A Christian Responds to Harris on the Evils of “Moderates”

I recently had an interesting discussion here at SO on Sam Harris’s views on “moderate” believers. One commentator took me to task for saying that Harris holds that “moderates” are “just as bad” as extremists. I think he may have had a point that this was unfair, but Harris clearly does make some fairly serious charges. So, I wrote to a couple of friends, men of the cloth, to ask how they responded. One has graciously replied at length. I am giving below my letter of inquiry and his response.

My letter:

I hope you both are well and looking forward to an America made great again by Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Ahem. The real purpose of my missive is this: I have been having an interesting discussion with some commentators at Secular Outpost—the blog to which I am a contributor—about religious “moderates,” broadly defined. In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris, noted author of the “new atheist” movement, says that those people of faith who do not hold that scripture is the “literal and inerrant” word of God, and who are willing to accept the established facts of history and science—those Harris terms “moderates”—are nevertheless morally culpable. Perhaps they are not as much to blame as extremists, fanatics, and those who carry out violence in the name of God, but they still must bear a considerable degree of responsibility for the bad things caused by religion. If “moderates” do not themselves commit acts of intolerance, they are at least enablers and fellow travelers of those that do because they continue to preserve and promote dangerous doctrines with a proven history of inspiring persecutions, pogroms, witch hunts, crusades, etc.

Harris says that you can maintain your moderation in religion only by ignoring the actual content of scripture. For instance, Deuteronomy 13: 7-11 says that if your brother, child, spouse, or best friend says that other gods than Yahweh are to be served then you should stone that person to death and, indeed, strike the first blow yourself. I Samuel, Chapter 15: 3 commands that Saul should commit genocide upon the Amalekites, killing them all regardless of age, condition, or sex. II Kings, 2: 23-24 tells us that as Elisha approached Bethel, children of the town mocked his bald head (I empathize). He cursed them in the name of The Lord, and two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty two of the children. Indeed, the Bible contains so many such passages, that Thomas Paine was moved to write his famous denunciation in The Age of Reason:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which over half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon rather than the word of God.

Non-fundamentalist believers, says Harris, make no effort explain away or give non-literal interpretations of such horrors; they simply look the other way and refuse to acknowledge the actual content of their holy book. In short, he thinks you have no principled reason to ignore the horrific aspects of your tradition. You have no rational basis for not being a fundamentalist and embracing the full content of scripture down to the last “smiting.” Rather, you simply ignore the bad parts because they are now so incompatible with the liberal, tolerant, rational ideals that have become dominant since the Enlightenment.

Actually, Harris says quite a bit more, but I know that you are busy and to keep from burdening you, I will stop there. I would very much like to know what you would say back to Harris besides, or in addition to, that he should go [BLEEP] himself. Seriously, how do you regard those horrific scriptural elements and all the cruel, vindictive elements decried by Paine? Knowing you, I know that Harris is wrong to imply that you just put your fingers in your ears and shout “La, La, La‼!” when you hear such passages. I and the readers of SO would like to hear how you hold that Christians should think about the bad stuff in the Bible. You may reply at any length, and, with your permission, I would like to post your responses on Secular Outpost. Thanks.

This reply is from an old (back to first grade) friend, The Reverend Dr. Paris N. Donehoo, Senior Pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Elgin, Illinois. He is also a fantastically talented singer/musician/composer and recording artist. Last, but perhaps most impressively, he can quote the entire corpus of Monty Python verbatim.


I must admit that your request has been on my mind ever since you sent it.  I have been swamped with tons of administrative duties lately, and I wanted to chuck them all and sit down and write about this.  Yet, duty called.  But I have a little time on my day off, so here goes.

Harris’ attacks on the Bible, of course, are not new, nor are they without some merit.  His attacks on moderate Christians (or the term “progressive” Christians is gaining in popularity) are not new either, but let me deal with the Bible first.  Harris and others of his ilk, make the same mistake fundamentalists make with scripture; that is, all of it must be taken on the same level.  It’s what I call the “ironing board” approach to scripture.  Any portion of the Bible has to be equally as important as every other portion.  If the Bible had been written like the fundamentalists claim—some form of divine dictation—then that argument might hold water.  But it wasn’t written that way.  The Bible is like a library.  It’s a collection of various writings cobbled together by a dizzying array of authors and editors over thousands of years in different situations and social contexts, each one with its own theological ax to grind.

