosophies. Such naturalistic theories are not based on empirical findings – how could they ever be? – but are the result of a priori faith commitments on the part of those who simply do not want to believe in the supernatural and the metaphysical.

    Of course the more honest atheists admit as such. For example, atheist immunologist George Klein said this, “I am not an agnostic. I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith … The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy.”

    And again, the more consistent and honest atheists recognise that in a purely material world, there is no such thing as morality. Even Dawkins admits this: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    Attempts to build a system of morality from a purely material basis are doomed to fail, and are the desperate attempt of atheists to have their cake and eat it too. Atheists are simply stealing from the moral capital of theism here. They are concerned about morality for the simple reason that they are made in God’s image and live in God’s moral world. Their very attempt to discuss morality is a sure indication of the intellectual paucity of their own unbelief.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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