P3 – A Review and Critique of Sam Harris’ book: “The Moral Landscape” – Philosophical and Theological Weaknesses

Introduction and Review:

In our last two posts we have been evaluating and critiquing New Atheist Sam Harris’ book – “The Moral Landscape”. For the reader’s reference, here are the links to the last two posts:

1.  https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/p1-a-review-and-critique-of-sam-harris-book-the-moral-landscape/

2. https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/p2-a-review-and-critique-of-sam-harris-book-the-moral-landscape/

In the first post we concluded that ultimately, Dr. Harris’ book commits circular reasoning. In short, he uses human well-being as evidence for objective moral values and duties being grounded in human well-being. In the second post we wanted to know if Harris’ book escaped the moral relativism which he himself decries? When I say moral relativism, I mean the view that asserts that there are no objective moral values and duties independent of what I think or what you think. We concluded in the last post that Harris’ overall argument fails to escape this tendency of all Atheistic theories – whether they be for or against moral relativism.

Today’s post continues our review. In this installment, we will evaluate two philosophical weaknesses underlying the argument of “The Moral Landscape”. In addition, we will also consider how Harris misrepresents Christian theism, hence further invalidating his attempts to critique the Biblical view of God as the proper grounding for objective moral values and duties.

1. Harris’ first philosophical weakness in the “Moral Landscape”

Dr. Harris commits the fallacy of “false cause” by attributing societal progress to secularism and societal decline to religion. Irving M. Copi’s book “Introduction to Logic” defines the fallacy of “false cause” as “the inference that one event is the cause of the other from the bare fact that the first occurs earlier than the second.” (Irving M. Copi. Introduction to Logic. The MacMillan Company, New York, 1961). Harris attempts to prove that secular countries are better off morally than religious countries on page 146: “And on almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are better off than most religious countries like Denmark and the Netherlands – which are the most atheistic countries on earth.” However, Harris’ “measure of societal health” is one: namely, “subjective well-being”. Furthermore, Harris’ sampling of such secular nations is limited to a few. Can one trace these nation’s overall human well-being to just secularism?

History gives countless examples of atheistic ideologies leading to growing levels of depression and hopelessness. Regimes influenced by communism (such as the former USSR) and its satellite countries to Marxist regimes have resulted in abject moral and economic poverty. Just because a nation turns secular, and then experiences subsequent societal improvement is not definitive proof that secularism was the direct cause. The limited sampling of nations and limited factor of people’s subjectivity are all tell-tale signs of a logical fallacy being afoot.

2. Harris’ second philosophical error: denial of “free-will”.

The idea that human beings can choose alternative courses of actions is soundly rejected by Sam Harris. Thinkers who regard human free-will as illusory are called “determinists”. As a neuro-scientist, Harris is convinced that people’s so-called “choices” are “determined” by physical states of the brain. For example, Harris notes: “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. As we will see, however, this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.” Harris’ evidence lies in studies of the human brain, where apparent brain scans reveal neurological process that occurred seconds prior to the actual exercise of a choice. He notes on page 103: “Many scientists and philosophers realized long ago that free-will could not be squared without growing understanding of the physical world.”

If on Harris’ view we take there to be no reasonable basis for belief in God, and further grant that the human brain ought to confirm the unreasonableness of theism – then why do so many people choose to believe in some type of deity? Moreover, in order for someone like Harris to hold to determinism, he has to obviously “reject” freewill and furthermore persuade readers to do the same.

Determinism as a philosophical position is patently self-defeating, since it expends effort in trying to persuade the reader that free-will is illusory, which involves a choice not to believe free-will! As Dr. Ravi Zacharias has noted, the moment one makes a truth claim, they have revealed their belief in free-will, since truth claims require a definite choice. Despite Harris’ admission on page 145: “Religion remains one of the most important aspects of human-life in the 21st century”, he dismisses such facts by citing the evolutionary development of religion and asserting its alleged un-remarkable presence in human culture.

For Harris’ moral landscape to work – one must embrace “determinism” or belief that free-will as some kind of “mirage”. However, despite Harris’ protestations to the contrary, if each person is predisposed to act in accords to mechanisms in the brain, then where does responsibility for one’s actions come to play? The door for escaping responsibility for one’s actions is swung wide-open in Harris’ book. Harris writes for instance on page 109: Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.”

Regardless of Dr. Harris’ insistence that this does not eliminate human responsibility, the quote echoes the idea that we are all by-products of our environments or upbringing, and thus we can’t help but to do otherwise. Harris’ of course locates his determinism in the activities of the human brain. Still, the inability for determinism (i.e denial of the reality of free-will) renders such concepts as human responsibility to be incoherent.

3. Harris’ mishandling of scripture and misrepresentation of Christian theism

This final point of critique concerns Sam Harris’ citation of scripture in demonstrating the inadequacy of theism in being the proper basis for morality. Harris notes on page 38 – “The person who insists that he is committed to treating children with kindness for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone’s well-being is not making sense.” Where Harris’ then goes next assumes that Christianity is immoral and thus doesn’t make sense. Harris writes: It is worth noting in this context that the God of Abraham never told us to treat children with kindness, but He did tells us to kill them for talking back to us (Exodus 20:15; Leviticus 20:9;Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Mark 7:9-13 and Matthew 15:4-7). Harris’ miss-representation of scripture and Christianity is seen in how he only cites a sample of scripture or a slice of the evidence without counterbalancing it with concern to the context of the passages.

First of all, theists are all for the well-being of people (Leviticus 19:8; Matthew 22:37; Philippians 2:1-5; Colossians 3:10-13).

Secondly, Christian theism in particular adds to this thought that when one loves their neighbor as themselves, they are also aiming for the glorification of God (Mark 13:30-31; John 15:1-7).

Thirdly, in the above texts mentioned by Harris, the situations represent extreme cases where the offspring were reckless and posed a threat to both the family and the community. The Deuteronomy 21:18-21 legislation is the fullest explanation of the string of citations, depicting an extreme situation where every measure to correct the son has been exhausted. It is unlikely that the son in question is a young child, since the Hebrew word translated “rebellious” is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the actions of adult people (see for instance Proverbs 7:11; Psalm 78:8; Isaiah 1:23).   Furthermore, the commands were likely situational and temporary, since later measures for dealing with rebellion included wise-instruction (Proverbs 1; Ephesians 6:2-4) and usage of non-lethal correction (Proverbs 22:4).

The reputable Bible Knowledge Commentary notes: “No record in the Bible or in extrabiblical literature has come to light which indicates that this punishment was ever carried out. The fear of death apparently deterred Jewish sons from being stubborn rebels.” Harris makes it appear that Biblical based-cultures enacted death penalty on miss-behaving small children on a regular basis, when consideration of the evidence shows his point to be without merit.

Conclusion for today

In our evaluation of Sam Harris’ book: “Moral Landscape”, we considered two philosophical weaknesses and one theological weakness. Anytime a worldview or philosophical system such as “The Moral Landscape” is evaluated and critiqued, it is crucial to offer a valid alternative. In the final installment of this blog series, we will offer arguments in support of demonstrating that objective moral values and duties exist due to the fact that God exists. Stay tuned!



About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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