An open letter to Sam Harris

Dear Mr Harris

samharrisI was encouraged by a friend to watch your lecture on Death and the Present Moment at the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Your topic is very close to home for me, as I’ve been battling a stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung for the past 6 months. I understand it was also especially pertinent for you, and many in your audience, following the death of your good friend, Christopher Hitchens. Your lecture has provoked me to consider a number of issues and to write a few words in response.

For me, the most provocative words in your talk were the following:

Atheism appears to be a death cult, because we are the only people who admit that death is real.

When I heard these words, I had to stop and hit replay. You didn’t really say that, did you? Surely, this is hyperbole for the sake of impact! I’m a theist, not an atheist, and I firmly believe in the reality of death. I’ve visited morgues, been on the scene at fatal accidents, attended funerals, and sat beside lifeless bodies in the hospital. Strangers, friends, and family. No breath, no movement, no heartbeat, no consciousness, no life. I’m not an atheist and yet I affirm that death is very very real. It seems bizarre to claim otherwise.

I suspect it’s what you call the ‘gospel of atheism’ – that nothing happens after death – that’s really at issue here. You admit that atheism doesn’t offer real consolation in the face of death and you claim that religion creates a fictional hope, that’s really no hope at all. Thus, while people might feel better that their deceased daughter is ‘now with Jesus’, you don’t believe they have any reason to believe. I think this is a question worth putting on the table and exploring:

Is there, or is there not, any reasonable evidence for life after death?

There may be a number of ways to answer this question, but it would appear to me that a fruitful starting place is the Christian claim that Jesus, the first century carpenter, died and subsequently rose from the dead. I’d start here because Christians base everything on this being true. The claims that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb and that he had been seen alive are foundational to Christian beliefs. Scrutinise them, consider the explanations, explore the alternatives, look at the impact on people at the time. Evaluate the counter claims, conspiracy theories, tampering of documents, and challenge the evidence. Public scrutiny and debate are a good thing if they’ll help us get to the truth of the matter.

You also seem to assume that religion is all about faith, whereas atheism is all about reason. This assumption needs to be challenged. They’re not opposing pairs. Faith can be based on reason. I’d say that good faith must be based on good reasons. Let me illustrate. I have faith that my wife loves me. Why? Because there is good evidence that this is so. I sit on a chair, showing my faith in the chair to hold my weight, only because it is reasonable. I take a step of faith (trust, dependence, practical belief) because there are good reasons to exercise that faith. Dare I say it, atheism is a step of faith – faith that there is no God and no life after death – based on reasons. What is needed is a non-bigoted, open-mindedness to examine and evaluate the reasons for the faith(s).

There is something else that bothered me about your lecture. You seem to divide the world into two belief systems: atheism and religion. This seems reductionist, disingenuous, and deceptive. It is not meaningful to lump together Muslims and Hindus as being the same. They’re both ‘religious’ and they’re both ‘not atheists’, but one believes in only one God and the other believes in many Gods. In fact, you could group Buddhism and Atheism together as ‘non-theism’ and contrast them with Judaism and Islam as ‘theism’. My point is that speaking of ‘religion in contrast to atheism’ simply muddies the waters. It would be much more productive to evaluate the particular claims of different religions alongside the particular claims of atheism.

I’d like to finish with an observation that you made about people. You intended it as a critique of atheists, and I’d like to claim it as a critique for many Christians also. These are your words:

We spend much of life tacitly presuming we’ll live for ever.

Death is the clearest evidence that life is finite and yet we live as though it isn’t so. You remind us that we waste a lot of time on trivia when things are ‘normal’. Why else would we watch that hopeless movie for the fourth time?! We care about the wrong things. We regret the things we’ve spent time caring about. You call us to live in the moment. You invite us to explore what’s really worth having and doing. I’m persuaded that the answers to these questions are to be found in knowing God and enjoying the life that God gives us, not by dismissing God and reconstructing a world without him.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is evidence to me of what lies ahead. These events in history provide the reasons for my faith. They explain why I’m not religious. That is, I’m someone who has discovered good reasons to put my faith in Jesus, rather than trying to earn my place in heaven (in contrast to many other religions). However, my assurance of a real life beyond death, doesn’t lead me to complacency, but to a renewed urgency and purpose in life here and now. Sometimes I can drift along as though this is not the case, as can we all, so thank you for bringing me to attention once again!


