Responses to the ‘New Atheism’, Part 1: Ravi Zacharias & Sam Harris

A conservative Christian family member recently sent me Ravi Zacharias’s book The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (2008) and asked that I offer a reply.  The following is my reply.


1.  Introduction

1.1  The Author
Ravi Zacharias, born in India and now a Canadian/American, is a well known “international” Christian apologist. Zacharias preached in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, participated in Harvard’s first Veritas Forum, and has given presentations at Princeton. He spent a brief time as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting professor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. In all other respects, he appears to enjoy the general career of the apologist: books, website, ministry, conferences, and radio.

1.2  The Occasion
The End of Reason (2008) is Zacharias’s response to Sam Harris’s bestselling Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). As indicated by the subtitle (“a response to the new atheists”), Zacharias intends to also implicitly address Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.  These other authors are explicitly noted intermittently: Zacharias refers to “Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and a few others” (16), “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett” (30), “Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” (43), “Christopher Hitchens, a man too intelligent to write a book as base as The Missionary Position” (101), and “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others” (126).  Dennett is on my view the most interesting intellectual out of the four (Hitchens the most notable), yet Zacharias has nothing to say about him. Dennett remains lurking in the evangelical shadows of “and others”.


2.  The Opening Tale

2.1  Paragraph One
On my view, the most intriguing part of The End of Reason is the opening five paragraphs (13-15), the first two serving as the foundation. Here is the opening paragraph:

A university student arrives home and informs his parents that, after reading a popular atheist’s book, he has renounced his family’s faith.  His mother, particularly, is shattered by the news.  The father struggles to engage his son in dialogue, but to no avail. The deepening grief causes them to distance themselves from their son.  When the game of silence does not work, the mother is plunged further into depression and despair.  The grandparents become involved, watching in anguish as beliefs that have been held dear in the family for generations crumble.  Before long, this family that was once close and peaceable is now broken and hostile.  Abusive words between mother and son are exchanged with increasing frequency and intensity, and the siblings blame their brother’s new strident atheism for the rift in the family. After a long night of arguing with her son, pleading unsuccessfully with him to reconsider his position, the mother takes an overdose of prescription medication and ends her life, unable to accept what she interprets to be the destruction of her family.

This is certainly a sad tale.  But can even the discerning, charitable reader predict what the moral of this story will be?  This short narrative entertains some events that are unquestionably fanciful, such as the son’s declaration that he has “renounced his family’s faith” and the fact that it is the religious father who “struggles to engage” in “dialog”. It is improbable, if not incredible, that a University student would refuse to dialog about an influential book he has just read. With these narrative details put aside, however, the rest of the story appears to me sufficiently realistic given the level of ‘dysfunction’ in many families. It seems reasonable to suppose, for example, that parents as characterized generally by this story would naturally cling not to the seeking after what is empirically true, enlightening, and that which promotes the common good of society, but rather, to the “family’s faith”. Similarly, it is not implausible that grandparents are watching on as traditional beliefs held “for generations crumble”. This appears to be, in fact, a universal story of the conservative mind meeting a changing world.

All we know about the son from this short story is that he was sincerely convinced, after reading a book, that God does not exist, and further, that he is willing to confess this to his parents. The level of grief experienced by the parents is therefore not what we might consider a healthy response.  That it is the parents that distance themselves reveal a particularly unhealthy, albeit common, set of social habits. I appreciate Zacharias’s willingness to include the real possibility of unjust and irrational shunning that often takes place in social situations like this. Zacharias calls this shunning “a game of silence”, implying some level of intentional manipulation. This increases the injustice of the parent’s initial response exponentially. Given this shunning, game of silence, and despair on the part of the son’s parents, the larger family unit becomes “broken and hostile”.  The mother is willing to engage in “abusive words” with her son, which the son now, apparently, begins to offer back. The parents are willing to allow their son’s other siblings to blame his new sincerely adopted and studied beliefs to be the sole cause of the family’s suffering. The university student is therefore unjustly accused by his immediate peers under the oversight of his very own parents.  Even after all this, the parents take it upon themselves to berate  their son long into the night, “pleading” with him.  The mother is apparently unwilling to reconsider her manipulative game of shunning her own son and unwilling to stand up for her son against the unjust accusations from her other children. Rather, so determined that her son’s new beliefs have been the sole cause of the “destruction of her family”, she commits suicide.