To claim that a horrific story like Elisha and the she-bears must be put on the same plane as Isaiah’s suffering servant poems would be tantamount to claiming that Nathan Bedford Forest’s defense of slavery must be as equally important as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Why does my faith dictate I put Paul’s instructions about women covering their heads in church (1 Corinthians 11:10-16) on par with Paul’s sweeping pronouncement that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)?  Fundamentalism twists itself into pretzels to try and make those two passages equally important.  Personally, I think Paul himself would reply, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

What I teach my congregation is this: biblical interpretation always starts with Jesus.  As a follower of Jesus I believe scripture must be viewed through the lens of Jesus.  Thus, when I come across a passage like Deuteronomy 13:7-11 I weigh it against Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  When I come across a passage like 1 Samuel 15:3 I weigh it against Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:39, “Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  In neither case do I ignore the offending passage.  Intellectual and theological honesty means I must not ignore it, but, as a follower of Jesus, I practice what Jesus taught.  The difficult passage becomes grist for comparison, historical study, or literary criticism, but not moral instruction.  When a portion of the Bible conflicts with what I know about Jesus, informed by the Gospels as well as my own spiritual sense, Jesus always wins, hands down.

Unfortunately, many in the church seem to have forgotten Jesus, and opt instead for picking and choosing whatever suits their social or political anger at the moment (read “Ted Cruz”).  However, there is a growing movement, mostly among young adults, called “Red Letter Christianity.”  The name is taken from the fact that some editions of the Bible print Jesus’ words in red.  “Red Letter Christians” are attempting to live their faith according to the words of Jesus, and they are doing some incredible work for social justice.  I don’t think I ever hear Harris or his kin give even grudging support for such efforts.

I keep wondering why fundamentalists on the left and right think truth must be one-dimensional?  Are they such prisoners of the Enlightenment that all truth must be measurable, verifiable, and notarized in order to be true?  Does the story of Noah’s flood have to be literally true, and all the pieces line up the way I think they should, in order to teach me about a God who will “remember me” (Genesis 8:1) in the midst of the floods that sweep over my life?  I don’t think so.  The late Marcus Borg said, “The Bible is all true, and some of it actually happened.”  I would hate to live a world where poetry and story have no lesson to teach, no challenge to give, or no comfort to offer without fitting Harris’ puny definition of truth.

Of course, as a pastor, I also must say a word about the place of the community of faith in biblical interpretation.  I wish the record here was more encouraging, but the church has much to answer for in terms of fomenting the kind of hatred and intolerance Harris denounces, and rightfully so.  However, at its best, the church can act as a conduit for the “better angels” of scripture study while holding each disciple accountable to others so that Bible study doesn’t wander off into the nether regions Harris decries.  Unfortunately, fundamentalist churches, with their preference for Leviticus over Luke, have become the most vociferous voices for claiming “what the Bible teaches,” while mainline churches, like the one I serve, have ceded the biblical ground out of a fear of being lumped into the fundamentalist camp.  The result has been to allow Harris and others to paint all of us with the same brush.  I have spent a great deal of time and energy over the years trying to rectify the biblical illiteracy rampant in my church.  Little by little I believe we are making progress.

When Harris claims that Christians like myself are enablers of intolerance along with fundamentalists he borrows the logic of Islamophobes: “If there are moderate, peace-loving Muslims, why aren’t they doing something to stop Isis and Al Queda?”  I hear this argument a lot these days.  Evidently, all Muslims are culpable because some of them interpret the Qur’an poorly.  I want to give Harris the benefit of the doubt and assume he isn’t falling for such demagoguery about Islam, so why it is OK to make the same claim about me and my faith?  I don’t think I am enabling the disgraceful antics of the KKK or the Westborough Baptist Church.  I don’t see much of Jesus in either of them.

Well, this may be WAY more than you wanted, but, as you can see, this has been percolating in me for some time.  Looking back over this I wonder if it needs a discussion about what it means for me to claim the Bible is “inspired” by God, but maybe that’s outside the scope of what you asked for.  Without possessing your philosophical credentials I have no idea how any of this holds up, but it works for me.  And, as we have discussed before, it all comes down to choice.

Note: The choice Dr. Donehoo mentions at the end arises from our discussions of John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion. Hick argues that neither a naturalistic nor a religious view is rationally compulsory, and therefore there is considerable epistemic freedom in how we interpret the nature of reality. Reasonable people following their best lights may arrive at opposite conclusions given the “religious ambiguity” of the universe, as Hick puts it. Thus, two kids, baby boomers and best friends, both born in August 1952, and both attendees of Knollwood Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia from 1958-65, can wind up in very different places, but retain deep respect for each other and for each other’s convictions.