Saturday, 25 February 2012

Letter To A Christian Nation, Part 2

After Harris' discussion of Christian morality, which we covered last time, he touches quickly on "doing good for God". Yes, he admits, it is true that many Christians have done good things in the name of God.  "But is it necessary to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to behave this way?" No.  "If compassion were really dependent upon religious dogmatism, how could we explain the work of secular doctors in the most war ravaged regions of the developing world?" One need look no further than the (fully secular) Doctors Without Borders, for example.  "We might also wonder, in passing, which is more moral: helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think the creator of the universe will reward you for it?"

In the interest of time I'm going to skip completely over Harris' comments on both Mother Theresa, and abortion, so we can touch on the concerns that Christians have over Godless interpretations of morality.  If religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, as believers claim, than why is it that atheists are not more immoral than believers? Why?  Let's use scientists, as an example, since a whopping 93 percent of the National Academy of Sciences members do not accept the idea of God.  93%!  This, surely, has got to be one of the largest atheist infused professions in the world.  But are scientists known for their immorality?  Is it scientists that are overcrowding our prison system?  The very thought of it is laughable.

It is, at this point, that many believers will counter with the oft repeated "atheist regimes" argument.  What about people like Joseph Stalin, or Pol Pot, they will say?  Doesn't their evil stem (either directly or indirectly) from their atheism?  Well, actually, no.  "The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life destroying myths.  Most become the center of a quasi-religious personality cult, requiring the continual use of propaganda for its maintenance... ...Tyrants who orchestrate genocides, or who happily preside over the starvation of their own people, also tend to be profoundly idiosyncratic men, not champions of reason.  Kim Il Sung, for instance, demanded that his beds at his various dwellings be situated precisely five hundred meters above sea level.  His duvets had to be filled with the softest down imaginable... ...It apparently comes from the chin of a sparrow.  Seven hundred thousand sparrows were required to fill a single duvet.  Given the profundity of his esoteric concerns, we might wonder how reasonable a man Kim Il Sung actually was."

We also have Hitler, of course, who claimed to be doing the Lord's work.  And, as Harris puts it, "the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi death camps was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity".

In summary..."The problem with religion--as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology--is the problem of dogma itself."

So if Harris is right, and we have nothing to fear from widespread acceptance of atheism, then what societal impact would it have if religion were to actually fade away?  Well, as it turns out, we're already catching a glimpse.  There's no need to speculate.  "While you believe that bringing an end to religion is an impossible goal, it is important to realize that much of the developed world has nearly accomplished it.  Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth.  According to the United Nations' Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality."

For a deeper analysis I recommend Phil Zuckerman's "Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment".

I still have a lot of ground to cover here, so I hope you'll forgive me if I breeze through the remaining issues rather quickly...

Next up, the problem of suffering.  "It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved.  It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs.  Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world's suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is--and indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgments of their happiness for no good reason at all."  How bad would a catastrophe have to be for it to generate doubt, among the faithful, in an all good and all powerful God (one who supposedly answers prayers)??  "It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith."

Let's move on to the Bible.  Don't many of the events, in the New Testament, confirm Old Testament prophecy?  Surely this, if nothing else, confirms that Christianity is true.  "But ask yourself, how difficult would it have been for the Gospel writers to tell the story of Jesus' life so as to make it conform to Old Testament prophecy?  Wouldn't it have been within the power of any mortal to write a book that confirms the predictions of a previous book?  In fact we know, on the basis of textual evidence that this is what the Gospel writers did."  Harris gives several such examples, some of which I've talked about in other posts, so I won't take the time to get into them again here.  It's worth pointing out though, that even liberal Christians do not get off the hook on this one.  They may not believe that every story in the Old Testament is literally true, for example, or even that the Bible is "inerrant".  Even still, they do think it to be, at the very least, "inspired" in some way.  And on what evidence exactly?  "Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously.  So why not take it less seriously still?  Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?"  This is one of the main problems that I still have with religious liberals.  It just feels to me like they're grasping at Biblical straws.  "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."

As you would expect, Harris also comments on the science vs. religion debate.  Do they clash, or are they non-overlapping magisteria?  Harris says the former, and (as I sit here today) I agree, but it was his discussion on evolution specifically that stuck with me the first time I read this book (as a Christian).  In short, I realized that I had been falling prey to some common misconceptions. "Christians who doubt the truth of evolution are apt to say things like 'Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.'  Such statements betray a serious misunderstanding of the way the term 'theory' is used in scientific discourse.  In science, facts must be explained with reference to other facts. These larger explanatory models are 'theories'."  Take the germ theory of disease, for example, does anyone today seriously doubt this?  No.  Yet we still call it a "theory", and we always will. (Interestingly, Jesus himself did not seem to understand the germ theory of disease.  File that one under the "more evidence he wasn't God" category.)

Although evolution is now firmly established, as both a fact AND a scientific theory (as Richard Dawkins likes to point out), Harris readily admits that scientists do not know everything there is to know about the Universe.  This leads him nicely into a related point, which serves to illustrate one of the key differences between these two ways of viewing the world (scientific vs. religious).  "One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for their intellectual arrogance.  There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell....An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse--and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists."

With that I come to the close of this cursory look at Sam Harris' "Letter To A Christian Nation". So was Dawkins right, in saying that believers should read this book "if it is the last thing (they) do"? I'm not sure I would go that far.  But I can tell you, in all honesty, that this was one of the (many) books that succeeded in chipping away at my Christian faith.  It stirred doubts, that were buried deep within, mainly because it forced me to think.  The book's strength lies in the fact that it's exceptionally brief (120 pages), so it might be a good one for those believers who claim "not to be big readers" (I know several).  Having said that, Harris does not soft pedal the issues, and this may be off putting to those Christians who tend to be more sensitive and easily "offended".  Also, Harris is, of course, taking the "shotgun" approach throughout.  No one issue is covered, in very much depth, but, having said that, I think this was probably the right way to go (this is, after all, why he calls it a "letter").  As I pointed out myself, some time ago, "most Christians have little difficulty maintaining their faith...since it is propped up by dozens, if not hundreds, of individual pieces... ...if one of those pieces takes a hit...there are still plenty of reasons to continue believing".  Because of this dynamic it can be effective, even necessary, to overwhelm the believer by showing them how and where they could be wrong about all sorts of things. 


  1. Really enjoyed this post and I am going to read this book.

  2. Thanks Cerbaz. Yeah it's a quick read, but worth checking out, plus there are a few arguments in there that I didn't have the chance to cover in these two posts.

  3. Great review. Yeah, this was one of the books that really made an impact on me too. I think his direct tone is one of the best things about it, though it could be off-putting to some Christians (as you noted). But there's no misunderstanding him here -- being direct allows him to plainly make his point, which someone like Dawkins might struggle with occasionally.

    For Christians who are open minded or already have the beginnings of doubt, this would be a helpful primer to show them why people turn away from Christianity. For a hardcore believer who has no doubts at all, this book would probably just be a turn off for them. Most of the latter wouldn't give his points enough consideration for them to make an impact.

  4. I know this post is sooo old...well only almost 3 years old and I don't even know if you still write on this blog. However, I had to comment-(I just found your blog btw) I was wondering what do you think of atheists that pray? Yes, shock this is a real thing. They know nothing is "listening" of course they just do it because some studies have shown that people who pray CAN lead healthier lives...I said can because I'm to lazy to RE-pull up all those websites I used to have bookmarked on my old computer. I mean if it is helping someone to be mentally healthy is there really a harm in praying if your an atheist? My punctuation and spelling are horrible. Your thoughts??