Sam Harris and the Pancake Elvis: an Orthodox Christian defense of the Eucharist

Sam Harris has seen immense growth in popularity after starting his latest project – Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast. This project has expanded his repertoire to include far more subjects in his talks than his traditional mainstay of New Atheist apologetics.

As part of the project Harris has released several memes as well. A recently released meme (seen below) equates belief in the Eucharist to believing that the body and blood of Elvis Presley could be conjured up from a stack of pancakes when “a few Latin words” are spoken over them. Many Christians who are unfamiliar with Harris’ long career of attacks on Christianity seemed to find this meme exceedingly offensive and responded with indignation, as if completely caught off-guard.

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For anyone familiar with Sam Harris’ material prior to his podcast this sort of meme is not exactly shocking. I was actually shocked when I first heard that his podcast was something other than attacks on theism. Harris, along with other popular New Atheist apologists, have made the proliferation of crude and uneducated comments about the faith so vast that their combined work is nearly a literary genre unto itself. So this particular meme struck me as business as usual.

What’s interesting about some of his reader’s push-back on social media is how they chose to defend Christianity by downplaying the sacrament of the Eucharist. Some worked the angle that the sacrament is unimportant or merely a bit of symbolism, perhaps imagining that they were throwing Harris an apologetic plot twist that would leave him dumbfounded. Instead, and I have to give Harris credit for this, he called them out saying, “This (the Eucharist) is not a metaphor. Those who now think it’s a metaphor have lost their faith in the actual doctrine.” (see video below at about minute 3:00)

It’s sad when an atheist shuts down a Christian merely by pointing out their heretical views in the light of Orthodox Christianity (granted in this case Harris used the Catholic argument of transubstantiation and not historic Orthodoxy, but you get the point).

That said, I thought this was a great occasion to offer a thoughtful response since the charge is often heard, albeit in different forms. What is the Christian to say in response to the accusation that belief in the Eucharist is tantamount to delusional or imbecile thinking – and not just from atheists but from many corners of popular Christianity as well?

Before giving a response I want to acknowledge that Harris’ statement is more nuanced than this. What he actually states is that it would be delusional for a person to believe the doctrine of the Eucharist (the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ) if the person was alone in the belief; however, due to the fact that millions of people believe it, it cannot be considered a sign of mental illness because, Harris states, “they are well subscribed.” His main argument is against what he calls the “horror of religion,” in that religion has the power to make rational people believe irrational things which they would not otherwise believe on their own.

Not sure if that makes a huge difference, but I thought it was proper to include.

Here are the top three responses that occur to me. And note, these responses are not aimed at proving the truth of the doctrine of the Eucharist, for reasons that will be explained, but rather responses that help protect the integrity of the Eucharist and help clarify the inherent problems in the attack itself.

1.  Concede and Ignore

My initial reaction to the meme was to concede the point and ignore it. Let’s be real, within the purview of New Atheist thought what else could they conclude about this deeply mystical and faith-filled doctrine? Of course they can only see it as the work of “lunatics or imbeciles.” And when one considers the sacrament from the historic Orthodox view it is even more mystical – far more mystical than even the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – to the point that the famous prayer by St. John Chrysostom which Orthodox Christians pray before taking the Eucharist states: “I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies.”

In short, for the Orthodox Christian the attack is not even worth responding to for the simple reason that the uninitiated have no access whatsoever to the subject and hence cannot be expected to engage the worshiper on spiritual grounds – grounds which are necessary to have the discussion. It is far better to concede the charge of being a lunatic or imbecile then to actually become one by attempting to explain the matter to an atheist.

2.  Highlight seemingly magical beliefs held by atheists

Rather than defend the validity of the Eucharist – which no Christian is either able or required to do – the discussion can continue if the atheist is willing to hear about beliefs from his or her own corner which seem to require a certain amount of magical thinking.

Many examples can be used but take a couple of obvious ones. First, isn’t it a bit magical to believe that once upon a time, without any intelligence at the wheel, Bang! the universe suddenly began to exist? Where did it all come from? When did 0+0 ever equal 1 trillion? We’ve all heard the various explanations, such as the theory of the multiverse or quantum fluctuations. But whatever the defense is it always seems to merely put the question back a step, never actually solving the riddle. Or take the tired fact of the mathematical impossibility of evolution being able to accomplishing its grand work based wholly on unguided natural processes. Or how about the abiogenesis theory – life from rocks? There are many more examples that would seem completely insane for an individual to believe if there were not a massive community of believers validating the beliefs.

The goal of this response is twofold: (a) to help the atheist see that there are many things people believe without physical proof, and (b) that Christianity is not promoting ideas that only “lunatics or imbeciles” would believe, but rather that it has captured by way of sacrament those phenomena which it has experienced historically and continues to experience today – things that drive-by analytics could never reveal.

3.  Note how Harris undercuts his own criticism with his meme

A final approach is to fall back on history. Not in the sense that history will prove the Eucharist, but rather that the Eucharist was never, at any point in history, considered anything but miraculous. There was never a time the Church believed that the Eucharist was something normal, some inevitable outcome of “saying a few Latin words”. The Church historic would readily agree that the idea of God taking on physical substance was seemingly impossible, yet this is exactly what the Church experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. There was no way of proving it scientifically, only experientially.

In a way, Harris’ argument is the old “flying spaghetti monster” thing. It’s simply a way of undercutting any belief in the miraculous by conflating it with any and all sorts of magical thinking: Santa, Tooth Fairy, Flying Spaghetti Monster, and God all share the same epistemological genesis – all are make-believe. The problem with this argument, as I’ve shown elsewhere, is that rather than demonstrating the sameness of these things it actually accomplishes the opposite. It demonstrates the stark difference in belief in God and these other things.

Case in point, Christ being somehow mystically the bread and wine of the Eucharist is categorically different from Harris’ meme of creating Elvis out of pancakes. The belief that God can inhabit the substance of the Eucharistic elements is based on faith: trust in a promise made by God who Himself performs the miracle; whereas a belief that a dead man can be conjured up from a stack of pancakes would be based on magic (or evolution, depending on how much time one allows, kidding): belief in a person’s ability to manipulate the laws of nature. The tendency to conflate fairy tales with religion, or magic with faith, is an unfortunate state of the New Atheist thinking, and very, very difficult to shake.

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One thought on “Sam Harris and the Pancake Elvis: an Orthodox Christian defense of the Eucharist

  1. The video has been removed. I wonder if Sam Harris became embarrassed by it. He didn’t seem to understand the doctrine, You didn’t download it by chance, did you? I’d sure like to have a copy of it to use against him.

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