Letters to an Atheist

2. The Moral Landscape

 Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape


Dear Edward,

Thanks for putting me on to Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. I downloaded the Kindle version after I arrived home and I’ve read enough of the book to form what I think is a reasonable critique. But if you think I’ve misunderstood or misjudged Harris, please feel free to correct me.

First, my positive comments. Harris an intelligent writer and it’s encouraging to see an atheist urging a case for objective moral and ethical standards. But to quote Forrest Gump, ‘That’s about all I have to say about that.’

As I said when we met up, we all reason from the standpoint of our presuppositions, both conscious and sub-conscious. Harris’ conscious presupposition is God doesn’t exist and that ‘science’ provides the sole basis for objective moral values. However, Harris also senses that the universe is rational, that it has meaning and that it has purpose. That is a Christian presupposition because if the universe came into being by chance it can’t have meaning or purpose.

Why the Holocaust?

I once listened to a lady in Australia share her remembrance of Auschwitz. I don’t remember how long I sat transfixed by her story but I know I suddenly became aware that my face was wet. Dispassionately, she concluded her story: “There’s no God.” Her entire family had perished in the death camps of Europe and I asked how she accounted for her own survival. “I suppose it must have been God,” she said.

I agreed but reminded her that she had said she was an atheist. “Well I suppose there must be ‘Something’,” the lady admitted.

The death of six million Jews between 1939 and 1945 stunned not only the Jewish people but also Christians and civilized people around the globe. How was it possible that the most cultured people of Europe – a people who loved Mozart and Mahler, Rembrandt and Rubens, and read Schilling and Goethe – could conspire to exterminate an entire people group?

This Saturday – 27th January – is Holocaust Memorial, and as the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to breathe out threatenings and slaughter against Israel, and as ISIS continues to crucify Christians who serve the God and Father of Jesus Christ, and behead Muslims who don’t cross the theological t’s or dot their ideological i’s of Sunni Islam, we do well to remember the Holocaust.

Letters to an Atheist.

1: The Omnipotence Paradox


Exactly four years ago, I met up with the son of an old friend. Edward was interested in philosophy and had been influenced by the "New Atheists", Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, in particular, Sam Harris. He wanted to meet up, he said, to discuss philosophy but, in reality, he wanted to flex his atheist muscles. At the end of our five-hour discussion and having consumed a lot of coffee, he challenged me to read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and respond to it. I challenged Edward to present an atheistic answer to the empty tomb of Jesus. We agreed to keep in contact and a few days later I received a brief email from Edward in which he asked if God could create a situation he couldn't control.

If God couldn't do that, said Edwards, he wasn't almighty. But if God could produce a situation that was out of his control, that also proved he wasn't omipotent. I don't know whether Edward's question was original or if he was being serious but I felt the question needed to be answered. This is what I wrote. 

Christmas: Lost in Translation

Living in a culture far removed both in time and distance from that in which Jesus was born, we are unfamiliar with life in biblical times and it is easy for us to accept without question the traditional romanticised images that have come down to us about the events surrounding the birth of Messiah and persons who appear in the Gospel accounts. Our lack of knowledge can leave us vulnerable to all manner of alternative and bizarre teaching. For example, I once heard a writer state that he knew "Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem" who were descended from the shepherds to whom the angels appeared!

Although some of Israel’s greatest men – including Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, in the great collections of rabbinic law The Mishnah and The Talmud, shepherding was a despised profession. According to tractate “Kiddushin” in The Mishnah, “A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.”

Because many shepherds were hirelings and the flocks they tended were not their own, it was easy for them to steal wool, milk and goats and blame the loss on bandits. Therefore tractate “Baba Kamma” forbids buying wool, milk or goats from shepherds. A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23:2 says: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.”

New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias describes a biblical shepherd’s life as independent, responsible and – in view of the threat from wild beasts and robbers – dangerous. Although some sheep owners looked after their flocks personally, the job was usually was done by hired shepherds, who often did not justify the confidence reposed in them, as Jesus indicates in John 10:12-13. Also, shepherds couldn’t help but tread in sheep excrement and touch dead animals which, according to the book of Leviticus, placed them in a permanent state of ritual impurity and ceremonial defilement. Because of that, shepherds were excluded from the temple and the synagogues.

But it was these lowiest of people to whom the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world was first revealed. It is true, as the Christmas slogan has it that "Wise men still seek Jesus" but it's also true that the holy Saviour continues to live on earth with" the poor and mean and lowly"!

Why do Good People do Bad Things?

“We know no spectacle so ridiculous,” wrote Lord Macauley, “as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” The recent outbreak of morality at Westminster in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations is perhaps an indication of a swing of the ethical pendulum from libertarianism to puritanism that in some ways ought to be welcomed. "Something must be done", say the politicians after half a century spent systematically breaking up the foundation of western civilization, the Ten Commandments. Now, in a rare display of inter-party unity, Jeremy Corby is backing Theresa May’s clamp-down on inappropriate behaviour.

Prevention is, of course,  always better than cure and for a start, as well as encouraging those who have experienced the unwelcome attention of their seniors, the party leaders could issue a ruling that MPs refrain from inviting members of the opposite sex (or, for that matter nowadays, the same sex) to their homes or hotel rooms alone. MPs could be instructed to leave the doors of their offices open, or at least ajar, when alone with attractive females or, when it is necessary for them to speak behind closed doors, to inform a colleague. This might be regarded as ethical overkill but let's not forget that our parliamentary representatives (or at least some of them) are the cause of their own misfortune. Oh yes, and for good measure, it would be helpful if all women were to dress modestly.

Incidentally, I’m acutely aware that expressing myself in this way opens me to the charge of political incorrectness and misogyny. But it's PC that is at the heart of the current confusion about ethics and morality. Even while condemning those who behave badly, one risks being condemned for straying beyond the prescribed, pedantically patrolled borders of political correctness.


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