2.2  Paragraph Two
So what, then, is the moral of this story?  Why did Zacharias open the book with precisely this moving narrative?  Did the father or mother do anything wrong?  Is there anything they might have done different?  Did their other children respond in ways that were unjust?  Should the parents have rather corrected this problem between their children? Is the shunning, the game of silence, and the accusations against the ‘black sheep’ of the family the target of the forthcoming lesson? As it turns out, none of these issues are to the point of the story.  Rather, the point is that the book that this university student read that helped lead to his new beliefs should not have ever been written.  The person who wrote the book is immoral and deluded. An implied corollary, perhaps, is that the university student is also immoral for not continuing to submit to the tradition of his “ancestors.” He should have at the very least kept his new beliefs to himself for the sake of the family and his mother’s very life.  This might be hard to believe. But consider the very next paragraph:

Although this particular scenario is imaginary, I suspect that in some measure similar scenes have played out more than a few times since the publication of Sam Harris’s bestselling Letter to a Christian Nation. It is quite possible that many a young man or woman, stirred by the passion and intent of Harris’s book, has repudiated the values intrinsically bound up in the belief in God held dear by parents and ancestors long before them (14) [emphasis mine].

It is curious that the narrative was unable to reveal any moral change in the son after his beliefs were changed, since Zacharias implies here that the real issue involved is the repudiation of “values” that are “intrinsically bound up in the belief in God.” Likely, this university student would have disputed just this point while undergoing the interrogation, shunning, and accusations from his immediate family. It appears, therefore, a bit ironic that the primary theme to follow the moral to this story is that it is Harris who has lost all powers of moral reasoning.

2.3   Confession of Outrage & Alarm
Zacharias is forthright about the emotional nature of his reaction that preceding the writing of his book.  He explains that reading through Harris’s book was like “being dragged through a vortex of emotion – from incredulity to outrage to a deep sadness.”  Zacharias “wondered if there was anything too sacred for him to mock.”  (22).  Even after “all the restraint” he “can muster”, Zacharias admits that this response to Harris is the “most strongly worded book” he has ever written, which is  because he “is alarmed at the cultural devastation wreaked by this kind of thinking.” (24).  The conservatism of Zacharias is therefore well confirmed within the first 12 pages. This university student has rejected the traditions of the “ancestors long before him”, which causes Zacharias alarm at the “cultural devastation” to follow.

 3. Dehumanizing Harris

3.1  Strobel’s Foreword
Backing up, Lee Strobel keeps with the overall tone of the book in the short Foreword he provides.  Strobel notes in the second sentence his eyewitness account of Harris’s “swagger, full of the same supreme confidence with which he ridiculed Christianity and other faiths.” Harris’s “attacks” are “overheated”, bringing applause only from “his inbred world of atheism.” (7). His “diatribe” found a “ready audience” that lacked the “training to see through its flimsy facade.” Thankfully, Zacharias has come to “slay this dragon”, by dismantling the “feeble case for skepticism”, unveiling “the embarrassing impotency of Harris’s arguments,” and revealing the “bankruptcy” and “false allure” of atheism. (8)  Zacharias was suicidal before finding Jesus and so he knows the “narcissism, hedonism, and despondency” Harris’s alternative path leads to (9). This is therefore a book to give to a Christian who has been rattled by “Harris and his spiritually cynical cronies” (11).

3.2   Harris is Evil
Zacharias, likewise, wastes no time before getting right to the rhetorical business at hand. “Relativists” like Harris are “among the most bigoted.” Their view leads to “emptiness” that is “stark and devastating.” Zacharias notes the “momentary euphoria” that may come along with buying Harris’s view.  One might wonder why a final willingness to question their religious faith might bring “euphoria,” but Zacharias only explains what inevitably follows: a “vise-like grip of despair” and “the sense of suffocation” (17).  Harris’s “dangerous self-confidence”  has succeeded “more because of its controversial nature than because of any real substance.” (18) 

