Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

I recently finished reading the short book (under 100 pages) Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. This is basically an attack on the core beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, which Harris defines as those who, "at a minimum":
  • Believe that the Bible is, literally, the inspired word of God
  • Only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death
You can probably add to this, as a subset of those beliefs (perhaps required by the bit about reading the Bible as holy truth):
  • The belief that the Rapture is coming and that it will be a Good Thing
  • The belief that evolution is wrong and that the world is only a few thousand years old
I'm a secular humanist and casual atheist (insofar as I don't spend much time thinking about or attacking organized religion and I have some leanings toward the Gaea Hypothesis) who lives in a part of the country with a lot of serious Mormons and a fair number of serious evangelical Christians. My neighborhood in particular has a lot of evangelical types in it.

So it was unexpectedly satisfying to read through Harris's common-sense dissection of many basic fundamentalist Christian beliefs. These are things that I just can't say openly in my daily surroundings without attracting a lot of grief. I can't imagine an evangelical Christian who would approve of this book or read it with an open mind, even though it is written in the form of an extended letter to American fundamentalist Christians.

Some of the main points that Harris tries to make include:
  • The fact that Americans are more religious than members of other developed nations is probably tied to our failing proficiency at science;
  • Accepting an idea like the Rapture undermines efforts to build for the future by promoting the concept that the end of the world will be great;
  • The Bible is full of inconsistencies;
  • The Bible supports many morally repugnant concepts, such as slavery;
  • There is nothing written in the Bible that demonstrates any hint of omniscience or great knowledge about the future or how the natural world works in general--everything in the Bible is compatible with a 1st century AD viewpoint on the world;
  • The Bible spends an awful lot of words describing how to properly keep slaves and sacrifice various animals;
  • Christians who preach abstinence are more concerned about preventing sex than about preventing teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, to the extent that they will oppose measures (such as condom use) that could limit pregnancies and disease while allowing sex;
  • In defense of stem cell research: "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."
  • There is overwhelming evidence that terrible things happen to good or innocent people on a daily basis around the world, with no evidence of divine intervention to prevent these events from taking place, yet people presume that God is merciful or that terrible events befall people who deserve them;
  • Conflict between people with opposing fundamentalist religious beliefs contributes mightily to bloodshed, bigotry, and civil strife in all regions of the world;
  • There is overwhelming evidence to support the theory of evolution, while creationism is a joke. Intelligent design presumes by default that the designer must be God, which does not follow from its own arguments. At the same time, there is far more evidence of random, unintelligent design in living beings.
  • If acolytes of intelligent design presume the need for a creator, then who or what created God? The argument becomes endlessly recursive.
In general, there was far more in this book that I agreed with than disagreed with. I'm not bothered by liberal or moderate Christians (I'm married to a liberal Christian), even if I don't fully understand their beliefs. And I know some nice people who are evangelicals. None of them seem to have much intellectual curiosity, and they invariably support not-so-nice evangelical preachers, pundits and politicians because of their ideology.

I don't believe that religion should be abolished, as Harris pushes for. I think spirituality can do good for a lot of people. But any time you interpret a text literally and pass moral judgments based upon it, I think you're in trouble. I do believe that religious zealotry has done and continues to do more harm to humanity throughout history than all the other evils we've managed to devise.

1 comment:

Heyoka said...

Hmm I may have to get hold of a copy of this, it sounds up my alley.

It also makes me think of an interesting discussion I had with our director and the QA lead, a few nights ago, about our respective religious/philosophical beliefs. QA lead is Hindu, director is formerly Christian but fell out with the religion over logical inconsistencies (his big beef is "if God is omniscient, then what's the point of striving to be a good person, if he knows where you're going to end up anyway?"). And then there was me. :D The director thought it was cool that Mom and Dad didn't pressure us in any direction WRT religion.