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. 

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.  

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Ellen Effect

Ellen Degeneres has a weird effect on Christians.  By now you've likely heard, in the news, about the latest "One Million Moms" campaign.  If not, the long and the short of it is that this "family" organization is trying to have Ellen fired, as a J.C. Penney spokesperson, simply because she's gay.  Whoops, sorry about that, it's actually because J.C. Penney needs to "remain neutral in the culture war". It's a lost cause, of course, since J.C. would literally have to be bat-shit crazy to fire someone as wildly popular as Ellen Degeneres.  Besides, they've already told "One Million Moms" to "suck it" (J.C. Penney didn't actually use those words; but I have to admit it would have been pretty funny if they had).

Now, despite the exaggerated numbers ("One Million Moms", yeah right) the truth is, more than likely, that the majority of Christians probably don't want to see Ellen fired.

But hearing this story got me to thinking about how more moderate Christians internally "process" the existence of people like Ellen.  For example, I recently overheard a conversation (on Ellen) between a couple of Christian friends of mine.  It was a perfectly routine interaction, for within Christian circles, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about the implications of it over these past few weeks.  Basically, the discussion went (roughly) a little something like this...

Friend 1..."Did you hear about that thing Ellen did yesterday?"

Friend 2..."Yes!  Wow!  She gives away the best prizes of anyone on television!"

Friend 1..."I think even non-Christians can sometimes do good things.  She does do a lot of good, for people who really need it, on her show...".  (Pregnant pause, to see if friend 2 will agree to the premise...)

Friend 2..."Yeah, you're right, she does help a lot of people."

At this point, the conversation on Ellen pretty much died.  I mean, there was really nothing left for them to say.  I think it's because the next logical step, in that stream of thought, is to wonder why Ellen does so many "good things" "even though" she's not a Christian (and she's gay).  Truth be told, most Christians haven't the faintest idea whatsoever.

This innocent discussion, between my two friends, demonstrates something I'm going to call "The Ellen Effect".  Let's define "The Ellen Effect" this way; "cognitive dissonance, created in religious believers, by non-believers who are well known for their good deeds and/or strong character".

There are a few others, who spring immediately to mind, as also creating "The Ellen Effect" in Christians.  Three quick examples would be Pat Tillman, Angelina Jolie, and Warren Buffett.  The first is a guy who voluntarily stepped down, from a prestigious professional football career, so he could serve his country in the army.  (Sadly, he also died for his country.)  The second is a woman who has chosen to use her considerable fame to promote humanitarian causes (and she takes those causes seriously).  The third is a noted philanthropist, having pledged to give away 99% of his fortune to charity. Despite their considerable "good works", none of these people seems to have the slightest interest in Christianity (or religious belief of any kind).  Two of them, in fact, are (or were) avowed atheists.

But all of this should lead the thinking believer, very naturally, to the doorstep of two obvious questions; a) what motivates these people?, and b) why do they deserve eternal punishment, after living this sort of life?  Christians will sometimes attempt to give a reasonable (but not plausible) answer to the first question, but I have never once heard anything even approaching a reasonable answer to the second.

So, based on "The Ellen Effect", here's my suggestion...not only should us unbelievers avoid being dicks, we should look for ways to increase (and point out) "The Ellen Effect" wherever we see it.  We need to give more money to charity.  We need to dedicate (or even lay down) our lives for the betterment of our fellow man and woman.  We need to make "The Ellen Effect" so huge that it reaches a tipping point; where believers begin to see their own beliefs as unpalatable.  And we need to stop accepting it when they say "I don't know because I'm not God", in answer to whether or not a specific person is (or will be) in Hell.  I'm not talking here about Universalist Christians, I'm talking about the lion's share of Evangelicals (who reject Universalism in the strongest possible terms).  We need to get these sorts of believers to actually admit, as this guy did, that those who don't believe as they do will be punished in Hell forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.  And then we need to ask them why such and such a person deserves this fate.  Is it justice?  Is it fair?  Is it even "moral", according to literally any sensible definition of the word, for God to treat people in this manner?  What is it exactly?  Quoting the Bible won't do. We're not asking what you believe, we're asking why you think what you believe is actually true. Believer, if you can't answer these questions, without strain, than your faith is not a reasonable one and you should give it a very hard second look.

I think the Christians over at "One Million Moms" are the truly honest ones.  They believe that Ellen is wallowing in the muck and the mire of her own filthy sin.  This unimaginable sin is horribly disgusting to God.  (And, according to Christian theology, all the other sins are too.)  Maybe getting fired from J.C. Penney would be the wake up call that Ellen needs, y'know, to save her eternal soul from damnation?

"The Ellen Effect" played a big role in my own loss of faith.  Sure, there is an abundance of evidence against Christianity and I've talked, and will continue to talk, about some of those individual pieces of evidence here on the "Respectful Atheist" blog.  At the end of the day though, Christianity starts to seem a little crazy too.  The problem is you can't see the crazy, while you're still a Christian, because you're in too deep to think straight.  Christians hypothesize a God who gives humans no eternal credit whatsoever for what they DO in this life.  But if you reject the historicity of some really fantastic supernatural things, that supposedly happened 2, 000 years ago, you're mega screwed.  But, hey, it must all be true.  It says so right there in the Bible.