Throughout the book, Zacharias finds new ways to describe Harris’s irrational and uneducated hatred of religion.  His “mass of verbiage” is filled with “outdated, overused arguments” (21).  Harris “rails” and is “caustic”.  He offers only “disrespect, distortion, and illogicality” (22).  His is a “‘take no prisoners’ style – both fists flailing”.  He uses “ignoble and slanderous rhetoric”, “ridicule”, “unbridled mockery,” and “extremist thinking” causing other atheists “embarrassment”. (23).  His “prejudice is so venomous and obvious”.  Regarding Hindu religion, Zacharias admits to have “marveled at the masses’ apparent commitment to gullibility,” but “never once” considered using the “vitriol” of Harris (24). These wayward religious people rather merited “common courtesy and respect” (25)  Harris, on the other hand, is “defacing the better part of humanity” through “hostility”. Harris’s motive does not even matter, “since in a world without absolutes any motive will do” (30).  Harris’s view is that we are alone in this world, with “no effect or impact on anyone else”, since it is “all about me” (40).  Zacharias then notes the life of Oscar Wilde, the “quintessential hedonist”.  On Harris’s view “it’s all bad news: we are all there is, alone in this world” (41). Unlike Voltaire, Sartre, and Nietzsche, Harris is not “honest”, but rather “blind to the conceit” of his own mind (43).  The self-destructed Michel Foucault is prototypical of the life of genuine atheism (44 – 45).  Atheism leads to the “death of meaning” and the “death of moral reasoning” (46).  Harris’s appeals to the classical Problem of Evil argument against the existence of God is merely “moralizing” by appeal to the emotions (48-49). Harris “plays word games!” (52) in his “emotion-laden critique” (53).  Harris “looks the other way as millions of unborn children are aborted” (59) and “touts” science “as the savior of the world” (62).

There is no climax in this rhetorical pattern and the claims only grow in severity.  Zacharias goes on to claim that Harris’s worldview does not offer “mercy” for the “weak”. Rather, “a pig is of more value than a child with a disability!”  “From abortion to child pornography, atheistic philosophy is having its way with our children” (72).  People in Amsterdam, who “live according to atheistic philosophy” make sexual slaves out of 18 month old baby girls (73).  Harris is also prejudice, making “slanderous claims” about Muslims (76).  “Shame on him” for the “pathetic misrepresentations he employs in his hostility to a people and their beliefs!” If Harris made these “disrespectful” comments in a Muslim country he would likely not “leave unscathed” (77).  His “prejudice is recognizable a mile away”. “Muslim radicals [terrorists] are employing the same rancor Harris does” (78). Unlike the pseudo-intellectualism of atheists, Jesus spoke “kindly” to the woman at the well and “did not rail on her as if she were a renegade”. Harris has “no real understanding of love” (79).                                               

Wrapping things up, Zacharias moves on the to “appalling statements” Harris makes about Jesus (82) and the “convoluted reasoning” regarding Christians’ traditional attitude towards sex (83).  Zacharias does not know what to do with “such illogicality” (84); Harris is “grasping at straws when he stoops to such poor argumentation” (85). Harris assumes we can change people’s hearts by “mocking them and castigating them” and “bullying them” (100-101)  Harris’s “mocking” and “derision” of Mother Teresa is “reprehensible” and borrowed from the “crassness of” Christopher Hitchens’ “mind” (101).  Zacharias wonders “whether it is just goodness” that makes Harris “feel uncomfortable” (102). Because of the “hatred” behind Harris’s arguments, Zacharias wonders if we are seeing “a new brand of intellectual supremacists”.  Harris is on board with Dawkins who “gives a father the privilege of eating his own offspring’s clone”, since science “can tell you it’s up to you” (105).   Harris is likewise “indifferent to the fact that millions of babies are aborted every year right now” (107)  Harris would also “implicitly demean” a “deformed” child (108).  “It seems to me that Harris’s outrage has very little to do with the value of human life but everything to do with protecting his power and his value system” (108).


 4. Backing up

4.1  Did Zacharias Really ‘Read’ the Book?
Skimming through The End of Reason two times has given me a good grasp on Zacharias’s attitude toward Harris. Harris has certainly hit some sort of nerve and Zacharias is willing to tell us all about it.  Harris is irrational, slanderous, rhetorically manipulative, bigoted, hateful, arrogant, immoral, unjust, callous, and power hungry.  Harris is so caught up in the ideology of “defacing humanity” that his own intent no longer even matters. However, I came away genuinely wondering if Zacharias had read Harris’s book.  Now, it is clear that some sort of glance at the pages was conducted, at least to provide a sufficient cause for the strong emotions Zacharias confesses to have and for the conclusion over what kind of person (or non-person) Harris is.  But I was not sure that Zacharias really endeavored to read the book, as in a ‘well, I’m bothered by this guy, but let’s see if I can offer a somewhat objective analysis and critique’.  You see, I read Harris’s book a few years ago.  At the time, my identity was, in part, conservative, fundamentalist, American Christian. In many respects, I was reading from the same vantage point as Zacharias.  However, my conclusions were almost antithetical to Zacharias’s.  I was impressed by the restrained and carefully used language (given the clearly articulated intention and target audience), as well as the argumentative rigor contained within highly accessible prose. I was also glad to come to a much better understanding of how it is that committed anti-theists view Christian morality and the Religious Right in America. I was particularly struck by the clear morality and compassion Harris seemed to express, and I was impressed by his argument that concerns over human suffering defined genuine morality. Further, I found some of the scientific facts to be intensely interesting, such as the number of viral species in the world. I was also without doubt that Harris made some valid prima facie arguments regarding the contemporary Christian moral stance on embryonic stem-cell research, HIV, and cloning.  My criticisms were largely peripheral to Harris’ primary argument, which I posted at Richard Dawkins’ web site.

