Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation

Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and CEO of Project Reason, wrote a book called The End of Faith.  He argued that religion is not only completely unreasonable, it is so dangerous in a world where there are weapons of mass destruction that it is no longer safe for us to keep it around.  I haven't read this book, but apparently many Christians did, and some were so incensed they wrote him abusive letters.

(Note to my fellow Christians: writing abusive letters is definitely What Jesus Would Not Do!)

Harris replied not with personal abuse by return mail, but with a booklet called Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he responds to his correspondents with more grace than they deserve, restating his arguments simply and briefly.

He is primarily addressing fundamentalists, and I found I agreed with him on a lot of points.  He is right to be horrified at some aspects of the Old Testament punitive law, like the stoning of adulterers and disobedient children, although he is wrong to suggest that Jesus endorsed these.  He is right to point to the irrationality of belief in a literal six day creation.  He is right to critique the opposition of many Christians to "harm reduction" approaches to sexual health (eg promoting the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection).  He is right to suggest that religious people are not necessarily more moral than non-religious, although he is wrong to suggest that this is an argument against religion. He may even have a point about Christian opposition to stem cell research, although I think there is more to be said about that.

However, for a man who heads an organisation called "Project Reason" his critique is surprisingly unreasoned.  For a start, like his friends Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, he has a rather hazy grasp of the content of religion.  I'm not sure that he fully realises the extent to which, like Dawkins, he sees religion through fundamentalist glasses.  This is what enables him to write like this about what he calls "religious liberalism and religious moderation".

...the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit.  Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't.  Either Christ was divine, or he was not.  If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false....If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for non-believers like myself....So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.

It would be harder to find a better statement of fundamentalist belief in any fundamentalist publication.  The problem for Harris seems to be that he actually prefers fundamentalism to what he calls "moderation" and "liberalism".  Hence, he is able to toss two thousand years of biblical and theological study out of the window with barely a glance in much the same way fundamentalists do.  No wonder that, like fundamentalists, he sees religious moderation as dangerous.

Funnily enough, he is not willing to apply the same standard to atheism.

Christians like yourself invariably declare that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism.  While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organised religion, they are never especially rational.  In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional...

So, if I were to say that the Christians who wrote abusive letters to Harris are not acting on the basis of Christianity but of some personal pathology or distortion of the faith, I am out of order.  But if Harris says that the bad deeds of atheist tyrants are based on personal pathology or delusion, that is OK.  Moderate Christians are dangerous because they mask the dangers of fundamentalism, but moderate atheists are fine - in fact the salt of the earth - because they bring the light of reason to a benighted world.

Harris and his friends are classic examples of the polarising effects of war,  In a war there can be no neutrals.  Either you are for us, or you are against us.  Voices of moderation are drowned out by the boom of cannons.  In the 1950s and 1960s the problem was communism, and people who looked a little bit communist - trade unionists, fabian socialists, people who thought maybe we should be a little more generous to the poor - were suspect and placed under suveillance.  The fact that most of these people were peacable, responsible citizens was neither here nor there. 

Now the problem is religious terrorism, and anyone who is a bit religious is suspect.  It doesn't matter if you are a moderate Christian, a pacifist, a peace-loving Indonesian muslim, you are suspect and your religion needs to be eradicated along with the distorted fanatical Salafism of Osama bin Laden.  Although apparently Harris would make an exception for Jainism.

Sadly, the CEO of Project Reason is making a basic category mistake.  He is suggesting that because our most recent terrorists are religious, religion must be the problem.  Yet there have been many terrorists in history, using a wide range of religious, political and nationalist justifications for their unjustifiable atrocities.  What they have in common is that they have managed to construct an ideology which allows, even obliges, them to impose their will on others with brutal force.  This is the problem, not religion.  I would happily help Harris combat this problem.  While he is combating it with reason, I would combat it with arguments from religion.  Perhaps between us we might get somewhere.


Hermit said...

I consider myself to be a rational person, and I believe in a literal 6 day creation. And yes, someone will win this argument, and someone will lose. "... That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:10-11.

Please pardon my fundamentalism, if it offends you, but I am not ashamed to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jon said...

Thanks for your comment - your fundamentalism doesn't offend me at all, apologies for giving that impression. I just happen to disagree.

Hermit said...

