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The bland inquisitor
by Hal Johnson
A review of Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
On Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation.
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If an author who has written a bestselling book then releases, a scant year later, another book on the same topic, it is fair to pause a moment to ponder why the second book got written. Perhaps he wishes to correct a flaw in the first book; perhaps he wants to expand its scope. Now, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is so much in agreement with and so much more limited in scope than last year’s bestselling The End of Faith that he could only have produced it because he believed the original work wasn’t condescending enough.
His premise, briefly stated, is that religion is bad and ought to be eliminated. (The special focus on Christianity is a nod to the American reader.) The entire book is written in the second person, ostensibly to a Christian; in this way Harris time and again gets to declare what “you” believe, how “you” should be able to support this belief, and why “you” have failed to support it properly. Since the anonymous “you” is, by definition, a fiction (“a statistic,” Harris might claim, or perhaps “a pastiche”), all Harris’s arguments are straw man arguments. And he keeps calling the straw man “you,” which has got to qualify as one of the most grating conceits a book has ever been built around.
Many of Harris’s arguments are irrefutable, but many are just irrelevant. While it’s true that from an atheistic perspective the first four Commandments “have nothing whatsoever to do with morality,” as Harris puts it, from a theistic perspective they certainly do. But even though this is a book allegedly written for theists, Harris simply asserts the atheistic standpoint and moves on. Much of the book could be replaced with the sentence: “I mean, come on, you don’t actually believe this stuff, do you?” Harris is too choked on bile, or at best incredulity (“we stand dumbstruck by you,” he says, italics and all) to admit that his addressees are worth speaking with. This is in part because his chosen antagonist is “Christianity at its most divisive, injurious, and retrograde,” even though it’s questionable whether anything was ever accomplished by attacking a system at its most “retrograde.”
But Harris is more than happy to save some contempt for religious “liberals and moderates” (his term). As he puts it: “Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew.” There are two true clauses here, but it’s unclear why Harris has linked them together into a sentence. He goes on to explain that, in the face of human suffering, “liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is: the sheerest of moral pretenses. The theology of wrath has far more intellectual merit.” He refers, of course, to the problem of evil, and it’s strange that Harris believes it to be an unanswerable question when every Christian apologist, perhaps without exception, has believed he successfully answered it. But Harris is not very interested in what Christians actually believe. When he writes, “Either Christ was divine or he was not,” it may appeal to objectivists, but it also flies in the face of two thousand years of Christology that, for better or for worse, has sought a more nuanced answer than that. Does Harris not know? Or does he just not care?
Probably a little of both. There are many parts of the book where Harris is simply unable to grasp how much he is unable to grasp. His lengthy digression on slavery is a good example. On the face of it, this is the familiar cocktail-party gambit of invoking Hitler at the first opportunity: Surely you don’t disagree with me? Surely you’re not in favor of … Nazis? But while, no, Sam Harris, no one here is in favor of slavery, the fact that the Bible permits or condones it is hardly a moral catastrophe. For a nomadic tribe three or four millennia ago, slavery was the humane solution after a battle; POW camps and UN policing being unavailable at the time, the other option was genocide. Slavery was progress. It’s true (as Harris points out) that many ignorant souls confounded Mosaic slavery with something as monstrous as the American slave trade; Harris proves to be among them.
There have been many books written on the contradictions in the Bible, most of them better researched than Harris’s casual mentions. An intelligent reader could compile his own list by the simple expedient of reading the Bible and paying attention. There have also been many more or less successful attempts by believers to explain away these contradictions, but Harris is blissfully unaware of them. He has brought nothing to the table but his spleen.
And his condescension. For Harris, Christianity is above all an exercise in irony. It is “ironic,” he says in the book’s first paragraph, that Christians dared to write him “hostile” letters after he wrote a hostile book against religion, since Christians fancy themselves loving and forgiving. It is “one of the monumental ironies,” he explains some seventy pages later, that Christians “praise themselves for their humility.” Is any of this really that ironic? And, perhaps more importantly, is any of it true? Did people really write Harris letters saying, “I’m humbler than thou,” and were these letters written in crayon? Because this sounds like a hypocrisy Oliver Goldsmith might have exposed in the eighteenth century, but surely people have, you know, caught on by now.
But what of morality, the area in which religion has always had answers and science always struggled behind? Harris is unmoved because, as he points out, “we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a lawgiving God. For there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world.” Using “better” and “worse” in this context is of course circular. But more terrifying than the vacuity of the answer is its glibness. Has deontology ever been so simple? Few of us would have a cogent answer here, but at least most people would recognize this is an essay question, and not a fill-in-the-bank. Given the injunction “In 2000 words or less outline a universal system of morality without invoking a higher power,” the correct response is, “Only 2000 words? I’d need a book at least.” Harris jots down “Happiness” and blithely moves on to the next section. “Oh man,” he thinks, “is this test easy.”
The real lie of the book, though, resides not is not its facile morality or debate camp sleights of hand, but in its title. This is not a letter to a Christian nation; this is a letter to Harris’s friends, or at best to those like-minded individuals who sent him congratulatory telegrams after his first book. Beyond the “monumental” condescension passim, the real giveaway is when Harris refers to Catholic priests as “an elite army of child molesters.” In a letter to a Christian nation you probably shouldn’t do that; a Christian nation might decide you were just laughing at them. But Harris is an equal opportunity offender, and manages to state in his brief discussion of the “Muslim hordes” (his word choice) that not only extremists but also “most Moslems are utterly deranged by their religious faith” (italics his). One gets the feeling that what Harris doesn’t know is how to behave in public.
It’s not hard to find a well-reasoned attack on Christianity. Julian the Apostate’s Against the Galilaeans is the earliest I can think of that retains its power, while Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is perhaps the most damning. The former is written from a theistic perspective, the latter from an atheistic one; the reader interested in an actual challenge to Christianity is referred to these books; the reader who wants to snigger over how superior he is to saps who believe stuff is referred to Sam Harris.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 December 2006, on page 81
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