4.2  A Reinvestigation of Harris
Recalling all this, I read through Harris’s book one more time after putting down Zacharias’s response, since it seemed as though I was reading about an entirely different author and entirely different book from what I recollected.  However, after reading through Harris’s book again, my first impressions were only strengthened.  Harris is specific in what he intends to accomplish in writing this short book (Harris, viii-ix).  At times, his opinions are strong, and highly critical of religious faith and practice, but he primarily addresses confirmed religious positions, statistics, and undisputed facts. He does not resort to attacking the personalities and hypocrisy of Christian leaders and most of his arguments are subtle, clearly intending to drive the discussion with the light of argumentative discourse and evidence. Because of this, Zacharias’s response is deeply ironic taken as a whole.  As I will illustrate in what follows, Zacharias either misses the basic thrust of each important argument or remains entirely silent. The quotations above characterize the essential nature of Zacharias’s response. Zacharias repeatedly accuses Harris of using irrational, heated rhetoric, while far outdoing Harris on every page.  Zacharias repeatedly accuses Harris of bigotry and an Unconstitutional desire to eradicate the freedom of Christians. But this claim is not substantiated from Harris’s book at all, but merely asserted.  Zacharias thereby flagrantly reveals his own fear and hatred of atheists such as Harris, and as the moral to the opening story evinces, it is only evil, humanity-consuming atheists that must be silenced, lest more innocent mothers parish and civilization as we know it crumbles.  This irony is consistent enough to warrant the label of ‘deep-seated hypocrisy’. Yet, I will assume that Zacharias is unaware of the special category of Other that he has created for his atheistic rivals.  Zacharias, for instance, notes his ongoing respect for the Muslim religion and claims he would never treat them as does Harris.  And yet throughout the book, Zacharias treats Harris in a way clearly more bigoted than Harris’s approach to religion – even on the most extreme interpretation of Harris’s discussions on Muslims.

4.3  The Opponents of the Apostles
I wish to modestly suggest that this just is Zacharias’s religion coming to bare on this ‘discussion’.  It was, after all, the founding apostles of Christianity that made clear that demonizing political opponents and ‘others’ was not only appropriate, but a duty (e.g. Paul, Peter, and Jude).  When competition came in the form of classical training, Paul was ready to come “with a rod” to prove who the real father was among his babies birds in Corinth (1 Cor. 1-6). Further, any non-Christian was by theological definition an object of wrath (Eph. 2).  If anyone did not obey God, he did not know love and did not love (1 Jn.).  If one did not head Jesus’ commands, he was a son of the devil (gospels).  God is not the best role model for a father on today’s moral assumptions. In order to pour grotesque favor on one son he must literally hate the other: ‘Jacob I loved and Esau I hated’ is renewed in the New Covenant to reveal the distinction between those who God foreordained to love or to hate before the beginning of the world (Rom. 9; Gal.). Likewise, anyone openly refusing the basic assumptions of the Christian apologist is by definition deluded, a moral fool, blind, without genuine knowledge or love, an enemy, to be feared and shunned, and ultimately hated and tortured by God for eternity in hell.

