Atheist Sam Harris’ Wheelbarrow

Recently I came across a comment from the atheist popularizer, Sam Harris, deriding Christians for believing accounts of Christ that come from a millennia-years old book penned by people for whom the wheelbarrow was emergent technology. I understand that for some people (apparently Sam Harris), this might appear to be an appropriate criticism, but the logic is more than a little muddled. Harris’ argument hinges on the idea that people whom WE consider to be technologically primitive are incapable of perceiving events as they actually occurred and equally unable to report them to anyone else with fidelity. Like other atheists, Mr. Harris is welcome to place his faith in such dubious conclusions, but there are a few things the rest of us should consider before converting to his beliefs.

First off, neither historical events nor truth statements are contingent upon the relative technological advances of the people that witness or record them. By Harris’ logic, anything and everything that ancient people did, said, wrote down or thought is contemptible for mere fact that ancient people were ancient people. Put another way, his argument suggests that technologically “primitive” people are incapable of discerning truth, much less accurately conveying it to those who come after them.
This isn’t just questionable; this is dumb.

Secondly, statements like Harris’ demonstrate an embarrassing lack of self-awareness when it comes to our own location in history. What I mean is that this sort of logic presumes that we are presently at the pinnacle of knowledge and technological innovation, and this is laughable. While it might initially be tempting to buy into this because of where we are SO FAR in human history on planet earth, a tiny bit of reflection will reveal that the sentiment is ludicrous even if we ruled out the possible technological advances of truly alien races (think ET). To clarify, while we can look back and congratulate ourselves for having come this far (iPods and space shuttles etc.), we are not at the end of time. We are part of a continuum and should consider that perhaps Harris’ wheelbarrow is to the 1st century what the microchip is to the late 20th century. Looking forward, what might we hypothesize that humans in the 41st century would say about the technology and understanding of people in the 21st century? Speculate with me:

Can you imagine, those poor schleps thought that electric cars were amazing ‘technological innovations’!?!? Since we obviously know better now, we should dismiss anything that those ignorant, 21st century fools did, said or transmitted to us here in the 5th millennium.

The (poor) logic here is astounding.

Of course I suspect that Harris’ verbal hand-grenade was not intended to criticize everything about 1st century peoples everywhere, but rather just those who had profound experiences with Christ and his church. I doubt that Harris approaches non-Christian and non-supernatural accounts and events of a similar vintage with the same amount of vitriol and skepticism. That is his prerogative, but it accomplishes little besides pulling back the curtain on his biases and materialistic faith-commitments (at least for those willing to look).

To make a final point, what if we turn the tables on Harris and consider the earliest Christians to be well ahead of their time. The argument might sound like this:

Because extremely educated and technologically sophisticated people believe in Jesus in the 21st century, this demonstrates that people who believed in Christ with the comparative technological limitations of the first century were truly thousands of years more enlightened than their non-believing associates.

I suspect that atheists will not be impressed by such thinking, and this is precisely why I am amazed that they think Harris’ quote on the matter merits allegiance or why they champion him as a spokesperson for their cause. Is he the best they have to offer?
Happily, I think so. Dig deep. Christians have nothing to fear.

Thanks for reading me.
-Lambeth

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About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
This entry was posted in Atheism / Secular Humanism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Atheist Sam Harris’ Wheelbarrow

  1. C_Lambeth says:

    This is a repost of “note” featured on my Facebook page several seasons ago. After participating in a recent and similarly themed discussion thread online, I thought it would be good to make space for it on the blog too. -CL

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