This may not be the place for this discussion, but I'm interested in your position. If I opened a book (which purports to be non-fiction) and I find I could not believe the first two chapters, why would I read any further? The book is discredited. I think it is disingenuous to try to re-interpret what it says in plain text, so that it fits with theories proposed by some of the scientific community. In my view it is far easier to believe in an intelligent creator than in a mysterious accident where nothing explodes and becomes everything; then something that is non-living miraculously becomes living, and then by millions of random lucky accidents over billions of years humans come to exist. And of course, evolution completely destroys the very clear biblical doctrine that death is the result of sin. I think people start to re-interpret the bible to make it fit other theories because they lack the courage to take as stand. I'm sorry if my responses seem curt, they're not meant to be - I'm just curious.

Jon said...

Why not, here's as good a place as any and its even a subject mentioned in the post :) If you look in the sidebar since I've relabelled my posts, you'll see a series I wrote about the idea of biblical inerrancy (which I'm sure you'll disagree with a lot), including this one on young earth creationism. http://paintingfakes.blogspot.com/2010/11/inerrancy-part-3-young-earth.html

My short answer to this question is that there are a lot more literary genres than "fiction" and "non-fiction", and quite a few of them are in the Bible. Does the first chapter of Genesis claim to be an accurate scientific record of the creation of the world? I'd suggest it doesn't. It is a song, complete with repetitive patterns and a chorus ("And God saw that it was good./And there was evening and morning/the fifth day"). It praises God as the creator and the wonderful diversity and goodness of his creation, but need not be taken as a literal description of how it happened. Likewise the second chapter, complete with God strolling in his garden, talking snake and life and wisdom growing on trees, is a symbolic tale highlighting our human fallibility and our distance from God.

I manage to believe these things and still be a Christian - subject no doubt for further discussion...

Hermit said...

Jon, you don't owe me any explanations at all, and I don't mean to be rude by demanding answers from you. But if you are willing to discuss ... If you see the "six days" as poetic, I presume you see them as six periods of time of indeterminate length? So do you believe in a literal Adam? Do you believe in a literal first sin? Do you think your position damages the doctrine of sin producing death, therefore Jesus death being necessary to atone for our sin?

It's not that I want to know what YOU believe, so much, as to understand the position of people who don't accept Genesis 1 and 2 literally. This isn't a personal attack, Jon.

Jon said...

Hermit I'm not offended in the least by your questions. I enjoy these types of discussions when they're conducted like this one in a friendly way. However, the tradeoff is that next you should tell me what you think. :) Although obviously it's implied in the questions.

None of my ideas is particularly orginal, they're all taken from things I have read or heard.

"I presume you see them as six periods of time of indeterminate length?"

No I don't. I don't think the writer was trying to say anything about how it actually happened, or how long it took. He has described seven ordinary days because the number seven is a widely used symbol of completion, he doesn't mean us to build a whole cosmology around this, or to regard it as a factual description of what happened.

"So do you believe in a literal Adam? Do you believe in a literal first sin?"

No to both of those. As I say, I see this as a symbolic story. I think its accoutrements show this. Knowledge and life are depicted as fruit growing on trees. God is depicted as walking in his garden beside Adam and Eve and then goes away and leaves them to themselves - in other words as a human-like figure. The snake talks. In fact I haven't met anyone who really takes this story literally because everyone I know who claims to actually sees the snake as Satan or inspired by Satan - yet Satan is not mentioned in the story.

"Do you think your position damages the doctrine of sin producing death, therefore Jesus death being necessary to atone for our sin?"

No I don't. But I'm not quite sure what version of this doctrine you're referring to. Why does sin producing death (which I take to mean seperation from God as oppposed to physical death) require Jesus to die? My sense of this is that Jesus' death is seen in the light of the sacrifical system, as the writer to Hebrews describes, rather than linked to Adam. When Paul links Adam and Christ in Romans 5 he contrasts Adam's sin with Jesus' righteousness, rather than balancing one death with another.

I was talking with someone else recently about the subject of taking Genesis literally and he pointed out that there are a lot of other things we would need to accept. For instance if you look at Genesis 1:6-8 you will see that there is a body of water below the sky (which is later herded into the oceans so dry land can appear) and another body of water above it, seperated by a "firmament" - a solid barrier which formed the sky. Then in Genesis 7 God opens the gates in this solid structure and lets the water out, flooding the earth.

This is impossible to reconcile with what we now know about the atmosphere, but is perfectly consistent with both the main ancient cosmologies - the "flat earth" idea and the Ptolemaic system of concentric spheres. I think we need to separate out the spiritual meaning of the texts from their ancient cosmology, otherwise the whole thing just becomes literally unbelievable.