Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

[Introduction: This is the last of my comments that I can locate from 2006, written after my high school friends and I had discussed an earlier Sam Harris book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” In our exchanges, I found myself alone among my friends in arguing that the taboo against delving deeply into the faith of others is a socially useful convention, enabling people of many different religions to co-exist in relative tolerance and harmony. My friends found that view antiquated and wimpy. The comment below reprises these themes. I have rewritten the final paragraph in light of events since 2006].

This slim book, less than 100 pages, is intended as a sequel to Harris’ earlier “The End of Faith.” My own spiritual inclinations might best be described as secular humanism; I respect but reject Christianity and organized religion generally. I therefore found myself in agreement again, as I did in Harris’ earlier book, with most of his fervently argued points about Christian theology. But the fervor of his argument suggests that Harris’s letter is really for like-minded secularists. Although he makes a few concessions and includes some efforts to be respectful to the hypothetical Christian he is addressing – the person who believes, “at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death” (p.viii)– the style overall is very much “in your face” and not designed to win many converts among such Christians. Rather, he has set out, as he says with no tinges of false modesty, to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms” by engaging Christianity “at its most divisive, injurious and retrograde” (p.ix).

I don’t think we get very far by demolishing the foundations of others’ theology. I look at theology as a set of beliefs based on faith, which many people decide, for all kinds of interesting psychological reasons, to place outside the usual empirical and scientific processes that we try, however imperfectly, to apply in other aspects of our lives. Rather than seeking to show the scientific dubiousness of Christian theology, I would have preferred a letter which tries to convince devoted Christians that their religion should be an essentially private matter, rather than one that animates public policy. In many ways, this is a tougher argument. Christians arguing for a religious role in public life usually cite the religious motivation of many abolitionists in the 19th century, and of course, Martin Luther King in the 20th . (Two recent Washington Post columns present good arguments for minimizing religion in public life: Michael Gerson, a conservative who served in the George W. Bush White House: “Too Much Religion in Politics,” Washington Post, March 27, 2012:

http://cjonline.com/opinion/2012-03-29/michael-gerson-too-much-religion-politics;

and E.J. Dionne, a liberal Catholic: “A Holy Week Entreaty,” Washington Post, April 5, 2012:

http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/ej_dionne/e-j-dionne-jr-a-holy-week-entreaty-on-religion/article_317e8b3c-b92e-5557-81e1-5d42c792dfed.html).

I couldn’t read either Harris book without thinking that his real point is that anyone who embraces Christianity in any of its forms is at best intellectually dishonest. This leads to a problem I have seen among many — but certainly not all – atheists: a tendency to demonize theists. Although understandable for atheists who are routinely demonized by some true believers, this tendency in my view should nonetheless be avoided. My problem is that I know too many highly intelligent people from all walks of life — doctors, educators, investment counselors, carpenters, auto mechanics, even an occasional lawyer – who are very intelligent and profess to be Christians. Does their faith approach that of the dogmatic hypothetical recipient of Harris’ letter? Are they at base intellectually dishonest? For the most part, I can’t say. I have assiduously applied the taboo that Harris wishes to discard, which cautions against probing too closely into other folks’ religion. But I do know many hyper-intelligent practicing Christians, and am not comfortable with Harris’ attempt to belittle if not demonize them.

Further, as in Harris’ earlier book, I remain unconvinced by his analysis of Islam. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” Harris writes, is a “fantasy” and:

it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognized why this is so – it is because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. Muslims tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with Islam. And Muslims who don’t view the world in these terms risk being branded as apostates and killed by other Muslims.

(p.85; emphasis in original).

I found this passage “way overstated” in 2006 and still do, six years later. If Harris is even close to the mark, there is hardly any point in “dialogue with the Muslim world.” I was curious whether the on-going “Arab Spring,” in which millions in Muslim countries have manifested their preference for a more pluralist democracy in their countries, might have prompted some modification in Harris’ views. While I didn’t find anything “directly on point,” as the lawyers say, last month, Harris posted an article, “Islam and the Future of Liberalism” (www.samharris.org/blog/item/islam-and-the-future-of-liberalism). There, Harris writes:

Of course, millions of Muslims are more secular and are eager to help create a global civil society. But they are virtually silent because they have nothing to say within the framework of their faith. (They are also afraid of getting killed). That is the problem we must keep in view. And it represents an undeniable difference between Islam and Christianity at this point in history.

Many people who would like to see pluralist democratic institutions established in their predominately Muslim countries have been anything but “virtually silent.” No small number have been killed, others tortured, yet the strength of their democratic vision has prompted Muslims and non-Muslims in the Arab world to continue to manifest their belief that democratic institutions offer the best way forward for their beleaguered countries. The Arab Spring has a long, uphill way to go before such institutions become firmly rooted, and fundamentalist religious groups may yet prevail. There is probably less reason for optimism today than six months ago. But the heartening aspect of the Arab Spring is that so many democratic-minded Muslims have not been silent.

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
April 16, 2012
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11 Comments

Filed under Politics, Religion

11 responses to “Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

  1. Tom Fagan

    Nice work Tom – as usual a thoughtful and even-handed piece of work. I find that the “new” atheism is really anti-theism, and I don’t like it much. Atheism = there is no God; Antitheism = there is no God and those who believe are at best stupid and at worst evil. I attended a talk by anti-theist rock star Richard Dawkins a while back and I must say that if I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that I was at a mega-church of a televangelist preaching to a glassy-eyed congregation of dogmatic [indeed militant] non-belivers. It was like a Dead concert where everybody knows all the lyrics, but a lot less fun. The atmosphere was closed-minded, smug, humorless and almost puritanical. No thanks.

