Monday, April 11, 2011

Sam Harris on Mutually Exclusive Religious Claims

In his recent debate with William Lane Craig Sam Harris trotted out one of my favorite arguments against religious belief. Harris pointed out that people of all religions claim to have certain similar types of experiences--moments where they feel they are in some way in the presence of God, moments of awe, moments of exhilaration at their apprehension of the divine. He then argued that since all religions report such experiences, since in some sense all these reports are qualitatively similar, and since all these religions have mutually exclusive truth claims then the claims of religion can not possibly be true.

Well, certainly these religions can't all simultaneously be true, but few believers claims that they are. The vast majority of believers hold that their religion is true and that others are false. Believers can account for other religious 'experiences' easily enough. Either the reports of those experiences are misconstrued by those who experience them as a divine encounter, but they are mistaken (just as Harris would contend), or the Christian, for example, might say that these experiences could indeed be legitimate encounters with God's divine presence in the natural world, though not necessarily an affirmation of the beliefs of the person who has the experience. In either case the existence of those experiences across religions is not difficult for a person of faith to account for.

The mutually exclusive truth claims of religion only precludes all religions from being true simultaneously, but they do nothing to preclude one of them from being true. Moreover, atheism--while not a religion per se--can be included in the fray. If atheism is true then no religion is true. If Christianity is true then no other religion or perspective on God (including atheism) is true. This observation, quite obviously, gets you absolutely no where. With only this information to go by, all we have established is that any religion (or atheism) could be true. Gosh, I think we all owe Sam Harris a debt of gratitude for clarifying that!

The frightening thing is that this vacuous observation of Harris' is probably interpreted by many to be a forceful objection against religious belief in general. And while I have no stock in religious belief in general, I do have stock in Christianity, and if someone writes off religious belief in general then it will be difficult for them to ever get to Christianity specifically. So while this is a silly objection it's still worth refuting.

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