This apostolic tradition carried on even into reformational culture. For example, Arthur Herman, in How the Scot’s Invented the Modern World (2001), recounts the Scotland Kirk’s 1696 execution of a repentant eighteen year old young man for a first-time offense of atheistic blasphemy – via eyewitness accounts from friends (2-6). As to the general religious tone of the Kirk’s covenanted community, which was, as far as religious communities go at this time, notably democratic, Herman writes:

. . . Covenanters were inspired less by their love of democracy  than by their hatred of Satan.  As with the rules of the Kirk, choice never entered into the matter.  Those who failed to sign were often thrown into the public pillory or forced to leave town.  The men and women who drove the Covenant forward were religious zealots, prepared to destroy anyone – king, bishop, or halfhearted neighbor – who stood in their way.  The things we associate with democratic society today – the free exchange of ideas, freedom to express one’s own thoughts and opinions, a belief in tolerance and rational restraint – meant nothing to them (21)

Zacharias has approached Harris in a way that is faithful to his barbaric tradition and “his ancestors long before him”.  Perhaps, though, he does so largely unconsciously. Later on, Zacharias wishes to convince his readership that “Only in Christianity is the privilege given both to believe and to disbelieve without any enforcement” (63).  The only reason Dawkins has the privilege to teach is “because of the Judeo-Christian ethic of tolerance” (65).


5. Some Specific Arguments

5.1  Science & Matter
Zacharias’s central argument is similar to Wilson’s 20 year old fizzing soda argument. According to Zacharias, Harris has no leg to stand on since his “material determinism” removes any moral or intentional meaning from the world (88-90).  Further, there must be “some standard” and therefore a “moral lawgiver” if we are to make a meaningful moral claim (55). Lastly, “worth” is only possible if an object possesses “intrinsic” value. (55-58).  Zacharias claims that “scientific knowledge” is the “only” form of knowledge for Harris, a “belief that eradicates the soul”.  Harris “wants to reduce all of life to the logic of math” and “wants the scientist and the mathematician to become sovereign over all of life” (105). However, Zacharias makes these assertions with little or no argument while leaving untouched Harris’s own explanation of genuine morality and its dependency on actual human happiness and suffering.  As for Harris’s alleged scientific materialism, Harris rather concludes by appealing to the importance of our “emotional needs”. Harris writes:  ”We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity. . . without lying to ourselves” (Harris, 88). As for the powerful conversion and ongoing religious experience of Christian Americans, Harris says that he does not “wish to denigrate any of these . . . there is no question  that it is possible for people to have profoundly transformative experiences” (Harris, 89).  And Harris accepts the Christian’s concern about overly reductive materialism: “You are, of course, right to believe that there is more to life than simply understanding the structure and contents of the universe.”  Harris goes on:

It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world;  it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis (Harris, 90).

Harris even goes so far as to say that religion has served an important purpose. It is just that in our attempt to live in a modern, cosmopolitan society, this purpose is no longer of service.

5.2  Real Morality
As for the nature of morality, Zacharias just asserts that according to atheism “love” is a “foreign concept” (Zacharias, 25), and as already noted above, atheism leads to “the death of moral reasoning” (46).  Zacharias also asserts that without an “objective” framework, Harris cannot “convince us” that Hitler was “wrong”. As also noted above, what is necessary is a transcendent “law giver” and objects with “intrinsic” value. Harris simply lives in an “amoral” world and “cannot explain good” (67-68).  However, Zacharias does not argue for these assertions, but rather appeals to “what we intuitively know to be true.”  Zacharias asks us how from “nothing” we could explain a mother’s self-sacrificial love for her child.  “Where does this love come from?” (71).  Yet, this is a bizarre place to hang one’s moral hat, given that this form of ‘morality’ is precisely what we so profoundly share with non-human mammals. “Where this comes from” can be explained in detailed terms by the naturalist.

More troubling, Harris had already addressed these concerns and assertions directly:

You believe that unless the Bible is accepted as the word of God, there can be no universal standard of morality. But we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a lawgiving God (Harris, 24).

Harris references psychological norms that govern well-being, and he notes that love is more conducive to happiness than hate (Harris, 24).  Feeling love for others is a source of happiness and requires deep concern for others. The pursuit of happiness therefore provides a ‘reason’ for self-sacrifice and denial. More important is Harris’s claim that religion, rather than providing a genuine basis for morality, rather divorces morality from suffering. Indeed, Zacharias’s claims about abortion, HIV, evil, cloning, slavery, and embryonic stem-cell research bypasses the issue of human suffering altogether while appealing instead to literal moral ‘law’ and intrinsic value. At times, Zacharias’s failure to include human suffering in his moral theory begins to look like the psychopathology revealed by Wilson in his debate with Christopher Hitchens. Zacharias therefore only offers further support for Harris’s arguments.

