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Rejoinder: The myth of secular moral chaos (Sam Harris)

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

We recently published a short study into the foundations of agnostic/atheistic morality. As part of the research that accompanied that particular article, Sam Harris' possible solution to an objective secular morality was considered and found lacking. We did, however, find a particular blog post on Harris' blog published all the way back in 2006 where he is less concerned with providing a positive case for a secular objective morality, but rather rallies against the idea that the Bible (or to be more precise, the moral commands found in the Bible) is good, to begin with. He argues that the Bible is, in fact, an immoral book and that the lessons contained in its pages rally against our moral intuitions, proving that our morality does not come from the Bible (and by extension from the Christian worldview), but from a common non-religious source.

This article was enough to pique our interest and write this rejoinder.

Harris provides three reasons for his view that the link between faith and morality is spurious:

[1] If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with civil society.
[2] If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers.
[3] If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Sam Harris, The myth of secular moral chaos

We'll be looking at each of the points in turn, and responding accordingly. Harris does flesh out his reasoning behind each of the above statements and we'll be dealing with that as well.

[1] It is possible to criticize the Bible in moral terms

Harris's argument in the first point can be summarised as follows:

  • [P1] If the Bible is the only reliable blueprint for moral decency, then it would be impossible to criticize the Bible in moral terms.

  • [P2] It is possible to criticize the Bible in moral terms that are themselves not dependent on the Bible.

  • [C] The Bible is not the only reliable blueprint for moral decency.

I believe this argument to be structurally sound. [C] will necessarily follow if [P1] and [P2] are true.

We can readily accept [P1], as that is the very definition of something being a "standard" or "blueprint". We also indicated in our previous article, that the words contained in Scripture come with absolute authority (that is, they cannot be judged by a greater standard). The Christian idea of the Bible (God's Word), is therefore not only that it is the only reliable blueprint for moral decency (the objectively good life), but that there can be no other standard. Once we allow for even the possibility of another standard that might co-exist alongside God (and by extension His Word), God effectively becomes a god that is dependent rather than absolute, and we're no longer talking about the Christian system. This is an implication of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. "Before" the logical moment of creation, there was God and nothing else. Everything that is not God, is created and dependent on God. If we were to judge God's precepts by some other standard than God's Word, the judgement itself would be predicated on the assumption that the Christian God does in fact not exist.

This necessary background on our acceptance of [P1] will colour our rejection of [P2], which would negate the conclusion [C].

It is not even a remote possibility "to criticize the Bible in moral terms that are themselves not dependent o the Bible" for a Christian. To allow for the possibility of criticizing the Bible, the person would first need to cease being a Christian (at least implicity) to do so, which will be begging the question (fallacious circular reasoning) against the Christian worldview. Hence, if you were to criticize the Bible (or even attempt to do so) in moral terms that are themselves not dependent o the Bible, you're already assuming the conclusion [C] of the argument - that the Bible (God's Word) is not the absolute authority in this life. The consistent Christian ought to preclude the very possibility of there being a moral standard independent of God.

To make the implicit more explicit: the (non-Christian) worldview implicit in Harris's second premise [P2] can be visualised as follows in contrast with the Christian worldview.

In Harris's view (implicitly), we are operating in what is called a "one circle" reality. This reality is fundamentally uncreated. God's moral commands might be the best guide for moral decency (the good life), or they might not. There might be something else (another system of moral commands) somewhere out there, independent of God (perhaps dependent on ourselves) that we can judge to be better than God's commands. But this view of reality is non-Christian at its core. The Christian system is a "two-circle" reality. In this system, there is a real distinction between the absolute and immutable Creator God, and the dependent and mutable creation. Everything in creation is dependent on God. For this reason, there can be no other system of moral decency that might compete with God's system (that is based on His own nature which is good). Thus, the mere consideration of [P2], whether there is another moral system that is better than God's system, is already negating a fundamental Christian truth. [P2] must therefore be outright rejected by the Christian.

The non-Christian would of course dispute this, and they should, because they are not Christian. What this shows us is that the conflict between the Christian and the non-Christian cannot be resolved with an argument like the one Harris provided because of the more fundamental conflict that exists between the two camps' perception of ultimate reality: Christians believe themselves (and everything that is not God) to be created which precludes secondary moral standards. Non-Christians believe that the ultimate reality is uncreated which allows for any number of moral standards. This conflict must first be resolved. This means that your answer to [P2] will be determined by your existing pre-commitment to Christianity, or non-Christianity. [P2] cannot resolve the conflict between the worldviews.

With this being said, let's see how Harris argues for [P2] to complete our critique.

Harris attempts to criticize the morality contained in the Bible

The notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated.