Dave McDonald

21 thoughts on “An open letter to Sam Harris”

  1. You have misunderstood Sam Harris’ words when he says “…we are the only people who admit that death is real.”

    A Christian does not believe that death is the end. A Christian believes that there is a life after the human death, and if they believe Jesus is the Son of God and proclaims him as Lord of all things (and if you’re a Catholic, you have performed enough good deeds; and if you’re a Calvinist you have been chosen by God to not suffer the punishment that he authored – of which you were born into through no fault of your own; and assuming your interpretation of the Bible is accurate, etc), then you will go the Heaven to sing endless praise of God for all eternity and to find great joy and comfort knowing all non-believers (otherwise known as those who happened to be born into the ‘wrong’ belief system or were never fortunate enough to have a group of missionaries of the correct faith preach the correct word of the correct God to them – aka everyone else) will perish.

    When Sam Harris states that death is real, he is saying that death is final. There is no bonus level where you get to swim in burning sulphur or praise God endlessly depending on what you have done or what you have believed in.

    In response to your argument that faith can able to be derived from reason, what reason do you have that God exists, more specifically, that Yahweh is the correct God, and not Allah? If Allah were the true God, creator of the universe and judge of all mankind, as claimed by the Qur’an, you are destined to burn in hell with me for not believing in him. As are millions, if not billions of other people.

    You take ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ out of context and argue semantics. Saying that you have faith that your wife loves you is misuse of the word faith. You believe your wife loves you because you have solid evidence of this. Belief is based on reasons. Faith is not.

    Do you have faith that your prayers are heard? Do you have faith your prayers are answered? Do you have faith that your wife will remain faithful to you? These are questions of faith. You have no experience or evidence to be 100% certain. However, you may still believe that you know the answers to these questions based on your own good reasons – an exercise in faith.

    You may say that you have no good reason to believe that your wife will be unfaithful, based on the evidence available to you. Similarly, as a non-theist, I have no good reason to believe that a supernatural being monitors my actions and my thoughts and judges me every moment of my life. I have no reason to believe that there is another life after my human body ceases to function. What are your reasons to believe that your faith is the only correct belief? Furthermore, what are your reasons to believe that your particular denomination of your faith is the correct one? And furthermore once again, what are your reasons to believe that your interpretation of your denomination of your faith is the correct one?

    Dez Wong.

    1. Dez, thank you for detailed response.

      I was provoked to respond to Sam Harris on the reality of death, because he makes it seem that death is a non-event for religious people. I would argue that a judgement beyond death actually serves to heighten the impact of death, not diminish it.

      On the issue of faith and reason, your response confirms my observation that people prefer to see faith as somehow less grounded and rational than other beliefs. This is unwarranted semantically and existentially. I tend not to even use the word faith much anymore, but replace it with better understood words such as depend, trust, and rely upon.

      So if I wanted to explain what a Christian is, I would say something like:

      A Christian is someone who acknowledges that Jesus is the only appropriate ruler of their life and so hands over control to him, and one who totally relies upon the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of their rebellion against God.

      1. Faith: “strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof” – Oxford Dictionary.
        People believe that faith is ‘less grounded and rational’ because it isn’t, by definition, based on reason, logic, or proof. While the term belief can be used for something that has some form of evidence or reasoning. ie. making predictions based on past statistics/outcomes… the term faith generally can’t.
        Can you expand on what ‘other beliefs’ you are referring to?
        And as for the other terms you use instead: ‘depend’ and ‘trust’ – you depend or trust someone (or something) because they have (or it has) proven to be dependable or trustworthy through their actions, ie. evidence. Which comes back to the fact that there is no proof/evidence of the existence of God or an afterlife; hence ‘faith’.

