Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 112 pp., $16.95.
Sam Harris opens The End of Faith with the story of a young man who boards a bus, carrying a bomb under his coat. He sits next to a middle-aged couple who are discussing the purchase of a new refrigerator. Others board the bus, going about the errands of their lives. When the bus is standing-room-only, the young man sets off the bomb, killing himself and all aboard; the nails, ball bearings, and rat poison in the bomb spread the carnage even wider.
His family celebrates.
Harris points out that we may know nothing of the suicide bomber’s level of education, intelligence, income, or background. But why is it so easy to guess his religion?
Many books over the centuries have questioned the existence of God. Most mount now-familiar arguments. If God is the creator of the universe, who created God? If God is omnipotent, can he/she/it create a square circle or a rock so heavy that he/she/it can’t lift it? Yet despite such arguments, despite the complete lack of evidence for any religious claims, and despite the incompatibility of claims made by competing religions, the vast majority of people still believe in the unbelievable, with deadly results that are unavoidable. And today, nuclear technology within reach of faith-based fanatics means that the horrors of past religious wars can be visited upon us as suddenly as a jet plane hitting a skyscraper. It is in this fact that Harris sees the urgency of his task.
Among Harris’s targets, especially in Letter to a Christian Nation, are the substantial numbers of Americans who might be considered fundamentalist Christian. To the extent that they see Islamist violence as a serious threat, and to the extent that they are honest in wanting to understand this threat, they should give Harris’s books a serious and honest read.
The End of Faith examines the anatomy of belief with a special focus on faith as such. He also makes a powerful argument that religious moderates and liberals, who, thankfully, don’t feel compelled to kill their neighbors, deserve much of the blame for facilitating ignorance and dangerous fanaticism by tolerating and respecting faith as such.
Harris argues that religious moderates facilitate fanaticism by tolerating and respecting faith.
“‘Freedom of belief’ (in anything but the legal sense) is a myth,” he says. “We ... are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean
whatever we want when using words like ‘poison’ or ‘north’ or ‘zero.’” In saying this, Harris is not arguing for political repression of belief. Rather, he means that there is an objective reality to which beliefs refer and about which there is a “true” and “false”—and that beliefs imply actions.
If you believe that your daughter is being tortured, you will no doubt act in a strong and predictable way against those whom you believe are responsible. If you believe that the Koran represents the unerring word of god—that every word is to be obeyed by all; that it is an evil affront to Allah when someone does not follow that book’s teachings; and that the way to go straight to heaven is to die killing infidels who will go straight to the hell they deserve—then you might act in just the way so many Muslims do today. As Harris says, “Beliefs are principles of action.”
He goes on to develop a too-rarely-acknowledged insight best advanced in 1960 by Ayn Rand
in her essay “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World.” Rand did not take to task any particular religion but all beliefs that rejected reason, including political beliefs such as communism and fascism. She observed that a rational approach to life means providing others with reasons
to cooperate with oneself or to accept one’s views. However, if one rejects reason—if one adopts beliefs without evidence and good reason—then one can only gain the cooperation of others at the point of a gun.
When Harris addresses the question “Do atheists lack morality?,” he observes, as did Rand, that although some of the worst tyrants (Hitler, Stalin) might have rejected established religions, they were anything but models of rational thinking. Indeed, he notes the religious cult trappings surrounding the worst dictators, such as Kim Jong Il in North Korea today.
One of Harris’s most interesting arguments is that religious moderates share much of the responsibility for religious fanaticism. All beliefs, he observes, should be subject to verification. We would dismiss out of hand someone who based his pronouncements about medicine, engineering, or politics on superstition rather than reason. But the one area in which most individuals refuse to apply the standard of reason is religion, which makes claims that are absurd on their face. Religious moderates might disagree with particular “extreme” beliefs, yet they still insist that we must “respect” them. However, it is just this respect that allows irrational beliefs to continue, with all the incredible harm they do when implemented.
Like Christopher Hitchens, Harris is a man from the political left who has moved away from many of his ideological colleagues because of the terrorist threat. For one thing, Harris says we’re wrong to speak of a war on “terrorism.” That’s like declaring a war on murder. “Terrorism is not a source of human violence, but merely one of its inflections,” he observes; what religious moderates in the West refuse to admit is that the underlying problem is Islam itself. While Harris criticizes all faiths, he shows that to the extent that Muslims in particular follow theirs, they will become violent. He offers plenty of examples to demonstrate that the Koran is quite clear about the need for the Muslim faithful either to convert, dominate, or kill non-Muslims. Thus Muslims are not really extremists when they act violently, as too many do today; they’re simply taking their own religion seriously.
