Letter to a Popular Atheist

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist and author of "Letter to a Christian Nation" once again presents the case that the moderate believers shield the fundamentalists from public criticism and analysis.  Although much of his diatribe against faith is simply a regurgitation of historical atheism, this one idea is a new twist on the Enlightenment.  Harris presents the case that if we take the Bible literally and fully, that the God of the Old Testament would be rejected outright by any thinking person.  In his editorial supporting Congressman Pete Stark, he likens him to a modern day Cicero:

"Mythology is where all gods go to die, and it seems that Stark has secured a place in American history simply by admitting that a fresh grave should be dug for the God of Abraham - the jealous, genocidal, priggish and self-contradictory tyrant of the Bible and the Koran. Stark is the first of our leaders to display a level of intellectual honesty befitting a consul of ancient Rome. Bravo."
Harris' complaint is that honest public discourse on the subject of faith is forbidden for political and social reasons, and that it is time to call faith what it is -- a delusion.  It isn't clear to me just who is preventing Dr. Harris from exercising his First Amendment rights, but obviously he feels threatened by the forces of Medieval Darkness.  Popular culture and popular media are much more likely to condemn James Dobson than Sam Harris; nevertheless, Harris hopes to rally the broad base of closet atheists to speak out and denounce all religions as pathological mythology.  Go for it, Sam.

Let's assume for a moment that Harris is correct, that is, believers are delusional and misguided, faith is false, God does not exist, and the greatest threat to human survival is the irreconcilable conflict between the major world religions and their inflexible and delusional beliefs.  What then is the basis for his desire to save humanity from itself?  At the end of his screed, Harris says:

"There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith - but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical - and even spiritual - without pretending to know things they do not know."
So what does it mean to be ethical, or especially spiritual, with an atheistic worldview?  The underlying premise of Harris' disdain for believers is that delusional beliefs threaten the existence of mankind.  What are these "better reasons" for helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and defending the weak?  How does empiricism support the concept of compassion?  From an evolutionary point of view, what is the advantage of helping the poor, feeding the hungry or defending the weak? 

Nietzsche had a more rational answer for a God-less world, and his atheism was at least intellectually honest.  The superman does not need an objective moral standard -- he makes his own and imposes it on the weaker.  So it is that Harris falls by his own words; he pretends to know things he does not know.  He does not know what is good or what is evil; he only knows what is socially normative.  He does not know anything spiritual, because the spirit is imaginary, or at best a mental construct.

Francis Schaeffer said that secular man can only live in the lower storey (secular world) by borrowing from the upper storey (spiritual world).  In other words, atheists can only talk about ethics because they are immersed in a social structure sustained by the "mythology" they reject.  They borrow ethics from God and then claim that these ethics exist without a transcendent law-giving God to uphold them.  What the atheists cannot explain is how they justify their ethical standards. 

What does it mean to say that compassion is deeper than religion?  Perhaps we should adopt the behavioral model and realize that in a world without God, compassion does not really mean anything, just like freedom and dignity.  Maybe compassion is behavioral conditioning and has evolutionary value, but if so, we can hardly call this deep.  It is worse than shallow, because it is something we pretend to know which we do not really know.  We only respond to stimuli.

I agree with Dr. Harris that compassion is deeper than religion.  Compassion is as deep as God, and begins and ends with God.  It cannot be any deeper or higher than that.  Perhaps Dr. Harris should talk to Jesus; if I am not mistaken, I think He had a distaste for religion as well.