Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris
Letter from a Christian Citizen – Douglas Wilson
Richard Dawkins once said he thought that Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t a problem for sophisticated theologians, that it was the ordinary religious person who knew just how much damage Darwin did to the idea that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Theologians can always use their skill with words to make the simple complicated. In a way, Dawkins’s comment was a compliment to the ordinary lay person. It’s not for no reason that many scientists can be impatient with philosophers.
It’s not for no reason that many religious persons attack the theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory is hated by the religious because it proves the biblical account of creation is untrue. From page one, the Bible is wrong: the Earth, the Solar System, the hundreds of billions of galaxies and the Universe itself were not created six thousand years ago. Many religious persons accept that evolution happened because to argue it did not is to look ridiculous. These persons are of little faith. The real Christian – I mean the Christian who really believes the Bible – cannot accept Evolution as an explanation for life on earth because once page one has been accepted as nonsense the whole thing falls. Ken Ham, a proper Christian and President of Answers in Genesis understands this. When asked about this in Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous he gave what was an honest (and therefore impressive) answer:
That, in thirty two simple words, is the reason many religious persons not only will not accept evolution happened but cannot accept evolution happened. Let the sophisticated religious philosophers and theologians argue all they want – genuine Christians are far more honest. Father George Coyne, Ph.D, of the Vatican Obeservatory, told the film-makers on the question of the age of the earth:
Fr. Coyne was quoting John Paul II.
The likes of Ken Ham – the real Christians – are, as I have said, avoiding the ridiculous. This is what Ken Ham’s beloved Genesis would look like if he took the same position as Fr. Coyne and John Paul:
And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One he chose as his special creation He named Lucy. And God realized this was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to sort it out. And just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants who lived as farmers and herders would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, population genetics, and evolutionary theory, so He created creation myths.
Harris says in respect to creationists:
“This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbours believe the cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue”
Douglas Wilson quotes this passage in his reply. This is what Wislon says immediately after closing the Harris quote:
“But notice what you are doing here: the Sumerians invented glue? Glue didn’t just happen? Why couldn’t it just appear the same way the sexuality of moss did and the eyeballs that see in color and the superbly engineered ankle and the majesty of the great white sharks all did? Glue is so complicated it needed to be invented?”
All Harris did was reject the idea of a young earth. Does Wilson’s response actually deal with the young earth question or avoid it? He doesn’t say “The Sumerians didn’t exist” Doesn’t Wilson have to claim this? He uses a quote from Harris about the age of the earth but chooses not to mention the thing the quote is about: the age of the earth. He’d rather allude to “irreducible complexity” by mentioning glue. But his “glue question” is silly. Can Wilson not think of anything that was invented? Central-heating, thermal underwear and the light-bulb come to mind.
The age of the earth, however, is not the most important question in either book and arguments for a young earth are hardly important ones in any case. That Wilson doesn’t want to “get into it” with Harris on this is not worth worrying about too much. The position Wilson takes, the position many religious persons take to the point of eye-rolling cliché is this. Consider Wilson’s question to Harris after some brief chat about slavery in the bible:
“Now here is my question. Given your worldview, what is wrong with this? There is nothing wrong with it on your principles, where the universe is just time and chance acting on matter. Why does it matter if the master matter acts on the slave matter? Who cares?”
This question abut morality is a favourite of the religious. Wilson puts it to the late Christopher Hitchens many times in the road movie they made and it is worth hearing it put in different ways to get a proper handle on the implications of it. The basics of it run thus: if there is no God, there is no absolute right and wrong – only individual preferences. So when an atheist says (extreme example alert) raping baby girls is wrong the religious person can ask “who says?” or, as Wilson likes to phrase the question “by what standard?” This question is the one worth thinking about.
Morality, to an atheist, is an on-going (probably never-ending) conversation about how to treat persons in society, how to govern a society and how to treat the environment and its wildlife – and goodness only knows how much else. Understand that Wilson, when he mentions “morality” is talking about that which God does and says. That’s it. That’s all “morality” means to Wilson. What God does is moral because God does it. For Wilson, morality has nothing to do with keeping humans safe from harm or pain of any kind; it has nothing to do with preserving human life. This is what Wilson had to say to Harris about hurricane Katrina:
“What He did to New Orleans was holy, righteous, just and good. Some of it may have been an obvious chastisement for those who would build a major city below sea level in hurricane country and then attempt to govern it through corruption and vice.”
This is impressive faith, but unimpressive logic. The idea that God sends a hurricane as punishment is alright until the accidental concession that the city was built in “hurricane country” to begin with. Wilson should have closed his point after his first sentence because the first sentence tells you everything you need to know: on his premises humans are expendable.
What you will see and hear happening in some debates between religious persons and atheists on the “morality question” is the religious person, though he is eager to play the morality-card, will play it very close to his chest and is happy for the audience to indulge in their own sort of “fallacy of equivocation” on morality for rhetorical purposes. In other words, the religious will let you think morality is a sort of “being nice to people” when for them it means something quite different.
Many religious are not just happy to let this go without clarification, they perpetuate the confusion by playing the absurd Stalin and Mao cards. When a religious person does this he is lying to himself or he is lying to you or both. An atheist can murder another person, quite in cold blood, and feel safe from punishment in the afterlife. But the atheist murderer’s atheism doesn’t make him want to kill. This is a small but important point. Wilson is writing to Sam Harris, an atheist. Sam Harris doesn’t want to murder people. That’s the Stalin argument over with, but the religious continue with it because they like it even though making it involves profound dishonesty about motivation and ignores centuries of religious murder.
It’s no shock that morality better mean something other than a complicated version of “be nice to people” to Wilson because non-human animals, from Sperm whales to Rhinos, will protect their young and the injured in their herd. Wilson won’t be writing a letter to a sperm whale asking “by what standard” do those in your herd encircle the weak or injured for their protection?
It doesn’t matter what an atheist says morality is, or where an atheist says morality comes from or what it’s based on. We know what the Christian – the serious Christian at any rate – thinks about morality and it has nothing to do with protecting humans from any kind of physical suffering or injury. Morality is about the sayings and doings of God. If God said raping baby girls was necessary then Wilson would say what?
The atheist should stop debating the religious on morality because they are talking about something else. The word means different things to each side. But while the religious keep playing the morality-card they are being dishonest if they are unclear about what they actually mean when they use the word.