The Economist: Is Religion a Force for Good?

Check out the interesting theater over at the Economist magazine online.  In a week long series, the Economist website is hosting a debate about whether or not religion is a good thing.  The combatants are NY Times "Beliefs" columnists Mark Oppenheimer, and atheist pit bull, Sam Harris. 

Each day will add more debate but the beginning was pretty awful dreck, and worse than Harris' atheist militancy is Oppenheimer's defense.  He lumps all religions together as social phenomena, and can only speak of rituals and ethical arrangements.  It just sounds like it's written from the outside looking in, only he doesn't realize his outside is the same as Harris'   (Interesting they didn't ask an Asian or African American to debate...)  To Harris' credit, he recognizes the incompatibility of many religions, but Oppenheimer has already conceded the battle.  It's as if examining "all things religious" were somehow an objective thing and not a question and a way of looking situated in a particular history.  Enter the metanarrative... 

But, Harris actually says something profound in the discussion I find I agree with:
Ask yourself which is better: going to Africa to feed the hungry because (1) you believe an invisible carpenter (who just happens to be the son of the creator of the universe) wants you to do it, or (2) because you feel moved to alleviate the suffering of your fellow human beings? I am not saying that Christian missionaries do not also feel compassion, but it is simply a fact that neurologically intact adults are capable of answering the latter call—as the heroic work of groups such as Doctors Without Borders attests.
On this point, I think he in fact brushes close to the Gospel, and it is a Christian shame that we experience so little love and compassion that we need commands and rules and spiritual revelations.  We lack the love necessary to obey.  Isn't this the testimony of scripture?  At least my life... We also don't realize how disembodied our spirituality has become in 21st century US, and this is the very thing the incarnation of Christ judges.  Creation and incarnation and solidarity are all expressions of divine love as much as any rule. 

Put simply, "When was the last time you were moved by compassion to do something?" 

Harris, of course misses the thrust of Christianity but this is to be expected.  I hope though, the critique stings the religious a bit and causes some good 'ole prayer of examine: we don't need better grasp of the commands so much as better hearts with which to love.   At least that is our hope.  

EDIT: For a great overview on why Harris' arguments are not very convincing, check out Kim Fabricius's 10 Propositions about the New Atheists. 


  1. Hello, I'll have to take a look at that debate. I'm in the process of stepping back from Christianity, the religion I held onto strongly for all my life, and allowing some of the questions I had held back to surface. One of them was: If Jesus is the source of goodness and life, how do nonchristians make the sacrifices of moving overseas and taking part in mission projects like DWOB? It might sound like a dumb question- obviously we all have a sense of morality, social obligation, and can see the extreme needs of our fellow humans across the globe. But I think it is a question many ponder upon. I thought how incredible it was that people without the Holy Spirit working in them, without a book commanding them to tend to the needs of the poor, that they would do it on their own accord. It does sound like their reasons are more personal, I mean, they came from them alone, not a God they believe in.

    Anyway, good post. I'll probably come back again :)


  2. Hi Tricia, thanks for dropping by. Your concerns and questions sound like genuine, important ones, so I hope you continue to pursue them! I think one of the big mistakes Christians make is assuming that atheists are somehow less human or morally inferior. Sadly, it reinforces how tight and close the Christian cultural bubble gets drawn.

    I have a few friends, atheists, who act with insight and care that I aspire to. If it is a helpful start for your line of questioning, I think Harris is right - compassion should be our motivation, it makes us more human to be humane, and that paints us more like the picture of humanity we see in Jesus, atheist or not. I think the Holy Spirit's role is to make us more human, not superhuman.

    And please do come back! Questions and doubt are holy moments always welcome here :)


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