  2. Tom, thanks for the nice words. I remember your mentioning Dawkins’ old time revival in one of our exchanges a few years ago. These guys can get pretty strident, to be sure. But I do dearly miss Hitch. .

  3. David

    Well done, Tom. May I add that atheism is defined by the particular god one cares to deny: it may be child’s play to take on the Judeo-Christian-Islamic godling; more manly to face off with Platonic-Aristotelian-Plotinan-Avicennan-Averroan-Spinozan Sublime.

  4. David

    addendum: Islam was fully rational and scientific centuries before our western enlightenment. Was not Afghanistan a reasonably sane place (Ahmad Shah Durrani) before the barbarous “Great Game” that continues unabated?

  5. I wholly agree with Tom.
    Being a Christian does not make of you a dishonest person any more than being a Muslim would make of you either a coward or a terrorist but refuting either of those plain truths definitely may make of you a bigot or, worse, an ignoramous!

  6. On the contrary. It should seem to a rational person highly unlikely that the explanations given by the major religions for the origin of the world and human life are true. That rather obvious statement should matter more to people inclined to be religious than it seems to. There is much beauty and ethical wisdom in each of the religious traditions (take your pick), but to my mind, same is canceled out by recurring ugliness and violence in the conduct of religious people. Religion is given an intellectual pass because it is typically so bound up in our family upbringing and cultural identity that questions of its truth are trumped or too uncomfortable to confront.

    I can’t account for or excuse the hauteur or smugness of the anti-religious mentioned earlier. But, as a humble atheist, I would submit that the righteous sanctimony frozen on to the faces of the devout is equally off-putting.

  7. Tom Fagan

    My point re: my experience with the adoring herd at “Dawkinsfest” was that the zealousness of the non-believers – or more aptly the anti-belivers – is just as dogmatic, blinkered and, ultimately, dangerous to free thought as that of the true believers in religious fundamentalism of whatever denomination. Rationality and faith are not mutually exclusive world views.

  8. The discourtesy of the anti-believers is a bad thing, I certainly agree, especially when they assume that pose of omniscient noblesse. But the manners and “profile” of believers and non-believers is a side issue. How likely is any particular religious explanation (of the thousands} of the world to be true? The leap of faith required of the believer is of a Ralph Boston variety compared to the mere footstep of the non-believer. Then there is the problem of discourse. Consciously or not, getting to the truth of the matter (or at least closer to it) quickly morphs into a defense of one’s self, family, community, and thus does the water quickly become muddied with mud and then more mud.

  9. Tom Fagan

    It doesn’t have to be that way TGlenn.. Our exchange is Exhibit A. BTW, most of the universe consists of dark matter which science has not been able to explain adequately.. That’s another reason why humility is necessary when discussing issues spiritual, scientific and cosmic. There’s a lot that we don’t know and it may be that we naked apes just aren’t equipped to figure out. That doesn’t mean we should give up trying.

  10. Tom,
    Humanists can be humble too. After all, it’s only a result of millions of years of natural selection and countless nameless gushy processes that we find ourselves at the center of the universe – we never willed it. Chances still are that God didn’t either.

    Your references to the prevalence of dark matter in the universe and to humility called to mind this from Shakespeare:

    “They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons,
    to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.
    Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors,
    ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge,
    when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.”

    Yes, this may seem to catch Shakespeare in a moment nearer to you than to me. I don’t happen to think so, but that can be for another time.

  11. Thanks to David, Chanh and the two Toms, Fagan and Thompson, for, as always, thoughtful comments

    David is certainly right that Islam was way ahead of Christianity in what we term the Dark Ages – it wasn’t at all dark in those Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf lands. David is also a specialist in ancient Greece, and knows their gods well. My experience with ancient Greece is largely limited to a couple of trips to Athens and the Acropolis + one undergraduate course, officially known as Greek and Roman Studies and affectionately called “Chariots.” But I do remember thinking that the gods that the Greeks worshiped were a formidable lot.

    Chanh, I’ve often told those who bemoan my unwillingness to come aboard the Christian train that there are good Christians and bad Christians, just as there good Jews and bad Jews, good Muslims and bad Muslims – and you could say the same about any of the other of the world’s religions. If I thought that Christianity was more likely to make one a good person than Judaism, Islam or any of the others, I’d consider signing up. But I don’t see it.

    I look at the exchange between the two Toms as a coin where the two sides appear very different– but it’s still the same coin. Finding the compatibility between faith and reason has obviously grabbed the attention of many heavyweights over the years. Indeed, I vaguely recall that the Greeks wrestled with this issue – maybe David can elaborate and enlighten. In addition to Tom Fagan’s insights, a book I read a few years ago by Francis Collins explores this issue in great detail, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Collins is currently Director of the National Institute of health and known for his pioneering work on Human Genome Project, thus a distinguised man of science. But he is also an evangelical Christian and believes in the full compatibility of reason and the Christian faith – two entirely different domains, governed by different rules. He failed to convince me, but I gave him credit for a good try.

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