Saturday, April 16, 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

The End of Faith was better. There’s a quote from Richard Dawkins on the back cover of this edition:

I dare you to read this book…it will not leave you unchanged.

Well, Richard, Letter to a Christian Nation did not leave me unchanged. The End of Faith did. Still, there are some high points—places where Harris’ pointed and logical wisdom leaps off the page. Some of it, in fact, seems more pointed because he is writing directly to the Christian reader.

If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible. It is impossible to behave this way by adhering to the principles of Jainism. How, then, can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?

They can’t, as Harris well knows, unless they admit that the morality of the Bible has nothing whatsoever to do with the alleviation of suffering. Indeed:

One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. 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. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral—that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings.

How can this happen? Harris is kind enough to provide the reader with several examples from their own doctrine, including a look at the details of Christian opposition to stem-cell research.

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. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

But Christians are not concerned about the amount of suffering in the universe, as Harris has already pointed out. In this case, what they are worried about is their belief that the three-day-old embryos have souls. To which Harris presents the classic and simple retort of twins and chimeras—embryos that either split or fuse—and the mathematical gymnastics that soul-believers must evoke in order to make sense out of those situations.

Isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The naïve idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

Like humans with spinal cord injuries.

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 seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.

As I argued in my post for The End of Faith, and as Harris himself argues in that book, it would be best to drop “religious” from that last sentence, and rest the blame solely on dogma—religious or otherwise. There are plenty of atrocities and idiocies committed in the name of non-religious dogma, something to which Harris’ side of the argument is vulnerable if it only reserves religious dogma for its condemnation. Harris knows this, and has one of the best rebuttals to the “Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot” charge regularly leveled against atheists.

Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia are not examples of what happens to people when they become too reasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of political and racial dogmatism. It is time that Christians like yourself stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. One need not accept anything on insufficient evidence to find the virgin birth of Jesus to be a preposterous idea. The problem with religion—as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology—is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

I love that phrase—totalitarian mythology. I’m going to use that more often. It’s kind of like nationalistic mythology. Believing things without evidence-based reasons leads to idiocies or atrocities, whether those beliefs are based on religiosity or patriotism.

Two more quick quotes that are worth mentioning. One about the accusation of arrogance often leveled at the non-believer:

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 world view 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.

And the second one about just how messed up our society appears to the individual who lacks belief in a god:

…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. This is the woefully irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create.

Like The End of Faith, I’m not sure Harris is going to change any Christian’s mind with Letter to a Christian Nation. But if you harbor any doubts about the benevolence of a Christian-based society and those who would like to create it, this handy little tome will give you plenty to think about.

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