In his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, prominent “new atheist” Sam Harris attempts to shore up what is undoubtedly one of the weakest aspects of atheism: the determination of moral values.
For the next three Today’s New Reasons to Believe posts I will be reviewing Harris’ book.
Although many atheists blame religion as the cause of human suffering1 and tend to minimize human selfishness, Harris genuinely sees it as humanity’s major flaw.2 He writes:
I know that helping people who are starving is far more important than most of what I do. I also have no doubt that doing what is most important would give me more pleasure and emotional satisfaction than I get from most of what I do by seeking pleasure and emotional satisfaction. But this knowledge does not change me. I still want to do what I do for pleasure more than I want to help the starving.3
This statement reminded me instantly of what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 7.4 The fact that Harris himself acknowledges that he cannot live up to his own moral values calls into question whether “science can determine human values” in any meaningful way.
Harris defines morality in terms of human well-being, with its intent being to advance our welfare. He also claims that human well-being is a function of the brain’s state.5 However, he doesn’t present evidence to support the idea that any particular states of the brain can be produced in any particular way. (Yet, evidence exists that suggests certain moral behaviors generally considered evil produce a functional state of the brain indicative of well-being in those morally reprehensible individuals.)
“Changes in wealth, health, age, marital status, etc.,” Harris writes, “tend not to matter as much as we think they will—and yet we make our most important decisions in life based upon these inaccurate assumptions…we are poorly placed to accurately recall the past, to perceive the present, or to anticipate the future with respect to our own happiness. It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled.”6
The Bible describes such a scenario: King Solomon was a man who had it all—hundreds of women, immense wealth, and political power. Yet, at the end of his life he wrote one of the most cynical works of all time, the book of Ecclesiastes. Though he possessed every physical pleasure a man could want he describes it all as vanity and futility.7
Christianity claims that material things cannot substitute for a relationship with God. Dozens of scientific studies have shown that those who practice some form of religion exhibit superior mental and physical health compared to those who don’t.8 Scientific data shows that adolescents who receive frequent religious instruction behave more appropriately and are better adjusted to adult life in society compared to their non-religious peers.9 In addition, those children are also happier.9 Sam Harris never bothered to cite such studies.
Part 2 of this review will continue on Wednesday with a look at Harris’ opinions on free will and moral truth.
Richard Deem Mr. Richard Deem received his MS in Medical Microbiology from California State University of Los Angeles in 1979 and currently serves as a research scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Mr. Richard Deem received his MS in Medical Microbiology from California State University of Los Angeles in 1979 and currently serves as a research scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
- Richard Dawkins, “What’s Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?” in The God Delusion, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Doug Franklin, “Why I’m an Atheist,” last modified September, 1996, https://nilknarf.net/stuff/199609essay.htm.
- “The truth about us is plain to see: most of us are powerfully absorbed by selfish desires almost every moment of our lives; our attention to our own pains and pleasures could scarcely be more acute; only the most piercing cries of anonymous suffering capture our interest, and then fleetingly. And yet, when we consciously reflect on what we should do, an angel of beneficence and impartiality seems to spread its wings within us: we genuinely want fair and just societies; we want others to have their hopes realized; we want to leave the world better than we found it.” Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 58–59.
- Harris, 83.
- “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” Romans 7:18–20, NASB.
- Harris, 177–91.
- Ibid., 183–84.
- “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and of pleasure, ‘What does it accomplish?’ I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had home born slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.” Ecclesiastes 2:1–8, NASB.
- Richard Deem, “Scientific Studies that Show a Positive Effect of Religion on Health,” last modified May 19, 2006, https://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/religionhealth.html.
- Richard Deem, “Is the Teaching of Religion Really a Form of Child Abuse?,” last modified June 14, 2010, https://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/religion_as_child_abuse.html