Sam Harris, The myth of secular moral chaos

This is an oft-repeated assertion that has been echoed by many recent atheists. When reading Scripture, we must draw a sharp distinction between historical narrative, and prescription. For example, Noah was a drunk and King David was an adulterer. This does not mean that the Bible condones this sort of behaviour. On the contrary. The Bible actually faithfully records the shortcomings of all the heroes of the faith in order to cast a brighter light on the wonder of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf. The whole point of the Biblical narrative is that we've all fallen way short of God's requirements for "the good life". We've all rebelled against God who is our rightful King, and as such deserve justice for our transgressions. However, Jesus Christ has carried our burden for us.

The Christian, therefore, isn't surprised when the Bible records how David murdered Uriah the Hittite. Or, the Christian isn't surprised when the Bible records the brutality of Judges 19. These are the consequences of sinful man, and highlight our great need for the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf to redeem us.

What I do appreciate about Harris, is how he doesn't (as even many Christians do), attempt to unhinge the Old Testament from the New Testament. The God who rightfully judges the wickedness of man in the Old Testament is the very same God in the New Testament:

Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And he or she should pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28–29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation).

Sam Harris, The myth of secular moral chaos

What becomes apparent in Harris's position, however, is that he has a problem with God who judges the evil deeds of man. This in turn just means that Harris has a problem with God - not that God's judgement of man's evil deeds is somehow immoral. Harris's personal issue with God's righteousness and justice doesn't make the Bible immoral - it just means Harris would rather want a god that doesn't judge.

We need not address any other elements of Harris's writing in this section. His attempted defence of [P2] can merely be dismissed as a conflation of prescriptive and descriptive elements in the Bible, and as a subjective dislike of the Christian system where God will judge the evil deeds of men.

The reader should note that we've not pried any deeper into Harris' rightful dislike of human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny. The Christian would agree that these things are evil. Harris' belief that the Bible prescribes these things is misguided. What remains to be shown by Harris is why he believes that human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are objectively wrong. This is what we turn to in the following sections.

[2] If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers

Harris's argument in the second point can be summarised as follows:

  • [P1] If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers.

  • [P2] There is evidence that atheists aren't less moral than believers.

  • [C] The Bible is not the only reliable blueprint for moral decency.

I believe this argument to be structurally sound. [C] will necessarily follow if [P1] and [P2] are true. The weakness of the argument lies in [P1]. When providing his justification for the conclusion [C], Harris immediately works to substantiate [P2] by providing evidence of non-Christians that live morally decent lives. However, insofar as [P1] is false (or misunderstood), his efforts to establish [P2] will be in vain.

It all comes down to the meaning of "If religion were necessary for morality" in [P1]. Does this mean that the belief (epistemological component) in religion is necessary for morality, or does it mean that the reality of the religion regardless of the belief (metaphysical component) is necessary for morality? The Christian would not claim that the belief in Christianity is what makes objective morality possible, but that the reality of Christianity, regardless of someone's belief or unbelief, is what makes objective morality possible.

When Harris argues for [P2], it becomes clear that he believes the Christian position to be that it is the belief in Christianity that functions as the foundation for morality, and not the metaphysical reality of Christianity regardless of belief or unbelief. In Harris' understanding then, all he needs to do is provide evidence of non-Christians who live good lives to establish the conclusion. But, because this is not the Christian position (that the belief in Christianity is what grounds morality), the Christian will reject the conclusion. Harris should, in order for the argument to succeed, show how he can ground objective morality in his own non-Christian, "one-circle", ultimately uncreated view of the world.

Harris substantiates [P2] as follows:

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005), the most atheistic societies—countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality.

Sam Harris, The myth of secular moral chaos

This does not address the Christian claim that it is the metaphysical reality of the Christian worldview that accounts for objective morality.

Harris lists a few secular countries that are considered developed, with good health, high education rates, longevity etc. It is the case that the majority of these countries don't consider themselves to be Christian (hence they lack a belief), but this has no bearing on the metaphysical reality of the Christian system.

Again, in the two-circle Christian worldview, all of us are created in the image of God regardless of whether we believe. God's moral law is imprinted in all of our hearts. As rebels, non-Christians do rebel against this knowledge of God and try to follow their own gods, but this rebellion is restricted by God's common grace such that n0n-Christians do still live surface-level "good" lives in most cases. In the one-circle non-Christian worldview, there is no Creator, only Chance. There is no purpose, only ultimate meaninglessness. There is no truth, only flux opinions. There is no morality, only flux preferences.

We can thus ask why Harris believes health, education, longevity and general human flourishing to be morally good, and not just for him, but objectively for all. Why are sickness, illiteracy, and human suffering not morally good? Harris' belief in the uncreatedness of reality cannot give him an answer beyond his personal preference. Why is human life more precious than the life of the virus that takes the life of the human? Is a certain subset of bags of matter inherently better than a different subset of bags of matter? Weird.

