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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Sam Harris' Wrongheaded View of Christian Faith

Photo courtesy Auren Hoffman.
If I ask Christians for a biblical definition of faith, many times I have Hebrews 11:1 quoted to me: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." But, is that the end of the story? Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, takes Hebrews 11:1 as an example of how Christians are not reasoning, how faith is diametrically opposed to reason. He writes, "Read in the right way, this passage seems to render faith entirely self-justifying: perhaps the very fact that one believes in something which has not yet come to pass ( 'things hoped for') or for which one has not evidence ('things not seen') constitutes evidence for its actuality ('assurance')."1

Obviously, Sam Harris is not a Greek scholar, nor is he a biblical scholar. He knows nothing about exegesis and he's just flat wrong on this, but he wants to prove his point. The assurance of things hoped for does mean the assurance of future things. Faith does deal with those things that we don't necessarily know, or that we don't have 100% confidence in. By the way reason deals with things we don't necessarily have 100% confidence in. You can reasonably believe something or you can claim you know something with less than 100% confidence.

As an example, think about a man dating a women he is considering marrying. He talks with his friends and says, "I think it's time to ask her to marry me." His friends may reply, "Well do you think she will say yes?" A reasonable response would be, "I have faith that she's going to say yes so I'm going to ask the question. If I had no faith that she would say yes, then I wouldn't ask at all."  Is such a faith a blind faith? Or is it based nio years of involvement and growing to know one another? I had faith that my wife and I would be compatible together as husband and wife. How can I know that? The only way to know how compatible we are is to become husband and wife. We cannot know that beforehand.

When we talk about "the assurance of things hoped for," it is not merely something which does has not come to pass. When we talk about "the conviction of things not seen," it is the writer using a Hebrew idiom where if they wanted to stress a point or add emphasis they would repeat it. That's what the writer of Hebrews is doing here. The lines "The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" is the same phrase said differently. It's a linguistic device.

Both Sam Harris and Christians need to realize that the Bible isn't meant to be taken so superficially. Hebrews 11:1 it is a good definition of one aspect of faith. It is not the sum total of what faith means, just as saying God is love is not the sum total of all that God is. God is also defined as a Spirit. God is also defined as a consuming fire. We are told many things that God is in the Bible and love is one aspect of God's character, but it's not the sum total of God's character. God has more depth to Him than merely love. Similarly, Hebrews 11:1 does not provide a complete definition of faith. One must take the passage for what the author intended, and not limit the whole concept of faith to that one verse. If you'd like to read a fuller definition of the biblical meaning of faith, see this post. But there is one thing you can actually know, and that is that Sam Harris' version of Hebrews 11:1 is nothing but a straw man.


1. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith.
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004). 65.


  1. That's the picture you chose? World net daily does the very same thing with their pictures of democrats.... Good strategy to cast a bad light on your opponent. Well played.

    And, "merely" love? Only "merely?" Like, "merely" the same love as found in love God and love your neighbor, the GREATEST of the commandments.

  2. I'm not sure if you have read any other work by Sam Harris, but by no means do I think he approaches the subject of religious faith lightly or in any way attempts to provide "straw man" examples when addressing his concerns. I could be wrong but it seems to me Sam Harris' message here is founded in fairly obvious breakdowns in the logical composition of a number of religions, including Christianity. For example, I think it could be agreed that Christians support at least a general human morality because they believe that god is righteous, but possibly the highest moral good in the eyes of a Christian, aside from a saving belief in Jesus, is obedience to god. This presents a major problem in the logical composition of Christianity. Why? If you as a Christian, and I as an atheist meet and we agree that a general human morality is a good standard for conduct between us, and let's say we agree murder is bad,then we begin to transact in a social relationship, as someone who does not believe in a higher power my governing dynamic in our relationship goes no higher than what we have agreed upon, but you as a Christian believe a higher form of moral good is to obey god. If God tells you to murder me in my sleep, and obedience to him in your eyes is the higher moral good, then I have every reason to be terrified of you from the outset of our dealing together. Now before saying that example is outlandish, consider the fact that god in the bible gave 10 commandments to an entire nation including thou shalt not kill, then a number of verses later ordered those same people to commit genocide, and they did, and Christianity has in many ways praised their example for thousands of years. I believe Sam Harris has made very similar points in a number of places in his books, and while there is always room to be shown the error in a way of thinking this seems like a very clear and reasonable conclusion.


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