Harris thus rejects the view of religious moderates—and leftists—that the violence and killings throughout the Islamic world are due to traditional geopolitical and economic factors. The Middle East has been subject to colonial exploitation less than other parts of the world, and many Muslim terrorists and their leaders have good educations and come from prosperous backgrounds. Most religious moderates and liberals in the West simply cannot understand the motives of Muslims, Harris says, because they don’t take most aspects of religion very seriously. Moderates reject the most violent and morally reprehensible parts of the Bible; thus it is beyond them to grasp that the most devout Muslims are really just being consistent.
Religious moderates defend faith by pointing to examples of peaceful, caring religious individuals—proof, they say, that Christians, Muslims, and adherents of other religions can live together in harmony. Harris answers that moderates reject passages of the Bible (or competing holy books) that would have us kill or abuse others only because modernity, rooted in reason, has made it no longer tenable to hold such irrational and destructive beliefs.
Harris wants to explore how ethics can be explored as a science.
Religion has exercised its strong hold over so many because of its traditional dominance of the field of ethics. Harris is one of a new breed of rational individualists who wants to explore how ethics can be approached as a science rather than as a body of arbitrary beliefs that, as he documents, are responsible for untold human misery. Like others of this breed, including Skeptic
magazine editor Michael Shermer, Harris starts with biology and evolution. In the confines of this volume he does not offer the final word on the subject nor claim to (that would be religious!). But he does offer important insights that any individual serious about the subject should consider.
Harris also argues for a critical, scientific approach to what he calls meditation and mysticism. Here, a secular reader might be tempted categorize him with the very believers that he’s been refuting, while believers might utter a “Well, well!” But Harris means these terms to refer only to aspects of human consciousness that could offer introspective understanding of ourselves as part of nature, not of any supernatural world.
In response to harsh criticism that The End of Faith received, Harris offered Letter to a Christian Nation. It addresses especially Christian fundamentalists, although, as in his first book, he continues to take moderates to task, as well.
He begins by telling fundamentalist Christians that he and they are in agreement about a number of things. If they are correct, he says, then by denouncing faith, Harris is engaged in evil deeds and will pay a grievous price after death. However, if he is right, then Christians are creating untold misery for themselves and others by following their beliefs. Either way, there is a right and wrong about these matters that will have dire consequences. By contrast, religious moderates often believe that there are many “truths,” even though they contradict one another.
Harris offers another issue about which Christians and he can agree: that Islam is wrong. Muslims believe that the Koran is the perfect word of God, that Muhammad was the final Prophet of God, and that anyone who believes otherwise will spend eternity in hell.
“Why don’t you lose any sleep over whether to convert to Islam?” he asks Christian readers. “Can you prove that Allah is not the one, true God? Can you prove that the archangel Gabriel did not visit Muhammad in his cave? Of course not. But you need not prove any of these things to reject the beliefs of Muslims as absurd. The burden is upon them to prove that their beliefs about God and Muhammad are valid. They cannot do this … This is perfectly apparent to anyone who has not anesthetized himself with the dogma of Islam.”
However, Harris then turns this argument against the Christians: “The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn’t it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? … Isn’t it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a perfect barrier to honest inquiry? … Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.”
Harris reviews the ethical mess that is the Bible. He points out the passages in the Old Testament that require stoning to death disobedient children and individuals who suggest that you might worship other gods, and that list many other religious crimes that merit painful capital punishment. He points to passages in the New Testament urging obedience to the laws in the Old.
Why do Christians think the Bible is such a fount of moral wisdom? he asks. After all, every thinking person today, including Christians, agrees that slavery is evil. Yet the Old and New Testaments endorse it, even telling slaves that virtue consists in obeying their masters. Harris calls to the attention of Christian fundamentalists that only by cherry-picking the Bible, rather than literally following its every word, can they even remotely attempt to live by it.
Like many non-believers, Harris appreciates the problem of labeling himself. “No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”
He tells Christians that “I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people a way that you never imagined possible.” But he reminds them that “billions of other human beings ... have had similar experiences—but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature.” Christians are not unique in many of their interpretations of such experiences; but these interpretations should be subject to rational inquiry.
In Letter, as in The End of Faith, Harris focuses on the threat of Islam. He ends the book by telling Christians, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well—by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement—and, perhaps, of a little hope.”
Should we have such hope? Harris’s books are well-written and well-reasoned. They not only provide new perspectives on religion but try mightily to promote the equal epistemological treatment of religious beliefs in public discussions. All beliefs deserve respect to the extent that they are backed by evidence and reason. An individual today who claimed to be the child of a virgin, or who claimed to be a virgin who had given birth, would not be believed without solid scientific evidence. Why should the passage of two thousand years make such a claim exempt from criticism and ridicule?
Thoughtful individuals should not give beliefs a pass or respect simply because the label “religion” is attached to them. Only by subjecting all claims to rational scrutiny can we avoid in the future the ignorance and misery produced by faith in millennia past.