5.3  Abortion
Zacharias does point to Harris’s concern over suffering at one point, wanting to know if Harris petitioned his “elected officials when they were considering partial birth abortions” (Zacharias, 107).  Yet, Zacharias’s own concern about the ‘evil’ of abortion has nothing to do with any ‘suffering’ that might arise during a ‘partial birth’ abortion. Rather, Zacharias addresses both abortion and embryonic stem-cell research with the singular appeal to the ‘intrinsic worth’ of a 150 cell blastocyst.  According to Zacharias, the intrinsic value of a blastocyst is found in its “potential” to produce human life (109), which of course has nothing to do with happiness or suffering. Through this appeal, however, Zacharias therefore continues to entirely side-step Harris’ actual arguments.  Harris had already addressed the argument from potentiality directly: “Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to became a fully developed human being” (Harris, 30). Harris notes that given recent advances in genetic engineering almost all our cells are potential human life. Further, 50 percent of human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage: “if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all” (Harris, 38).  Apparently, Zacharias did not understand the argument. He responds by claiming that there in fact is a difference between cells you scratched off your nose and a blastocyst.  It is the difference between “an organism” and a “collection of cells”, between “the alphabet” and “a work of poetry by Tennyson” (Zacharias, 109). And the reason for this difference is the potential of the blastocyst to become a human being. Despite Zacharias’s failure to engage or understand Harris’s arguments on these points, he boldly concludes with Harris’s own clear immorality as an atheist when it comes to the protection of the weak and the concern for another human being. Recall the particular claim cited above about how Harris allegedly cares more for a pig than a child with a disability. But there is not a trace of evidence in A Letter to a Christian Nation for these accusations. Rather, Harris sympathetically admits that “abortion is an ugly reality” (Harris, 36).

5.4  Violence in the Bible
Harris notes how Christians appear more concerned about abortion than genocide (Harris, 25) or more about premarital sex than the millions suffering from HIV, or more about the protection of embryos than the ways scientific research can mitigate enormous amounts of human suffering.  I submit that Harris’s conclusion is self-evident even without these supporting examples: “religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion” (32).  The religious appeal to authority and presuppositions about intrinsic metaphysics entails just this. But even this principle need not be grasped, since the Bible is already clear in the specifics: what is perceived as God’s command is consistent with the greatest amount of evil, tyranny, and human suffering imaginable. Harris notes, for example, the horror of God’s moral ‘wisdom’ when people are explicitly commanded to not pity and to kill the “wife of your bosom” or “your friend who is as your own soul” if they so much as seek to incite you to go worship another god (9).  In fact, an entire city – women, children, and “cattle” (women are commonly placed within the category of property) – shall be butchered if they are alleged to have worshipped another god (Deut. 13:6-15).  The God of the Pentateuch appears to be fashioned a bit after the ‘pious’ man of Israel who stones his new wife to death upon seeing evidence that she was not a virgin.  

5.5   Slavery
Harris cited passages from the Bible that clearly promote the practice of slavery. Zacharias responds with the claim that Harris is an intellectual bigot (i.e. well you are one too), and goes on to merely assert that “There is a reason that slavery is not directly addressed in the Bible” (Zacharias, 97).  But, of course, slavery is directly addressed in the Bible – Old Testament and New.  As Harris cited, God’s holy people were given express permission to buy and possess humans a slaves and given implicit permission to treat them harshly:

You may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you.  You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property.  You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever, but over your brethren . . . you shall not rule . . . with harshness (Lev. 25:44-46).

Yet, continuing the pretense that the Bible does not directly address slavery, Zacharias claims that the “reason Jesus was silent on the issue of slavery is very simple” (99).  Jesus wanted to change attitudes.  He was not in the business of legislation.  Zacharias cites Yancy on this point: Jesus “had his own way of conquering” (100).  But Zacharias fails to mention that this “way of conquering” took almost two thousand years of human history after Jesus and required the intervention of progressives within a culture highly influenced by Enlightenment ideals. Before then, Christians were happily citing the Bible in support of their practice of slavery. The good southern Presbyterian R.L. Dabney, for example, noted with authority that St. Paul’s condemnation of “men of corrupt minds” (1 Tim.) could only have been written with foresight, addressing the abomination of the abolition to come eighteen centuries later. In A Defense of Virginia (1867, 1991) Dabney writes:

