Harris’ argument on Christian moral sentiment

There is an line of thought on Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris) that I find an interesting point about Christianity.

Harris makes a point about how the Christian Right in the US spend much effort campainging on what might be seen as marginally morally important campaigns particularly concerning sexual morality and promoting pro-life ideals. While someone on the Christian right may not see this as a marginal issue, it seems ephemeral an issue to the more important global issues of human rights abuse and poverty. Christianity (or bettter put, Christians) have the flaw of overemphasising these self-indulgent national issues over the global human catastrophes.

A lot can be said about Harris’ argument, one can direct it in many ways, and as such, pull it apart in many ways also. Responses include:

i. The critique of Christian-believer behaviour says nothing about the character of Jesus
ii. This only applies to a sector of the Christian contingent

There is, however, a very powerful thought in this line of argument. Something we often forget are things distantly in the past, to which some or many are still affected by. Often, the issues in the public’s consciousness only involve those issues which are directly or closestly reminded to them.

Stephen Fry made the point once that the plight of HIV/AIDS victims are slowly becoming forgotten by many. It is seen less as a problem compared to something like obesity. There are various reasons for it, one, is the newness of it fading as years passed.

HIV/AIDS is becoming slowly forgotten, and we often need reminding about global poverty. Indeed there are many campaign issues in the world, and I suppose, there are so many that we often must dedicate ourselves only to a few. Those few that we consider are often those that have immediate or distant impact upon us (breast cancer, for instance). Otherwise, they are then dismissed and forgotten.

That seems to be the most salient point about Harris’ appeal to the poor moral sentiment of Christianity in his Letter.


4 thoughts on “Harris’ argument on Christian moral sentiment

  1. Does it not seem to you that there is something strangely self-defeating in the “New Atheist” campaigning? Does it really make sense to level a criticism against US Christianity (which, as you say here, does not even address the entire “Christian nation” but only one part of it) that it is focussed on the wrong moral issues, while meanwhile the “New Atheists” expend considerable money and effort advertising *against God*, a topic they allege to have no interest in! This isn’t hypocrisy, so much as it is lunacy.

    If the “New Atheists” want to raise the profile of atheism, shouldn’t they be campaigning *for* the moral issues they want to be attending to, not campaigning *against* those belief systems they accuse of low moral character? It’s a head-scratcher at times!

    As for AIDS/HIV, the trouble here seems to be that the media was so successful at drawing attention to this in the 1980s and 90s that we the public have now effectively “burned out” on it. HIV is still a global catastrophe, but the brunt of that crisis lands on Africa, which still remains the forgotten continent to most people. Look at how it is possible for the US to invade oil-rich Iraq on the excuse of toppling a dictator, while resource-poor Zimbabwe remains easy to ignore. “Save the World” is the oft-bandied about slogan but it tends to mean “Save the First World”, alas.

    [Aside: Anyway, I don’t know why I comment in the Noumenal Realm these days since none of the voices here talk to me anymore. 😦 Did I speak that which is verboten in the comment that was quietly excised off-stage and am now persona non grata… Well, I still enjoy the thoughts that are voiced here, even if conversation has now become sadly impossible.]

    Best wishes to you all!

  2. First point, Chris:

    It’s easier to make a post than it is to reply to a comment [in other words, we have been quite busy in recent months]. I apologise that I don’t put up my comments that much. I always accept your ones, but they are on bulk. We always read them and they are often food for thought.

    Often some things don’t need replies (i.e. if they are right).

    Second point: RE “New Atheist” hypocrisy. This might be true for the majority of atheists, a response might be like the ones recently seen on British buses: God probably doesn’t exist (first point), enjoy your life (second point)

    It may be that we are left with no answers, or a problem that we are already placed with that is not either unique to a spiritual viewpoint or none. Sometimes it is better to be left with the conceptual and philosophical problems we already have than the ones that are specific to committing to some doctrine or belief (this is a standard Kant scholarship defending argument).

    In addition: I know of at least a few ‘atheistic’ things that can be said to be positive. What follows from atheism one might ask? Here are a few things:

    1. Being open about the possibility of organic life outside of the earth (astrobiology)
    2. Debunking practices with metaphysical or question-begging beliefs (seances, homeopathy, cold-reading etc) [cf. The amazing Randy]
    3. The Great Ape project and animal rights initiatives [Cf. Peter Singer]
    4. Beliefs or systematic doctrines that may come without reference to God (secular philosophy, or just philosophy for short)

    Granted, the average atheist may only think of 1-2 of these things.

  3. Sinistre: thanks for taking the time to reply! It isn’t that I want or expect a reply to every comment, so much as my paranoia was starting to make me feel intentionally ignored! 🙂

    Regarding the “atheist buses”, my wife (who is between religions right now) was really quite offended by this. Her point boils down to: shouldn’t it say “There’s probably no *hell*, so relax and enjoy your life”? I take her point in this regard: how many people are struggling with theistic issues that would be liberated into relaxing by the claim “there’s probably no God”? This strikes me as set to agitate some, while seeming irrelevant to others. If the point of the campaign is “atheist pride”, this message does little to achieve that goal and perhaps seems more about annoying theists than supporting atheism. >:)

    Your list of “atheistic positives” is interesting!

    > 1. Being open about the possibility of organic
    > life outside of the earth (astrobiology)

    I have not seen any sign that moderate theists are less likely to believe in aliens, personally. And “extreme” atheists/materialists also seem skeptical about extra-terrestrials. So perhaps it is extreme ideologies that are toxic to astrobiology, rather than theism! 🙂

    > 2. Debunking practices with metaphysical or
    > question-begging beliefs (seances, homeopathy,
    > cold-reading etc) [cf. The amazing Randy]

    But surely this is skepticism/materialism and not strictly atheism? It’s in the spirit of Hulme, who was not an atheist, just against Christianity.

    > 3. The Great Ape project and animal rights
    > initiatives [Cf. Peter Singer]

    Ah, Singer. He embodies for me what’s wrong with the animal rights movement – and I speak as a vegetarian, part-Buddhist and animal lover. By going too far in the direction that needs to be pushed in, he undermines his own cause by making it difficult for the masses to take seriously. But this perhaps is a discussion for another time.

    > 4. Beliefs or systematic doctrines that may come without
    > reference to God (secular philosophy, or just philosophy for > short)

    Hmmm… yes, I can see this point – but doesn’t it seem that the rise of the secular attitude (in and outside of religion) means that even theists can now compose philosophical tenets without reference to God?

    Interesting perspective – thanks for sharing!

    Best wishes!

    • Okay lets make a distinction:

      There is a difference between:

      1. Committing to a position on any given issue
      2. Tabling an issue to our awareness

      I think definately that the aforementioned causes do the latter, whether their comittment to the former clause is always an interesting object of debate.


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