Monday, 13 February 2012

Letter To A Christian Nation

People sometimes assume that the so called "new atheists" were a major influence in my de-conversion.  The truth is they played very little role.  I didn't even read "The God Delusion", for example, until after I was already an atheist.  It was interesting enough, I suppose, but frankly I'm not certain it would even make my top 50, if I were making a list of my favorite "atheist" books.  And to this day I have only read about half of both "Breaking The Spell" and "God Is Not Great" (I have not bothered with "The End Of Faith" at all).  I don't have anything against these books, per se, they just haven't captured and/or held my attention.

Having said that, there are a handful of "new atheist" books that did (and do) strike a chord with me, and one of those is Sam Harris' brief "Letter To A Christian Nation".  Interestingly, I've now had the rather odd experience of reading this book with three different mindsets; once while I was a committed Christian, once while I was in the throes of doubt, and again after becoming an atheist.  Suffice it to say, it hit me a little differently each time.  "Letter To A Christian Nation" is intriguing, for me personally, because it doesn't fall into the trap of "preaching to the (atheist) choir".  It was a direct response, on Sam's part, to the (no doubt) thousands of true blue believers who wrote him, after "The End Of Faith", to point out how very mistaken he was to lump Christianity in with all those "other religions".

This little book has, unsurprisingly, garnered some high praise from those who are friendly to Harris's point of view.  Richard Dawkins says, "I dare you to read this will not leave you unchanged.  Read it if it is the last thing you do."

Well o.k. then, that's a pretty strong recommendation.

But, is "Letter To A Christian Nation" really that good?  Do Christians need to read it "if it is the last thing (they) do"?  Over the next few posts I'll attempt to summarize the lion's share of Sam's arguments, interspersed with some personal commentary, and you can come to your own conclusion.

Harris prefaces the letter portion with a "note to the reader" where he demonstrates, using an assortment of statistics, the stunning prevalence of what you might call conservative Christian thought in America.  In my own observation certain "liberal" Christians have a way of underestimating these numbers, or at least downplaying their significance (and they often do so in conjunction with the heavy implication that the new atheists are attacking a mere caricature of proper Christian faith).  But if statistics tell us anything at all, and they do, the liberal Christians who speak this way are dead wrong on the point.  It is in fact the "liberals" themselves who are in the distinct minority, and not the other way around.  As such, the new atheists are completely justified, in my view, in targeting their jabs most directly at this (more conservative) brand of Christian belief.

As Sam says, "This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago.  This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue."

Well, when you put it that way...!

Once Harris gets into the letter itself, he quickly moves into an argument that has become quite popular in atheist circles over the past few years...

"The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist to the beliefs of Muslims.  Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves?  Isn't it obvious that anyone who thinks the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically?  Isn't it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry?  Yes, these things are obvious.  Understand the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity.  And it's the way I view all religions."

I have to admit that when I read "Letter To A Christian Nation", the first time around, this line of argumentation really got me to thinking.  What IS different about the Bible, I wondered.  I honestly wasn't sure.  I had recently learned, through some of my other reading, that many of the things I had previously thought were special about the Bible were actually untrue (e.g. that it was without error, or that it contained fulfilled prophecy).

Shortly after this Sam moves into a discussion of morality.  He rightly notes that morality is, at root, about happiness and suffering.  Is the Bible the perfect guide to morality, as Christians believe?  After quoting a few Bible passages that call this into serious question, Sam makes the additional point that Jesus himself endorsed the entirety of Old Testament law (Matthew 5:18-20). This is absolutely correct, but totally lost on most Christians.  It never occurs to them (nor did it to me) that what we believe today, about Jesus, may not be what Jesus himself actually taught or believed.  And history is written by the winners.  As Bart Ehrman has said, Christianity is not the religion of Jesus, it is the religion about Jesus.  Truth be told, as a Christian, there is simply is no getting around the fact that the Bible endorses all manner of things that every modern civilized society would now consider to be immoral (and often these things are even commanded BY Yahweh).

Take the issue of slavery..."The fact that some abolitionists used parts of scripture to repudiate other parts does not indicate that the Bible is a good guide to morality.  Nor does it suggest that human beings should need to consult a book in order to resolve moral questions of this sort.  The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.  It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany--and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known."

And, "As the Reverend Richard Fuller put it in 1845, 'What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin.'"  In other words, Biblically speaking, it makes the most sense for Christians to endorse slavery, not reject it.  They do the latter simply because the former seems reprehensible in today's moral climate (and the Bible can easily enough be cherry picked in some spots; ignored in others).

After a brief dissection of the Ten Commandments, Sam continues his discussion of morality this way...

"Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not--that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation... ...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--and even to discourage your own sons and daughters from having premarital sex--are almost never geared toward the relief of human suffering... ...Your principal concern seems to be that the creator of the universe will take offense at something that people do while naked."

To further illustrate this distinction Harris highlights several specifics, that are connected in some way to sex, that Christians have completely ass backwards.  One (very obvious) example, of course, is the Catholic church's much talked about opposition to the distribution of condoms in Africa (as part of the fight against AIDS).  To the devout Catholic, preventing artificial birth control, and pre-marital sex generally, is literally more important than saving human lives.  Shame on them.

Other, slightly less obvious, examples include the HPV vaccination.  This vaccine has proven to be 100% effective yet, in many Christian circles, it is resisted.  Why?  Well, because: a) HPV is viewed as a valuable impediment to pre-marital sex, and b) it is feared that giving an unmarried girl this vaccine will be viewed (by her?) as an endorsement of pre-marital sex.  Harris does not mention this second reason, but I bring it up because I personally know several Christians who oppose the HPV vaccine using this very rationale.

But the issue that really got to me, when I first read this book (as a Christian), was that of embryonic stem cell research.  To put it simply, when I picked up the book, I was against it; when I put it down, I wasn't so sure.

After a brief explanation, regarding the great potential of such research, Harris lays out the argument this way..."It is true, of course, that research on embryonic stem cells entails the destruction of three-day-old human embryos.  This is what worries you... ...A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst.  There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100, 000 cells in the brain of a fly.  The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons... ...Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human 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."

And a few paragraphs later..."The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics.  The link between religion and 'morality'--so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated--is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion."

The bottom line is this, Christians "are not worried about the suffering caused by sex, (they are) worried about sex" (full stop).  Do they truly have the moral high ground?

This seems like a good place to pause, before the post gets overly long, but I'll pick it up right here next time as we move into the second half of the book.  

No comments:

Post a Comment