Mailed Fist

I’ve just read Sam Harris’s Letter To A Christian Nation. It is brief — one can finish it in an hour or so — but pungent.

Readers of these pages will know of Sam Harris; I’ve mentioned him often, and in a previous post I linked to videos of the Beyond Belief conference in which he played an important role. He is one of the “New Atheists” that have been going on offense lately with best-selling books (others being Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens), and as a nonbeliever myself, I am of course inclined to give them a sympathetic reading.

Harris’s book is in the form of an open letter to a Christian fundamentalist. He acknowledges in his introduction that many believers are not of this sort, but takes even such moderate Christians to task for their liberal tolerance of toxic religious views:

In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” address. They should, however, recognize one hundred and fifty million of their neighbors. I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths. Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world.

The book is blunt, it is harsh, but it is clear, and it is, with few exceptions, well argued. And the problem is serious. Harris reminds us that, according to a recent poll, a shocking 53% of Americans are creationists:

Despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the Earth, more than half the American population believes that the entire cosmos was created 6,000 years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect presidents and congressmen — and many who themselves get elected — believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s Ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the Earth and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.

Harris scythes his way swiftly and methodically through many of the assumptions that undergird Christian faith, with the notion that religion provides a necessary moral keel getting the most attention. He presents an abundance of repugnant moral examples from the Old Testament — they are not hard to find — and offers numerous citations from the New Testament as well, to rebut the suggestion that the apostolic accounts of the teaching of Jesus provide a repudiation of the horrors of the earlier text.

He rails against the obsession that religious fundamentalists always seem to have with sex:

One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. … 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. …

Consider, for instance, the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The virus infects over half the American population and causes nearly five thousand women to die each year from cervical cancer; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than two hundred thousand die worldwide. We now have a vaccine for HPV that appears to be both safe and effective. The vaccine produced 100 percent immunity in the six thousand women who received it as part of a clinical trial. And yet, Christian conservatives in our government have resisted a vaccination program on the grounds that HPV is a valuable impediment to premarital sex. These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year.

The points Harris attacks — the lack of evidence for God, the moral inconsistency of the Bible, its conflicts with scientific facts, the hostile divisiveness of religious faction, and the horrors committed in religion’s name — are well-known chinks in the believer’s armor, and have been targeted for centuries. The fact is, though, that the most successful religions are brilliantly designed to deflect criticism, and I imagine Harris considers that it is only by pressing hard upon these genuine and inherent weaknesses that religion’s grip on otherwise rational minds may ever be loosened. So press hard he does.

On abortion:

[T]he Church’s position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50 percent of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a womwn even realizing she was pregnant. In fact, 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, he is the most prolific abortionist of all.

On the notion that God loves us:

Examples of God’s failure to protect humanity are everywhere to be seen. The city of New Orleans, for instance, was recently destroyed by a hurricane. More than a thousand people died; tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions; and nearly a million were displaced. … [What] was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. … These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend. … And yet, as will come as no surprise to you, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that 80 precent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God. …

One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda, even with machete-wielding preists among the perpetrators. Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the twentieth century, manu of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith.

On the waste of our resources on religion:

Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in.

On the Bible as the literal word of an omniscient God:

[The Bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.

A book written by an omniscient being could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight humanity has ever known. … Why doesn’t the Bible say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the Universe? What about a cure for cancer? When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding wil be easily summarized in a few pages of text. Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? Good, pious people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, and many of them are children. The Bible is a very big book. God had room to instruct us in great detail about how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. To one who stands outside the Christian faith, it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

On “intelligent design”:

Over 99 percent of all the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design. When we look at the natural world, we see extraordinary complexity, but we do not see optimal design. We see redundancy, regressions, and unnecessary complications; we see bewildering inefficiencies that result in suffering and death. We see flightless birds and snakes with pelvises. We see species of fish, salamanders, and crustaceans that have nonfunctional eyes, because they continued to evolve in darkness for millions of years. We see whales that produce teeth during fetal development, only to reabsorb them as adults. Such features of our world are utterly mysterious if God created all species of life on earth “intelligently”; none of them are perplexing in light of evolution.

You get the idea. Many will argue that Harris is attacking a straw man; that he is going after the easy targets, the benighted literalists, the book-burners, the hayseeds, the Yahoos, while overlooking the far subtler theology of millions of benign and educated Christians. But the people to whom Harris directs his letter are not straw men: they are very real, and here in America, they are many. And while nobody has a quarrel, really, with the mild-mannered vicar, or the ladies at the church social, the umbrella of uncritical tolerance that we and they extend to all religious beliefs also shelters a great many virulent pathologies.

Harris does go out farther on some limbs than his arguments can support. For example, there is this passage, on religious opposition to abortion:

If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulty than killing a human blastocyst.

Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. This is a fact. The argument from a cell’s potential gets you absolutely nowhere.

Harris clearly overextends himself here; even were it “a fact” that every human cell could be promoted to tax-paying citizenship with the wave of the geneticist’s wand (I assume he refers to human cloning, which is not something we have ever in fact attempted, though it is surely within our grasp), he overlooks the important moral distinction between merely refraining from cloning new humans from nasal cells and actively interfering with the natural development of an existing embryo. Abortion is among the thorniest of moral and legal issues, as I have written elsewhere:

This is law at its most difficult, in which separating the rights and interests of the parties involved — in fact, even defining how many interested parties there are — depends not on simple, practical considerations, but upon metaphysical intuitions for which there is no demonstrably correct answer, and about which people’s beliefs vary diametrically.

At what point is a fetus a person whose rights must be considered? The spectrum of human opinion ranges from before the moment of conception, as in the Catholic Church’s position on birth control, to the moment of birth and even beyond. The development of a fetus is a continuum, from fertilized ovum to swaddled newborn, and there is no place to mark the point where the “person” enters the picture. To the religious, ensoulment, and therefore personhood, may occur at conception; to others, the fetus is a proper subset of a woman’s body until the moment of birth. Who is right? By what criteria can we answer such a question? Viability? But that is just a matter of technique. The onset of rudimentary consciousness? We have no idea how that could be determined. Religious or philosophical beliefs? Sure. Yours, or mine?

But Harris makes few such missteps (and, of course, he rejects the religious side of the abortion debate that I mention above, though that still leaves unresolved the sliding tension between mother’s and fetus’s rights); in general the book is very tightly argued. Yes, Harris might fairly be called an extremist, and it may well be that he and Dawkins and Hitchens do more to polarize people than to get them listening to each other, and that they would get better results if they softened their tone. But one might also argue that extremism in the defense of reason is no vice.

Spend an hour, read the book, and decide for yourself.

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