Letter to a Christian Nation is a very quick read by Sam Harris. Harris is an interesting guy. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in philosophy and has studied both western and eastern religions. Currently, he is getting his doctorate in neuroscience. He’s a staunch atheist who thinks all religions should be done away with. But he’s also somewhat of a mystic in that he believes it is possible to make the “self” vanish in order to achieve higher realms of personal well-being (something that makes a lot of atheists uncomfortable).
I don’t know about his belief that all of religion should be gotten rid of. But I definitely agree with the rest of his argument. If fact is what is being debated, then clearly science trumps religion. No doubt about it. And clearly, most of Christianity (and religion in general) believes the debate is about “fact”. I’m just not convinced this is true of all religion. I do, however, feel quite certain that Jesus had no intention of creating a new religion. And I sometimes wonder if he was actually religious at all. I wonder if Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was religious, too. Both were definitely making some radical statements about the religions in which they were raised. I find it highly doubtful that Siddhartha intended a new religion, either.
But what do you do with a religion like Tibetan Buddhism that is so clearly social justice oriented? Or Thich Nhat Hahn’s discipleship and ideas of interbeing? Can religion be so easily dismissed when it does not claim to hold a monopoly on what is fact? I recently watched a documentary on the Dalai Lama who was asked something like, “If science proved unequivocally that reincarnation was an impossibility, would you continue to believe in it?” The Dalai Lama said that if you could prove that it was impossible, then they would have to change their ideas about it. But he asked, “how would you go about proving that it isn’t true?”
Harris claims that the Christian he is addressing throughout his book is one, that at the minimum, believes the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death. But he also condemns liberal Christians who may not fit this definition, as allowing atrocities to occur, too. Science is right, all else is wrong? That seems to be the message although I suppose I’d have to read his other book to know for certain.
Harris says these liberal Christians claim that “There are Christians who have no fear of hell and do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. These Christians often describe themselves as “religious liberals” or “religious moderates.” From their point of view, you and I have both misunderstood what it means to be a person of faith.” I think I am likely one of those people. But what I think I don’t agree with is that religion is necessarily about salvation or that we are even in need of salvation. What are we supposed to be saved from? I’m just not there with the utopian idealism anymore. In fact, I’m right in line with C.S. Lewis’s argument about this. Humankind was not meant to exist forever. What makes us think it should? Science is often every bit as utopianistic as is fundamentalist Christianity and it seems to me what Harris might be arguing is the means for achieving this utopia. If we all believe like he believes, we can save ourselves from ourselves? He genuinely believes one side has to lose in order for another to win. Perhaps he’s right. But maybe he’s just stuck inside the same paradigm of “right” and “wrong” the fundamentalist Christians are stuck within.
I’m not exactly certain what it is he is preaching. But what he has written in this book most definitely will not be heard by fundamentalist Christians. If anything, it will only strengthen their resolve because it is a direct, frontal assault. But I think he likely wrote the book to empower atheists and maybe convert a few liberal Christians. I doubt he thinks he can change the mind of fundamentalist Christians by confronting them with reason. That reasoning would be as circular as he claims fundamentalist Christian reasoning is.
He cites some pretty scary statistics.
- Only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process.
- 53 percent of Americans are creationists.
- 44 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.
He claims that religion divorces morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. I think in some cases this is definitely true. He says religion makes people believe their choices are moral when they are not. Again, no argument from me on this. But doesn’t science and reason often do the same thing? He claims the problem of religion is a problem with dogma. But isn’t science often equally dogmatic?
My mother was one of the few women in her era that actually breastfed her kids because science said formula was better. She said she was the only mother in the entire hospital that chose to breastfeed and that the only reason she was able to do so was because she was so headstrong. I had a hell of a time trying to convince my doctor that I wanted to have my kids naturally. “Why would I want to do that? It just makes things harder for both the patient and the doctor.” I don’t know. I couldn’t argue it reasonably with him. It just felt important to me in the same way breastfeeding felt important to my mother. And we were both headstrong enough to insist upon our way even though we didn’t have logical reasons for it. Now we have enough scientific data to argue our justifications for breastfeeding and natural childbirth. But at the time, we didn’t. It was simply based on something intuitive.
Intuition is not based on known facts. But give science time and it typically reinforces the validity of what was once “just intuition”.
As far as his statistics about atheists being more “moral” than theists, I don’t doubt it. So much of theism is heavily narcissistic. What is touted as humility is in reality narcissism and arrogance. It is my personal experience that atheists are far more social justice oriented than are conservative Christians so having the statistics to support this experience does not surprise me.
He claims that Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are the least religious of the developed world and that these countries are also the healthiest, have the highest literacy, highest per capita income, gender equality, and lowest homicide rates and infant mortality rates. My fair state which he calls pious Texas, on the other hand, has three of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. Recently, I read that Dallas is the most dangerous city in the U.S. But how do you convince fundamentalist Christians this is due to their belief system when Dallas suburbanites, who tend to be far more conservatively religious than actual city dwellers, live in some of the safest conditions anywhere?
Harris claims that atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the poulation) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence. But what kind of argument is this? Likewise, he can’t prove that God does not exist.
However – proving that God is benevolent might be a different consideration. There might also be an argument made for God as omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Clearly, the evidence is to the contrary. But not all Christians believe in a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent God. A UU Christian ministers here in Austin wrote a book entitled, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. (Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my bookshelf waiting for me.)
Harris writes that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. I’d agree with him if all of religion believed in a benevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent God that can interfere in the affairs of men and that takes a special interest in humanity (over the rest of nature). But not all religions believe in this sort of God.
I don’t disagree with him that we are creating major problems for oursleves with the recent rise in fundamentalism – both within the Muslim world and here at home. My husband’s family who was never particularly religious before have all become far more religious since 9/11. It’s happening all over the place and it is very scary. But if I tried to go up against my husband’s family with Harris’s arguments, they’d dismiss my intentions in a heartbeat. Harris’s arguments are not going to make them feel any less fearful. If anything, it would only make them more reliant upon their religious beliefs. It would only escalate the problem. Not solve it.
We recently had a big argument in our neighborhood over a hideous billboard an apartment complex decided to put up. We don’t live in city limits so have no regulation of such things. What had happened is that the apartment had been trying to advertise by putting little signs all over the medians. The homeowners complained about all of these little signs and filed a suit saying it was illegal for the apartment to place these signs on the median. So the apartment complex decided to build a monstrosity of a billboard for which there were no restraints. Had both sides tried to figure out what it was the other needed, maybe something could have been resolved without this hideous thing having happened. The little signs were far better than what we have now. But each side had to head butt the other and so everything escalated.
In many martial art forms, people are taught that the most efficient use of energy is not confrontation, but rather using the energy of the other against them. Perhaps that is what Harris is doing here, because clearly, fundamentalist Christians argue fact. But this idea that all of religion need be eradicated seems as self-righteous, narcissistic, and arrogant to me as does much of fundamentalist Christianity. I think there is a church of reason that doesn’t yet realize how religious it is because it believes it holds a monopoly on reality just like the fundamentalist Christians believe they hold a monopoly on reality.
How do you resolve such a difference? Clearly, as Harris states in his book early on, one has to lose and the other win. Maybe. But I’m not convinced.