Thursday, March 26, 2009

A review of Sam Harris: A Letter to a Christian Nation

Recently I began an interesting journey. I decided to start surveying some of the better (or at least more popular) anti-Christian literature. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but rather literature that challenged my world view, and hopefully would challenge some of my presuppositions. I had two basic reasons for this: one was I was beginning to assemble a basic apologetics curriculum and another was I’ve long felt a need to engage literature “from the other side”. When apologetics is done “safely”, (as in, no real interaction with the other side), it often results in straw men.

So I made a journey (literally) to the local bookstore and picked up a number of best sellers / recommended texts. My first entry into this interesting territory was a short little book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation.

Sam Harris is a student of neurology, and often appears in debates and interviews concerning his atheism. In front of an audience, Harris appears articulate, quiet, restrained, and thoughtful. However, in Letter to a Christian Nation, he takes out quite a different tone. He is clearly very upset with religion in the western world, especially America. Although a good deal of his attack is focused on Christianity, especially the Christianity of the pew, he often lumps together most religions into this same boat, so more accurately his attack is against God believers.

Before moving into a critique, I want to begin by pointing out some important strengths of this book. First, Harris wants to direct the majority of his attack against more conservative Christianity (and by implication more conservative forms of religion). He dismisses more “liberal” Christianity by rightly pointing out that these questions are about black and white, and not the "greyness" of liberal Christianity. The Bible is true or it is false, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are true or they are false. This is a very honest and helpful beginning point for these discussions. It sounds like Harris does spend some time interacting with liberal Christianity elsewhere, but it does remove it from this “battlefield”.

Another strength of Harris’ work is his approach to morality. I have not read much in philosophy, but I do know that the question of morality is one of the most important of the atheist. It is not just that a purely Darwinian ethic is severely lacking, but it can quickly take on a clearly immoral structure rather quickly. After all, survival of the fittest is most certainly not a gentleman to species. Harris attempts to build a moral system that is entirely objective. From other interviews, I know that as a neurologist he is especially interested in defining morality at the level of the brain. In A Letter, Harris does briefly outline his (at least current) view of morality. It is really just a form of utilitarianism: morality is the pursuit of real happiness in self and others. If your actions promote happiness, they are moral.

The biggest problem here is that Harris’ morality is subject to the same basic critiques of a utilitarian ethic: how do you define happiness? How can a finite being know what actions will really and truly lead to happiness (such decisions require some form of omniscience). In any case, it is still encouraging to see Harris investing a lot here. It demonstrates a clear recognition of an important weakness of atheism, and he certainly does his best to find a solution.

Harris is very upset. This much is clear, if not from the title of the book, then from the first paragraph. He is responding to what he sees as a “moral and intellectual emergency”. He sees conservative Christianity as something that is contrary to the pursuit of a civil society, something that is contrary to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, something that is contrary to any kind of critique and discussion, and something that is fundamentally contrary to any sense of reason. At a basic level though, Harris is reacting to the classic “problem of evil”. This problem basically stated is how can God be all powerful and all good, yet he can allow such rampant (and seemingly pointless) evil to exist? I’m pretty sure this is one of the most powerful arguments against the Christian God, (both as a polemic and conviction). Harris not only sees the Christian God as evil, but possibly any god as evil, and those who follow him as either evil or very close to it.

I am pretty sure Harris is focusing his barrage not at the Christian academy, but at “popular Christianity, the religion of the pew. It is here that he sees rampant ignorance, blind faith, and moral indifference to both suffering that presently exists, and suffering that is a result of Christianity. The problem is, Harris is not really interested in dialogue, but with simply describing what he sees as a dangerous absurdity. Harris is venting at the Church, there is no charity here towards the other side. If you believe in God, you clearly are happy with the thought of genocidal piety, you clearly promote ignorance, you are clearly opposed to science and would rather sustain a blind faith, and you are only a few steps away from the logical conclusion of conservative religion: radical Islam or Nazism.

I do not mean to be equally unfair to Harris, but I did not walk away from this book with a perception that this was a fair entry in the dialogue over various issues such as ID vs. Darwinism, religious tolerance, the ethics of stem cell research, or any other issue that was touched on. Instead, he presents only the barest amount of evidence for his side, and then proceeds with a barrage of accusations on how absurd the conclusions are of the Christian. This isn’t a letter about discussion religion, but a letter about his perception of the logical conclusions and implications of Christianity. This point cannot be overstated. Harris is not trying to make the case that you should convert to atheism, (although I’m sure it would make him happy), but rather is making the case that western civilization is in serious danger because of theism. If we want to continue growing as a rational species, then we need to discard the destructive, intolerant, and profusely ignorant institution of religion.

