Friday, July 16, 2010

Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation": Book Review

This condenses neo-atheist arguments efficiently if briskly. It sums up secular humanism. It prefaces longer works by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. It’s a pithy, barbed attack.

I’ve reviewed on Amazon, alongside with hundreds or thousands of bickering peers, “The God Delusion,” “god Is Not Great,” and “Breaking the Spell”-- as well as “The End of Faith.” (See my Amazon US review in Oct. 2004). Compared to “End,” I preferred Harris’ 2006 riposte. It ups the ante. Yet, it seems a lost cause no matter if you agree or disagree, given the polemical stances most critics assume. However, I tried to read this as fairly and objectively as possible. For comparison, I’ve also reviewed works such as Dean Hamer's “The God Gene” and Francis Collins' “The Language of God."

Given less than a hundred small pages in large print, this response to Harris’ outraged Christian readers cannot equal the scientific depth of Dennett, the cultural critique of Hitchens, and the magisterial tone of Dawkins. Instead, a rapid paraphrase of opposing views to his compressed assertions suffices. This review cannot address the immense philosophical arguments or the geo-political ramifications of the neo-atheist agenda. Instead, I will cite his main points. Judge if this book merits your attention.

He repeats Dawkins’ complaint that liberal believers “lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world.” (ix) He thinks progressive adherents lend comfort as it were to the “divisive, injurious, retrograde” versions of Christianity, for instance. However, he grants that liberals and moderates “can recognize a common cause” with unbelievers as they confront extremists and fundamentalists. (x)

Belittling literalists: “If we take Jesus in half his moods, we can easily justify the actions of St. Francis of Assisi” –- His other half justifies the Inquisition. (14) Yet, Harris acknowledges that such sacrificial self-denial for the greater good may be admirable. It’s only that one need not be a believer in the virgin birth or that Jesus “will be returning to earth as a superhero to take those teachings to heart.” (25) For those who condemn enemies of organized religion as atheist monsters—-Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots—-Harris coolly stresses how their problem is not that they “reject the dogma of religion,” but that these tyrants “embrace other life-destroying myths.” (41) Not extreme rationalism but unfettered “political and racial dogmatism” can be blamed for this totalitarianism. As with religious intolerance, it’s rooted in dogma.

Intriguingly, he finds red states in their religious and social conservatism in worse shape as to crime; 50 nations lowest in the UN’s “human development index” he concludes “are unwaveringly religious.” (44) Harris claims that atheist societies in advanced economies devote far more to charitable aid and social welfare programs. They also have far lower rates of CEO vs. worker income disparity: compare 13:1 in Sweden to 475:1 in the U.S. Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S are four-five times that of other advanced nations even as the U.S. proclaims far higher levels of devotion to Jesus.

“Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” (51) No more than Zeus or Poseidon, Harris regards God or Allah. “An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl—-even once in a million years—-casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.” (52) Due to doubt, nonbelievers who question taboos, hatreds, wars, even “diversion of scarce resources”—all the suffering attributed to religious fanaticism-- get relegated to the margins: compared to “the fantasy life” of one’s “neighbors.” (57) “Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.” (65)

He neatly inverts the arguments used by Christians against atheists to ask why Christians are not convinced by Islam. “Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.” (7) Conflating the claims of damnation sallied by Muslims with those of Christians, he warns how elusive will be the hopes of interfaith dialogue among pacified People of the Book. Millions will ally to die fighting against Christians before “they would allow your version of compassion to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.” (86) We don’t worship the same God in the same way, he chides; ask the Shi’a about the Sunni.

Raising children as Jews, Muslims, or Christians, he complains, is a “ludicrous obscenity.” He repeats, if more strongly worded, this protest from “End of Faith.” I am not sure how Harris can persuade his opponents, but he articulates the defiant unbeliever who denies the confidence of the faithful. This charged language may inflame his foes further, but he matches their fire with his own. Whether this is the most successful approach to take may not matter. I find corroboration in his dismissal of interfaith dialogue and platitudes about reconciling “worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision” (87). As with slavery, biblically sanctioned, he muses it may be a long struggle to convince irrational believers that scripture cannot trump morality to extend human rights.

Scientifically, Harris strives to dismantle, if hurriedly given the space allotted, the intelligent design proponents as well as creationists (the latter a Gallup poll tallies at 53% of the U.S. population). Of our plumbing that mixes our windpipe with our esophagus: “perhaps God has prepared a special reward in heaven for every child who chokes to death on a bottle cap.” (79) For those less trusting in inscrutable ways of a Creator, Harris can only sigh: “How is it ‘moral’ to think like this?”

Harris concludes: “This letter is the product of failure” for the attacks on religion that preceded it to bring about the death of God. (91) He wonders why the schools have not taught this message, why the media fails to criticize “the abject religious certainties of our public figures,” and the despair over the social failures “great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently.” He cannot accept why Muslims chant “death to whole nations of the living” and how Christians deny “tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.”

I’m unconvinced Harris’ vehemence will sway any Christian soldiers. His frustration shows. This may be more a handbook for those happy being preached to by the choir, but for that, Harris’s return to the polemical arena may be a welcome harbinger of the long-delayed victory neo-atheists seek in their resurgence to win. He refuses to back down, and he seems to relish this combative stance. He tires of conciliation, and wearies of compromise—and here he matches those he resists, as in any epic battle. (Once more into the fray, posted to Amazon US after 600-odd predecessors, 7-16-10)


AM said...

Really enjoyed this book when I read it three years ago. However, some of the views of Harris expressed elsewhere are abominable.

Fionnchú said...

AM, thanks for this. I was hoping you'd appreciate it; I tried to be very fair. I remember your copy sitting next to your son's high chair three summers ago nearly to this day!

What are some of Harris' "abominable" views? I know little about him but I figure he must hit the talk shows as one of the designated neo-atheist pundits. By the way, here's Hitchens in the NYTBR on Phillip Pullman's novel about the Christ and Jesus twins: "In the Name of the Father, the Sons...".

And a bonus from the NYT site: Mark Twain unexpurgated, while we're on the topic of dissenters: "Dead for a Century, Twain Says What He Meant".

AM said...


advocating torture and the right to kill people because of the ideas they hold. He is well known for his views on these matters, certainly on the question of torture. I didn't know it when I first read him.

tamerlane said...

Harris' positions are more nuanced than that:

But I still disagree with him that torture ever makes sense.

Fionnchú said...

TL, thanks for this update; I checked out Harris' website when "End" came out and it seemed too self-promoting (although that may be an oxymoron for an eponymous domain). This is worth sharing, and the "Killing the Buddha" essay will attract me back right now to reflect on this, as many critics were surprised by H's generosity towards Buddhism compared to theistic modes. That nuance, I admit, escaped me a bit back when I read "End" as I lacked the understanding of Buddhism that at least in its purer form (not its popular one over much of the world) directs one away as the other comments you left reminds us, from prayer towards meditation.

tamerlane said...

Harris & Hedges are two of my favorite thinkers, so I find it disconcerting that they are at each other's throats.

Fionnchú said...

TL, I loved this piece by Hedges: Forget Red & Blue: It's the Educated vs. People Easily Fooled by Propaganda.. You may have recommended it on LR, in fact. I have not followed Harris lately, beyond his books, and I mean to look up Hedges, thanks to your reminder.