Atheism in the Modern Age

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Sam Harris, Paul Tillich, and Alfred Whitehead are three of the most influential minds to ever approach the debate on theism and atheism. Though they come at the question from different viewpoints, the three thinkers are both able to add something meaningful to the debate. In his work, Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris takes aim on the traditional notions of theism, and more specifically, the actual practices of Christianity, which he argues are unintelligible in the modern age. Paul Tillich argues that modern definitions of God proceed way too far, as they exceed the designations that rational people could possible assign to God. Whitehead engages in what has become popularly known as process theology. According to his understanding, one must understand God to be in some respects temporal and in some respects mutable. This challenged the traditional notions of theism that had been developed during his time, all of which claimed that God was an abundantly eternal being unaffected by anything in the present. These last two thinkers might be used to appropriately reply to Sam Harris, though they would not necessarily contradict his assertions.

In his work, Sam Harris takes aim directly at Christians, especially addressing those who adhere to Christian fundamentalism. His primary point is about the ways in which Christian dogma can produce a false understanding of morality. Christians, according to Harris, are often lulled into thinking that they are moral beings on the basis of following a strictly set code of ethics put forward in the Bible. According to Harris, though, this form of morality is divorced from the suffering that takes place in the world, and because Christians often adhere solely to the precepts of the Bible, they engage in activities that add to that suffering. He cites examples, including the Christian fight against condom use and stem cell research, to illustrate how a perverted brand of Christian morality can have a long-lasting impact on the suffering that takes place in humanity.

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Harris also argues that spiritual experiences, which he puts some value on, are divorced from religious belief. Though he does not purport to fully understand the origin of these experiences, he is quite certain that they are not in any way related to the brand of religiosity that is practiced in the United States.

Tillich may agree with Harris in some respects. For Tillich, God can only be defined as “being.” He not purport to put labels on God as Christians have done in the United States and abroad. This may even agree with the final point made by Harris. Harris and Tillich both acknowledge the existence of existential questions and leanings, but they both disagree with the concept that those things must be extrapolated to include the entire God story that has been created by Christian America.

Whitehead might respond to one of Harris’s claims in his book. In his work, Harris discusses the problem of evil. For Harris, the concept of an omnipotent and loving God is incompatible with reality. This is because he believes that no all-powerful and also loving God would allow things like Hurricane Katrina to take place. Whitehead believes that God, while persuasive, is not coercive. Whitehead’s feeling is that God is not necessarily an omnipotent being, and for that reason, Harris’s criticisms would not apply. According to the theory put forth by Harris, God could be one or the other, but he could not be both based upon the evil that happens all over the world. Whitehead would help Harris clear up this problem by claiming that God is not and was not intended to be omnipotent. It is unlikely that Harris would accept this proposition, though, as the concept of a God that is not transcendent would likely rankle Harris in this debate.

The different thinkers all add something important to the mix, but it is Harris whose points are most powerful and salient. Harris’s work is powerful because it is so targeted and directed. While Whitehead deals in the theoretical and Tillich applies his words just to the concept of God, Harris speaks directly to Christians about one specific brand of Christianity. His work takes the debate on theism one step further. While it is perfectly fine to debate the existence of a God, that is not exactly an important debate to have. That is because, in the real world, there are very few people who simply believe in “God.” Most believe in a specific form of God, and for that reason, the bulk of Harris’s job is to show the reasons why that set of beliefs is both incorrect and counterproductive. He must note that while belief in God is irrational, belief in a specific incarnation of God is doubly irrational. Whether one agrees with Harris or not, one must note that his points are well-targeted and often backed up by a significant amount of evidence and research.

With this book, Harris hit the Christian fundamentalist movement hard, offering much food for thought. His work poses important questions about what it means to live a moral life, and it must prompt in Christians reflection about whether the Bible is truly being interpreted in a way that allows for the most prosperity on earth. He challenges the notions of what people understand God to be, and even for people who are Christians, this can be a useful exercise, causing them to re-evaluate their understanding of the Bible.

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