I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, which has been in the news quite a bit recently. Early in the book, Harris puts forward an argument to the effect that Christians are inconsistent in claiming, on the one hand, that they have good reasons for holding Christianity while believing, on the other, that Muslims do not have good reasons for believing Islam. Maintaining consistency, concludes Harris, requires Christians to reject Christianity. I thought it was an interesting argument. So, I’ve been thinking about a possible response, and thought I would share what I’ve come up with so far.
As I understand it, Harris’s argument, when boiled down to its essentials, can be put thus:
(1) One ought to hold a belief only if one has reason to hold that belief.
(2) The set of reasons for believing Christianity is identical [in a sense described below] to the set of reasons for believing Islam.
(3) The belief-content entailed by Christianity is inconsistent with content entailed by Islam.
(4) If (1), (2), and (3), then any bias toward Christianity or Islam is unwarranted, in which case one has insufficient reason to believe either Christianity or Islam.
(5) Therefore, one has insufficient reason to believe Christianity or Islam, and thus insufficient reason to believe Christianity.
Statement (2) is the obvious point of contention. (For the sake of argument, I shall assume all the other statements are true.) Harris, addressing the Christian, supports what (2) expresses in the following paragraph:
Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling. The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible’s account of itself. There is a vast literature describing the life of Muhammad that, from the point of view of Islam, proves that he was the most recent Prophet of God. Muhammad also assures his followers that Jesus was not divine (Koran 5:71-75; 19:30-38) and that anyone who believes otherwise will spend eternity in hell. Muslims are certain that Muhammad’s opinion on this subject, as on all others, is infallible. (Harris 2006, 6)
Now, let us grant that, with the exception of the first statement, all the other statements in the quoted paragraph are true. In fact, let’s go further:
Suppose that for every belief C holds in support of her Christianity, M has a parallel belief supporting her Muslim faith. Two supporting beliefs are, in a rough and ready way, parallel if they are of the same schema where substitutions can occur on the order of ‘Koran’ for ‘Bible’, ‘Allah’ for ‘God [the Father of Jesus Christ]’, and so on. For example, if C has the belief, “Christianity is true because the Bible says it is true,” then M has the belief, “Islam is true because the Koran says it is true.” For every faith-supporting belief C has, M has the parallel supporting belief. (Of course, the beliefs that comprise the two faiths are not the same, otherwise there would be no difference between the faiths other than names. But I am concerned here not with the doctrinal content of the faiths themselves, but only with faith-supporting beliefs.) Let us call this the Parallel Supporting-belief Scenario.
As I see it, Harris’s argument for the truth of (2) requires the truth of the following conditional: If the Parallel Supporting-belief Scenario obtains, then neither C nor M has more reason than the other to believe her respective faith. My question is, does this conditional hold? I think the answer is ‘no’. For, a ‘yes’ would imply that reasons for holding beliefs must be other beliefs, which seems implausible.
To support my claim of implausibility, I draw from two distinct areas in philosophy: meta-ethics and philosophy of language. First, in meta-ethics many hold that the term ‘reason’ is ambiguous. For example, suppose Mort shoots Nate because the latter stole the former’s candy bar. The sheriff asks Mort what his reason was for shooting Nate, and Mort responds, “The reason is, Nate stole my candy bar!” “But that’s no reason to shoot Nate!” cries the sheriff. By the lights of many meta-ethicists, Mort is using ‘reason’ to pick out a motivational reason, while the sheriff is using ‘reason’ to refer to a normative reason. Mort’s action was unjustified because he failed to have a normative reason, although presumably he thought he had one. But what about the other direction: can one have a normative reason for believing that P, fail to believe he or she has that reason, and yet be justified in believing that P?
I think so. One reason(!) is why many think the causal theory of reference is true. Consider the following piece of fiction:
Russell is widely believed to have written Why I am not a Christian. In fact, however, McTaggart wrote Why I am not a Christian, and it turns out Russell actually stole the manuscript from him; then, Russell, a couple of years after McTaggart’s passing, published the book under his own name. Many have noticed the argumentation is not up to Russell’s usual standards, but no one suspects Russell of foul play.
Now, take the following two claims:
(6) Russell wrote Why I am not a Christian.
(7) ‘Russell’ in (6) refers to Russell.
If the fictitious story about Russell were true, then surely (6) would be false and (7) would be true. That is, in uttering (6), we would not accidently refer to McTaggart even if neither I nor any other living person were to know of Russell’s pilfering. What makes (7) true (and thus (6) false) is presumably a causal chain running from Russell to our use of ‘Russell’. Now, long before Donnellan and Kripke introduced causal theories of reference, we had reason for believing that names referred to the individuals who were so baptized. I, as a young lad, had reason to believe that I referred to George Washington when I said, “George Washington spilled his guts to his dad about the cherry tree,” even though the story is false and I said it long before I had heard of the causal theory of reference. It is not belief in a theory of reference that gives reason for believing that we refer to someone correctly, even when we make false claims about him or her; what provides the reason is the causal chain running from the named individual to the utterance of the name, whether or not we know about the causal chain.
Now, take the event, central to the Christian faith, of the Resurrection (my use of a Christian event is unimportant; I could have used an event central to the Muslim faith). Suppose the Resurrection occurred and that the event was baptized, as it were, ‘the Resurrection’ by those whom Mary and Martha saw at the empty tomb. Now, if there is a causal chain running from the baptism to me and the chain results (in some sense) in my saying ‘the Resurrection’, I have reason to believe that I am referring to the Resurrection. This is so, even if I have no belief about theories of reference or about the causal chain linking me to the event.
But if I have reason to believe that I am referring to a certain event, even if I do not know of the reason, then I have reason to believe the event occurred, even if I do not know of that particular reason. To see this, notice, first, that my claim does not fail to take into account the de re/de dicto distinction: the reason for the utterance just is the causal chain linking the utterance and the event, all of which are on the de re side of the distinction. Second, notice that I do not have a similar reason to believe in Santa Claus’s landing on my roof last Christmas. For, there is no causal chain linking Santa’s landing and my reference to it. The sort of reason I am describing here for believing an event occurred will obtain only when the event actually occurs.
So, in short, the soundness of Harris’s argument relies the truth of this conditional: if two people having all the same supporting belief-schema for their respective faiths and the faiths are inconsistent with each other, then neither has more reason than the other to believe her faith. I am arguing, to the contrary, that together the meta-ethical distinction between kinds of reasons and the support for the causal theory of reference which I described indicate that some reasons for believing a proposition are not included among a cognizer’s beliefs. Clearly, the argument I am offering does nothing at all to show that Christianity, Islam, or any other faith is true or even that one in fact has reason to believe any one faith over another. My argument, if it is sound, shows only the falsity of a conditional crucial to Harris’s argument.
- Joseph Long