How does a Christian respond to this?

I think the beginning of a Christian response requires a number of things. The first is the humility to admit that yes, there are plenty of professing Christians (whether real or not) who believe a lot of stupid things. Illiteracy and ignorance is not a problem that is unique to the church, but is something that is running rampant in the entire western world.

A second beginning point is to make some important distinctions. The first is that not all faith is blind faith. In fact, a good number of Christians talk about faith more in the sense of reasonable faith. There is a big difference between believing in the tooth fairy and believing in God. One is pure fantasy (encouraged by deceitful parents); another is the result of personal experience and rational argument. (Note: rational does not = materialist).

Another important distinction is between different religions. You cannot lump together all “theists” into one category. Islam is very different than Christianity, and both are very different than the eastern religions. Harris made such a distinction between conservative and liberal Christianity, but seems to have little problem treating the conservative Christian and the radical Muslim as the same. This isn’t just a point of doctrine, but worldview and what rational arguments are used.

A third distinction is within the church: there are moderate Christians in the pew, and radical Christians. The latter might be willing to blow up an abortion clinic, the former find that appalling. In a similar vein, there is a distinction between the educated Christian scholar and the average Christian in the pew. Many Christians are very concerned with educating the church better. There are a lot of important movements within the church. It is unfair to judge the church by the reductionism or misunderstandings in the pew, just as it would be unfair to judge atheism by a high school level education.

A final beginning point is recognizing our need for better dialog. One of Harris’ primary points is that Christians do not tolerate some important questions being asked about their belief. This is not a unique claim to Harris, Dawkins and others love to use this as a trump card. After all, the epitome of ignorance is a blind refusal to listen to a challenging question. But if the debate over ID in the last few years has revealed anything, it is that many atheists are in the same boat. Positing the limits of science, or questioning its all-inclusive rule is clearly not allowed. So we both need to listen to some of these arguments.

But those are just a beginning. A Christian response must include a defense of what we do believe. Christianity is not about intolerance, oppression, ignorance, or promoting suffering. The Bible is most certainly not about this. You can quote a few passages out of the Old Testament and try and make that case, but with further investigation it is abundantly clear that this is not true. Even if many Christians today have some wrong understandings of faith, one only has to look at history to see that when Christianity is done right, it produces a bountiful crop.

But further even is that there are a lot of very rational reasons for why Christianity is true. In fact, this is why Christianity stands apart from other world religions: we are primarily a historical faith. We are not concerned with people adopting arbitrary doctrines that must be accepted by blind faith. We are concerned with a divine man in history. Paul put it best in 1 Cor. 15: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain. This is a bold claim. This means that if the historical basis of Christianity fails, then the whole house of cards collapses.

Harris’ critique looses a lot of its force when one is simply confronted with the basic facts of what Christianity does stand for. And I certainly do not blame him for misunderstanding, because there are a lot of “Christians” out there muddying the water. Further, throughout history people have done a lot of bad things in the name of religion, even in the name of Christianity. I do not like hearing how one side or the other is responsible for Nazism: Hitler had his own agenda and used science, religion, and principles of atheism to serve his own purposes. Because people abuse a position does not mean that position is wrong or should be avoided.

The question then should be does Christianity make sense of reality? The problem for Harris is that he limits the boundaries of what is knowable to the realm of science. Only those things we know from our five senses and only those things from a naturalistic science are considered “fact”, “reasonable”, or “true”. This is an important philosophical conclusion that must be examined further: are there things that are true and real that are outside of science? Does reason extend beyond science? Does a purely naturalistic view of the world even make sense? These are not questions Harris addresses, but rather assumes. And these are key questions where Christianity and atheism diverge.

More importantly though, in reading this book I realized that both atheists and theists are guilty of “preaching to the choir”. We may walk away having felt better about ourselves, and although our sales might be up, very little is accomplished. Others aren’t educated, because they weren’t really exposed to the real arguments of the other side. Further, little if any dialog takes place because we weren’t interested in dialog to begin with.

But hopefully what we are all interested in is truth. At some basic level, this must be rational truth, (because any other truth simply doesn’t make sense). The pursuit of this truth is not helped by name calling and drawing wild and unlikely implications from one view. We need to examine the arguments and see what makes the best sense of the world around us. It is interesting and ironic that the beginning of my journey started with this book. I was hoping to better educate myself, but I encountered something very different. I had to look elsewhere to find a better presentation of Harris’ views.

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