      2. Christian faith is based on evidence, not scientific proof as such. The evidence is the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. His words, actions, life, death and resurrection.

      3. Yes, while there is evidence that Jesus existed, there isn’t any strong evidence that he did any of the things purported in the Bible, or was anything more than a man. Some may argue that the fact he appears so frequently in the Bible, and his acts are described in the Bible is proof, but you can’t really rely on one single source as proof of something. There is no real proof or evidence (only here-say recorded in the Bible) that he performed any miracles or resurrected from the dead, or was the son of God. There is no real evidence that God exists; hence why there are so many people that don’t believe in God, or Jesus as the son of God.

        Is the evidence you speak of only the Bible? For really, it’s just an ancient text, and only one piece of evidence. How do we know that it’s not fiction, if it can’t be proven to be fact? And proof isn’t necessarily ‘scientific’; it’s just based on solid evidence ie. photographic evidence, physical evidence (objects or fossils), or written evidence from several different sources.

      4. Liz, the New Testament is not one source. Rather, it’s the compilation of many. Even the Gospels are recognised by historians as separate sources. There is some dependence evident within them, but there is also clear independence. Evidence for Jesus is also provided in ancient non-biblical literature. Such sources include the Jewish historian, Josephus, and Roman authors, Tacitus, Pliny and Seutonius.

  2. Dave,

    While I am a fan of Sam Harris I would have to say, and you may agree with me here, that he delivers some of his points in a negatively provocative manner, and quite deliberately, which is not always the best approach. I don’t believe it was an attempt to belittle death’s affect on religious people, rather it was to contrast the different views of death that religious and non-religious people hold.

    I do understand what it is and means to be a Christian, as I once was one. I have since realised that there is nothing I can depend on that leads me to believe that God exists, apart from the Bible itself. Although, even if he were real, I find it rather difficult to contemplate any person actually wanting to praise Yahweh after a critical examination of his character, his extravagant claims and all that he fails to do. However, that is another long discussion and I would rather leave you in peace.


    1. Hi Dez,

      With the utmost humility, i note that you end with ‘all that [Yahweh] fails to do.’ I respect that this may indeed be a long (and perhaps painful) discussion, but i would dare to prompt you to outline His failings because of 2 things:
      1) my experience of Him has been quite the contrary: it seems He has indeed fulfilled his promises; &
      2) i have great hope that if i can help you to identify that He wasn’t the one that let you down (tho’ perhaps someone in the church did?), you might see again some of the many blessings He has poured into your life and be willing to trust Him again – to your eternal benefit.

      Yours humbly & sincerely,

      Sam Rothe

  3. Dave – I think you did well in pointing everything back to the resurrection of Jesus. This seems to me to be the one apologetic the Bible confirms.

  4. Dez,
    What is it that you think YHWH has failed to do and what character flaws are you alluding to? Your statements baffle me.

    1. Andrew,
      9 million children die every year before they reach the age of 5.
      The Bible tells us God is all-powerful and all-knowing; Why does he let children suffer on this scope and scale then?
      I have no respect for anyone who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die and for the parents to suffer and grieve in such a way.
      Frankly, I wouldn’t respect another being if they stood by and watched a single child die without attempting to help them.
      Additionally, many of these children are from non-Christian countries like India.
      The Bible tells us that they’re all going to burn in hell.
      What an utterly disgusting thought, who would want to thank and praise a God so EVIL.
      So to answer your question and to hopefully “unbaffle” you the character flaws of Yahweh include (but by all means are not limited to) blood-thirstiness, remorselessness, psychopathy and narcissism.

      Best wishes,


  5. Dez,

    Have you read “Reason for God” by Tim Keller? I’d be interested in your response to some of his clues to the existence of God.


  6. As Paul Tillich once said “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith” I don’t think one could have a true relationship with God otherwise.

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