From the Christian perspective, it's easy to show why health, education, longevity and human flourishing are morally good. For the Christian, all humans are made in God's image and endowed with certain inalienable rights. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, and this calls for us to build a society that is inclusive, educated, and healthy among other things. There are of course much deeper implications and truths we can extract from the Christian worldview and apply to the field of ethics, but this is the gist of it, and the 10 commandments give us the best summary: Love God with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself. This is an ought in the life of every single human being.

It is also ironic to note that the countries listed by Harris are those with deep Protestant and Reformed Christian roots. Harris likes to focus on the last 20 years of history for those countries but ignores the preceding 500 years that brought them to where they are. The fact that those countries are drifting away from their Christian roots is not conducive to their flourishing - we are already seeing the cracks forming as they destroy their own foundations. Even if they don't crumble before the end of time, their enjoyment of God's gifts without giving thanks to Him will come to a bitter end when their denial of the Jesus Christ they once knew bites them on the day of final judgement.

Harris' error has clearly been shown to be the conflation of the epistemic belief (or lack of belief) in a particular religion with the metaphysical reality (or lack thereof) of the system. Just because an unbeliever doesn't believe in the Christian system and lives a good life, does not mean that they actually live in a "one circle" non-Christian world where objective morality is also possible. The Christian can still maintain that the non-Christian's unbelief merely means that he lives in the "two-circle" Christian world as a rebel. Harris cannot merely claim that non-Christians can live moral lives and expect that to be a critique of the Christian system. In order for his claim [claim B] to be a successful argument against the Christian view that objective morality is exclusive to the Christian worldview, he should show how he can ground objective morality given his non-Christian "one circle" view of the world. This he cannot do.

In summary, unbelievers being "good", and sometimes even "better" than Christians that still have a long way to go in their sanctification does not remove the necessity of the Christian worldview to give the objective reference point for what it means to be good in the first place. The non-Christian can still be good, as even if they deny it, they are created in God's image, and the law of God is written in their hearts. They simply refuse to give thanks to God, and would rather worship the creature than the Creator.

[3] If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy

Perhaps statement [3] is the only one that looks at the issue at a worldview level. In [3], Harris tries to provide a nontheistic "one-circle" objective basis for morality that does not explicitly or implicitly depend on the Christian worldview.

Now, we did discuss Harris's attempted objective basis for morality in the previous article, but for completeness, we will also address the particular solution he put forward in the article.

He doesn't provide a detailed solution, but summarises it as follows:

In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing.

Unfortunately for Harris, his grounding of objective morality in terms of happiness and suffering still cannot bridge the gap from is to ought. Just because something makes me happy, does not mean that I ought to do it. Moreover, what of cases where something that is clearly immoral and makes you unhappy, makes someone else happy? Does that make it right for the other person? Of course not.

We need not look further than about 75 years ago when The Nazis reached a consensus that they should commit genocide against the Jews. You can argue that it at least made Hitler and tons of other Nazis happy to witness and take part in the Holocaust. Is the Holocaust justified then? Of course not.

In the same way, theft certainly makes the person stealing happy as he now has possession of something that his heart longed for. Is theft morally ok then? You might argue that although theft makes the thief happy, it causes the victim to suffer, and so the suffering of the victim offsets the happiness of the thief which makes it immoral. But this doesn't help at all. If the suffering and happiness offset each other, it might just mean that the theft was a morally neutral event.

But despite all the above his, it remains to be shown why "happiness in general" ought to be maximised rather than the happiness of certain individuals. There can be no answer forthcoming from a world that is fundamentally uncreated. You can twist and turn, look at the world upside down, and wait for a thousand years, but you will never find a grounding for objective morality. All there is in the "one circle" non-Christian view of Harris (if it were true), is a subjective preference.

Richard Dawkins saw this truth quite a few years ago and wrote:

The universe that we observe [the "one circle" non-Christian one] has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life


Morality can sometimes be complex water to navigate. When debates arise as to what is right and what is wrong, we need to remember that worldview issues at play will greatly affect whether there is an answer to be sought to begin with.

The Christian worldview is the only worldview that can save morality. Once we realize this, we need to deal with the fact that we have failed to live up to God's standard for "the good life" and stand to be condemned for our cosmic treason. It is at this point where we need to hear to Gospel of Jesus Christ and make it our own. God has made a way for sinners to be redeemed and to be brought back into the fold. This invitation is open to all people everywhere.

To any non-Christian readers (and even Christians who have strayed from the path): Repent of the false one-circle view of the world and yourself. Acknowledge God as your God. Stop worshipping the creature. Jesus Christ has made a way for you.


Published by Apologetics Central

At Apologetics Central, we are committed to providing biblically grounded, Reformed presuppositional apologetics resources to equip believers in defending the Christian faith. As a ministry, we strive to uphold the truth of God's word and present it winsomely to a world in need of the gospel.

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