The God who told Paul what to write, foresaw that though the primitive church stood in comparatively slight need of such admonitions, the century would come, after the lapse of eighteen ages, when the church would be invaded and defiled by the deadly spirit of modern abolitionism, a spirit perverse, blind, divisive and disorganizing, which would become the giant scourge and opprobrium of Christianity . . . God here declares that the principles of the lawfulness of slavery, the rights of masters, and the duty of obedience in slaves, are wholesome, and according to godliness . . . The Abolitionist who assails these teachings is described as a man proud, yet ignorant. . . Their dogmas are not supported by the testimony of Scripture, nor the lights of practical experience, nor sound political philosophy; but by vain and Utopian theories of human rights, and philosophy falsely so called. The fruit of their discussions has been naught but ‘envy, strife, railings, and evil surmisings’ (187-88).

Alternatively, Harris cited the Jain patriarch Mahavira (6th century BCE): “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.”


 6.  The List Goes On 

I could go on at length about the other misquotes, false allegations, and failures to address Harris’s actual arguments. But given the ground already covered, I think Zacharias has already received more inquiry and citation than is required. So from here I offer a number of further examples in summary fashion only:

1. Harris’s point about morality within secular Europe is fully distorted by Zacharias (72-73).

2. Harris’s comments about Muslims is taken out of context in order to support an assault against Harris’s character.

3. Zacharias claims without citation that Harris is un-American and Unconstitional for his desire to exterminate the beliefs of religious people (16, 18, 63, 65) while blind to his own despising of atheists such as Harris who publish their beliefs.

4. Zacharias implies that Harris is racist, but gives no grounds for this serious allegation (52, 97, 100, 102).

5. Zacharias gives a seminary student “full marks for being an honest charlatan” after this student admitted the only reason he was pursuing the ministry was because there “are big bucks in the God racket”; Zacharias then goes on denigrate the dishonest atheists, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris, for selling a large volume of books related to atheism (30), failing to note that Hitchens and Dennett were already fully established as bestselling authors on other topics.

6. Desiring the respectability of the academy, Zacharias claims Christianity to be academically superior to Islam, yet elsewhere he denigrates the academy, alleging the academy’s important “trade secret” of confusing people “by a selective use of the facts” (38).

7. Zacharias dismisses Harris’s claim that atheism is not a ‘worldview’, claiming that one is either an atheist or a theist just as one is either an astrologer or a pizza maker (49).

8. Zacharias claims that he knows God exists as firmly as he knows that he himself exists but later admits that God has left enough evidence “out” as to require faith in addition to reason (75).

9. Zacharias claims that Harris’s qualified criticism of Mother Teresa was in fact unqualified, irrational hatred toward her. Zacharias makes this claim only after identifying Harris’s argument with a book it seems evident Zacharias has not read: Christopher Hitchens’ The Missionary Position (101). Harris even distinguished his attitude from Hitchens: “While I am in substantial agreement with Hitchens on this point, there is no denying that Mother Teresa was a great force for compassion”.

10. After dismissing Harris’s alleged “outdated, overused arguments” (21), Zacharias concludes by simplistically summarizing traditional arguments for the existence of God that were debunked hundreds of years ago.  Harris, on the other hand, has in reality provided a fresh response to contemporary American Christianity as related to current ethical and political issues.

11. After denouncing Harris’s materialistic view of science, without proper citation, Zacharias claims that science is rather “a fusion of Greek and Hebrew insights” (125).

12. Zacharias claims that the religious ritual of eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus is “a wonderful fusion of the concerns of science” (125).

13. Zacharias quotes Polkinghorne who claims that denying any of the following is to “diminish” one’s perception of himself and others:  1) man as an aggregation of atoms, 2) man as an open biochemical system within an environment, 3) man as a “specimen” of homo sapiens, 4) man as an object of beauty, 5) man as someone whose needs deserve my respect and compassion, and 6) man as a brother “for whom Christ died” (124).  But as Harris had pointed out at length, it would be nice if Christians were able to simply allow respect and compassion to operate as a foundational moral compass at all. Why it matters that we are a collection of atoms or one of the lucky elect “died for” by God remains a mystery to those of us who know empathy, beauty, and an awe for nature outside the bounds of authoritarian religion.


 7.  Conclusion 

So much for Lee Stroble’s strident expectation that the “accomplished philosopher” Zacharias has come to slay the evil dragon (8).  In light of Zacharias’s response to A Letter to a Christian Nation, I conclude with Harris:

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty.  Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord to religious faith (87)

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