Saturday, October 21, 2006

Letter to a Christian Nation

Ninety percent of us in America, maybe more, believe in God -- or at least we believe in some kind of divine being/entity. The number of avowed atheists is thought to be about six percent of the 300,000,000 Americans. That's not a large number. But the truth is the number of those who embrace some institutionalized form of religion is probably fairly substantial.

So I come to Sam Harris's best seller, Letter to a Christian Nation, (Knopf, 2006). I just finished reading this little book by the author of another best seller The End of Faith -- a book I haven't read. This is a hard hitting no holds barred, no prisoners taken, broadside against religion, and Christianity and Islam in particular. In the mind of Sam Harris the best thing that could happen to the world is to see religion eradicated. He holds out no hope for moderate or liberal versions of religious faith -- they simply provide a cover to the extremists who are a danger to the world.

This book of course builds a straw man and effectively demolishes it. To Harris, there is only one true Christian, and both he and they agree on what that means. Christianity is by definition, irrational, obscurantist, anti-intellectual, and given to violence (I agree some forms are given to such things). Whatever good can come of religious life is more than outweighed by the bad things it produces. True Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God and take it completely literally (even though a goodly number, myself included, seek to read the bible critically and recognize that not everything needs to be taken literally). True Christians believe that Jesus is coming back soon (Left Behind/Late Great Planet Earth) and that anyone who doesn't believe as they do, is going to hell (though many Christians take a much more nuanced perspective -- even embracing forms of universalism). That I don't recognize myself in his description shouldn't surprise me, so he says, because well I'm really not a Christian.

There are some really absurdities here, but in spite of the often insipid and strange stereotypes (such as a discussion of biblical prophecy that wonders why the bible if it's truly the word of God doesn't provide detailed instructions/information on really important scientific data), the book may prove useful. It is a reminder that religion, and Christianity in particular, has its down side. He reminds us, usefully, that persons of other faiths, such as my Muslim friends, look at me in the same way I as a Christian have looked at them. We are equally committed to our position and believe the other is destined for hell because of what they believe. Simply to declare that the Bible is true and therefore if its words are not believed one is going to hell doesn't really prove anything.

He raises important questions about religion and science. It's saddening to me as well that so many Americans have abandoned the scientific consensus about evolution, preferring to believe varieties of creationism or design theory. This rejection of science extends to other issues, such as the APA's findings on homosexuality.

Harris, who apparently holds a degree in philosophy from Stanford, believes that religion might have had an evolutionary benefit -- a glue to bind developing society together -- that glue is no longer needed in a rational and civilized world.

Do I accept his conclusions? No I don't accept his stereotyped version of Christianity as being true to the mark, but that's not the point. There are plenty of Christians, and religious persons of any number of traditions, that fit the stereotype. But, the point is simply this -- though 90% of Americans believe in God, a ton of people are intrigued enough to pick up Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and imbibe what they have to say. This tells me that there are a whole lot of people who say they believe in God, but aren't quite sure. I expect that Sam will get a few converts, maybe a whole lot of them.

I'm not convinced by his diatribe, but I am challenged by it. I'm not convinced that I'm doing something irrational -- if I am then a whole lot of very intelligent and thoughtful individuals are as irrational as I am. Several centuries back, Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote his Speeches to the Cultured Despisers -- Harris I think is one of those cultured despisers. Schleiermacher turned to religious feelings -- feelings of absolute dependence on God as the foundation of his defense. Whether that defense will work this time, I'm not sure. But, I also know that Harris isn't the first to raise these questions and won't be the last. But instead of assailing him for raising the questions, perhaps we would be well served by considering them for ourselves.

1 comment:

ken said...

I don't think Sam is building up a straw man. He readily concedes that a mass movement from religious fundamentalism to religious moderation would be wonderful, especially in the Muslim world. But, he makes a compelling case that fundamentalism is the norm, not the exception:

According to a Gallup poll, only 12% of American believe that life evolved through a natural process. 53% are actually "creationists". 44% of Americans believe that Jesus will return to Earth within the next 50 years.

Such notions are condemned by both you and Harris, but his point is that your moderation and refusal to condemn supernaturalism offers intellectual shelter to these extremists.

Your very criticism about the book seem, at least to me, quite well addressed by Harris. You are probably among the minority of Christians who read the Bible with a "critical" eye. You are in effect a liberal Christian. But Sam makes the point that the fundamentalists are right -- you either believe the Bible is the word of God, or you don't. And if you don't, then why do you treat it with respect and reverence?