Tag Archives: Christianity

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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