The Preacher and the Atheist

April 4, 2007

Check out the Newsweek-sponsored discussion/debate between Rick Warren and Sam Harris. Rick is the pastor of one of America’s largest churches and author of the mega-bestseller, the Purpose-Driven Life. Sam is a noted author and an atheist who recently wrote a provocative column called God’s Dupes.

It’s all very interesting and well worth reading, even though I doubt anyone will be convinced one way or the other as a result. A brief perusal of the blogosphere reveals that responses tend to vary along party lines. Atheists think Sam Harris got the upper hand, critics of Rick Warren think he could have done better, fans of Rick Warren think he did a good job. And so it goes. Your response probably says more about what you already believe than anything else.

Sam Harris raises some good points about prayer, the problem of evil, and he points out some problem passages in the Bible. Rick Warren argues that evidence for God’s existence can be plainly seen in nature, culture, law, and in every human heart. They argue a bit over the inerrancy of the Bible and the virgin birth. Sam says the Bible supports slavery. Rick says he misrepresents the Bible and points out that Christians such as William Wilberforce led the fight to abolish slavery. They argue about presuppositions. They argue about atheism and the atrocities committed by the Communists in the 20th century. The discussion over the true source of morality points out the vast difference in worldviews between the two men. Sam clearly has a strong moral code that guides his life, but he evidently finds the source of that morality within himself. He notes that “empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses,” but does not believe they come from God. Sam says Rick is intellectually dishonest to say he is sure Jesus was born of a virgin. Rick makes a Romans 1-type argument for the “God-shaped vacuum” (he didn’t use that term) inside every human heart. Sam likes the good works that missionaries do to help people, but he doesn’t like the fact that they preach the “divinity of Jesus” to followers of other religions. He would prefer the missionaries stick to feeding the hungry and healing the sick. He also thinks that it is dangerous to live in a 21st-century world where so many people follow “first-century superstition.” Rick points to the resurrection of Jesus as the hope of the world. Rick makes one statement that I do find unusual: “(E)ven if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.” I think he was trying to point out the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (which is true), but I don’t think the Apostle Paul would have said it in precisely that way. In fact, Paul seems to say the opposite in 1 Corinthian 15:19 when he declares that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is futile and we are of all people most to be pitied because we have deluded ourselves by believing something that is not true.

As the discussion nears the end, Rick says that Sam’s soul is in jeopardy because he has rejected Jesus. Sam doesn’t exactly say that Rick is wasting his life believing a superstition, but he does think that Rick could find a better foundation than the Bible. Sam isn’t sure if humans have a spirit or a soul. The discussion ends with Rick offering his contemporary version of Pascal’s famous wager:

Christianity has done far more good than bad. Altruism comes out of knowing there is more than this life, that there is a sovereign God, that I am not God. We’re both betting. He’s betting his life that he’s right. I’m betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he’s right, I’ve lost nothing. If I’m right, he’s lost everything. I’m not willing to make that gamble.

What are we left with after the dust settles? Nothing earth-shaking. It was a useful discussion between two men with radically different worldviews. Some Christians have written that it wasn’t a fair match. They wish Newsweek had gotten Ravi Zacharias or Don Carson instead of Rick Warren. Some atheists wish Sam Harris had been stronger in answering the argument about where atheists get their morality. Overall, I think Rick Warren did a nice job of giving a “street-level” apologetic approach to Christianity. Sam Harris held up his side admirably. Discussions like this demonstrate that men who profoundly disagree can at least talk to one another without losing their cool. Better talking that shooting each other, which happens in some parts of the world.

And it reminds us that Christianity is not merely a set of doctrines to be believed. It involves a commitment of the heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. I have always thought there is plenty of evidence for those who choose to believe, and there is room to doubt for those who choose to doubt. But even that doesn’t come to the bottom line. The faith we exercise is a gift from God. I did not believe on my own. Unless God had opened my eyes, I would never have seen the truth. And that is the testimony of every child of God. Once I was blind, but now I see.

That fact should not deter us from discussing and debating with those who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ. By the very act of discussion, we find out what we really believe and we learn how to explain it to others. We also learn what other people believe, and we gain an appreciation of how others view our Christian faith. And though our arguments by themselves have no power to convert anyone, God may use our witness to open the eyes of someone else, just as he opened ours.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?