September 11, 2006

Dear maniacal rubes

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty

Religious faith holds a certain honor in American society. Institutions deemed religious are exempt from taxation. Discrimination based on religious affiliation is prohibited. Long held statutes do not oblige priests to report confessed criminals to civil authorities. There are also powerful taboos surrounding the discussion of religion in society. Reporters do not ask questions like: Mr. Senator, how can someone who believes in doctrines like the Virgin Birth or the Rapture be fit to make policy decisions on health care or foreign policy? Sam Harris’ short new book Letter to a Christian Nation attempts to tear apart these taboos and to convince Christians to abandon a set of beliefs that he believes are plainly irrational, dangerous and morally repugnant.

The first thing that should be said about Harris and his work is that it is refreshingly combative and consistent. If a religion is false, it is dangerous to civil society. In this he agrees with Torquemada and Ayatollah Khomeini. Previously Harris has stated: “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance . . . is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And in this letter he lays out the stakes bluntly. Liberal Christians and tolerant secularists need not apply.

Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false . . . the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. If the basic tenants of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself . . . . So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument and the other side is really going to lose.

Unfortunately, despite the moral seriousness that Sam Harris exudes as he examines the claims and effects of Christianity on society, this letter is more often than not shallow, silly and tendentious.

He opens by describing the response he received from Christians after his first book, “The End of Faith” made the case that religion cannot only be used to justify terrorism but in fact all religion is basically a form of terrorism. Someone purporting to be rational might anticipate that of the millions of people whose most cherished beliefs he has blamed for history’s ills, a few might respond intemperately.

It shouldn’t be surprising that someone who believes that religion deserves no quarter in a decent world radiates condescension and hostility from time to time. “You believe that your religious concerns about sex, in all their tiresome immensity, have something to do with morality. And yet, your efforts to constrain the sexual behavior of consenting adults . . . are almost never geared toward the relief of human suffering. . . . This prudery of yours contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.” Does anyone else find it odd that someone thinks sexual morality should be “geared toward the relief of human suffering”? Not just me, then. Harris has opened himself up to counter-attack here. Obviously it is not people following Christian sexual morality that are spreading STDs, which cause so much suffering. In fact, it’s high time we start questioning the theological propositions held by cads and sluts. Where is their concern for human suffering?

Harris argues that non-religious societies are better than religious ones in practice. Citing the examples of several northern and western European countries — and throwing in Japan to throw off rejoinder arguments about culture — Harris states that the United Nations’ Human Development Report names these as the healthiest societies “as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality.” But isn’t it also interesting that all of these nations are currently experiencing a native demographic implosion? If, as Harris suggests, the acceptance of religion is dangerous precisely because it puts a believer’s mind away from the things of this world and focuses him onto the hereafter — it is rather stunning to see that more secularized societies evidence little will to carry on in this world through their posterity.

Another truly bizarre argument is that religious prophecy just isn’t specific enough. “You would expect it would contain passages such as ‘In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers — the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus — and this system shall be called the Internet'” Oh, if only God would have condescend to bore his Fifth Century B.C. creatures with incomprehensible trivia about inventions with which Sam Harris would be familiar.

Harris does have a flair for imagined martyrdom: “[E]xpressing such criticism places the nonbeliever at the margins of society. By merely being in touch with reality he appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.” I confess I have doubts that Sam Harris is placed at the margins of our religion-soaked society when his first book is winning literary awards from the PEN American Center and Alfred A. Knopf has published his second. People at the margins of society generally command lower speaking fees than Mr. Harris.

Most of the book just restates objections against God’s existence and benevolence that Christian apologists and theologians have been answering for centuries. Why do bad things happen to good people if God is just, good and omnipotent? How come the Old Testament is so . . . uh . . . harsh, man? But Harris’ contribution not only ignores library shelves full of scholastic philosophy and modern apologetics, but also the recent efforts of top atheist thinkers.

Harris is a bit of an intellectual bully, picking on simple believers with his Stamford philosophy degree, rather than challenging Christians who are peers in education. He writes as if the strength of his contempt for religion and religious people is proof of their perfidy. Look at the outrage I’m feeling people. And while you’re at it ask me about my hate mail. If readers want a strong dose of atheism without sanctimony and moralizing, they can turn to Michael Martin’s thorough treatise Atheism: A Philosophical Justification — even Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian is more readable than this epistle. It is doubtful that thoroughgoing atheism will ever achieve critical mass in any society. People remain stubbornly religious or, if not religious, self-consciously “spiritual” or worse, superstitious. But if atheism’s expositors remain as sterile and joyless as Sam Harris, the persistence of faith is certain.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is Books Editor for the New Pantagrual and blogs at Surfeited with Dainties.

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