Sam Harris, new atheist author of The End of Faith, and more recently, The Moral Landscape wrote a column for Wired Magazine in November that I finally got around to reading this weekend. He, like Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins have argued for years against the existence of God. What is new about their contribution to the conversation is that they are saying, religion isn’t just untrue; it is dangerous and should not be tolerated by society. Harris wrote in Wired that science is preferable because it is more moral than religion. “Science is the most durable and non-divisive way of thinking about the human condition. It transcends cultural, national and political boundaries. You don’t have American Science versus Canadian science…” Later he charges that,
The problem with religion is that it tends to give people bad reasons to be good. Is it better to alleviate famine in Africa because you think Jesus Christ is watching and deciding whether to reward you with an eternity of happiness after death? Or is it better to do that because you actually care about the suffering of your fellow human beings?
Oldest dogmatics trick in the book! Some call this the ‘false dichotomy’ where you present two possibilities and ask the reader to pick one when in fact the situation is far more complex than that. I have read Sam Harris in the past and I find him convincing: I don’t believe in the God that he doesn’t believe in either!
Most atheists that I have had the opportunity to talk with have been reasonable and respectful of my beliefs (I hope they would say the same of me) but I have found that people (believers and otherwise) often have too small a mental concept of God. Many skeptics try God and find him wanting because they aren’t trying God in the first place, but some poor approximation of God. If we are going to discuss how we can know whether there is a God or not we must be sure we are actually talking about God in the first place. Proving a old man in a white bathrobe is not standing on top of the clouds proves nothing! Healthy dialogue on the existence of God will grant the following observations:
- We know God through His self revelation, and not through our investigation. If there is a creator of the Universe, He is only known at His discretion. We are in no position to ‘catch God in the act of creating.’ If God wanted to be unknowable, then we wouldn’t know Him. Otherwise, if there is a God and if He can be known, then He would have to be known in His creation. The Creator discloses himself in the world which he made. Christians point to statements in the Bible like Psalm 19: 1-6 “The heaven’s declare the glory of God…” or like Paul’s statements in Romans 1: 20 where Paul says that creation mediates our knowledge of God. Other thinkers including most evangelicals suggest that the focal point of revelation is the Bible itself.
- When seeking to know God, He remains the subject not the object of human scrutiny. God is never the object of investigation, the insect pinned to the observation table. God is eternally studied and yet never fully comprehended. The task of knowing God then is not possessing propositional knowledge about Him, but through encountering Him. We know God by being known by Him. True knowledge of God comes from an encounter with Him.
This is why an agnostic can argue convincingly that an infinite God cannot be fully known but His creation. We do not actively come to know God but instead God grasps and knows us. Paul seemed to be hinting at this when he wrote in Galatian churches, “But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces” (Gal 4: 9)
J.I. Packer spoke well when he said,
What matters supremely therefore is not in the last analysis the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it-the fact that He knows me!