sam harris letter to a christian nation

sunday telegraph, 4 march 2007

The trouble with philosophers, the philosopher Julian Baginni recently suggested, is that they tend to listen for just one thing: logical consistency. Like someone obsessed by the melody of a piece of music, but ignoring its harmony and rhythm, they often read a text without paying too much attention to its social and historical context.

Such 'tone deafness' is a particular problem, Baginni added, when atheist philosophers tackle the question of religion. Too often they are interested solely in the question of the truth and falsity of a religion's creed, and tend to ignore the other dimensions of faith.

A rationalist and atheist, Baginni is no apologist for religion. But his warning about philosophical tone deafness is one that Sam Harris would have done well to heed. A philosopher and neuroscientist, Harris believes that religion is the root of all evil. His first book, The End of Faith, published three years ago, caused a sensation in America with its incendiary critique of all things religious. Overnight, Harris was transformed into 'America's Richard Dawkins'.

In Letter to a Christian Nation Harris attempts to respond to the criticisms that believers, especially Christians, levelled at his arguments. 'I have specifically set out', Harris writes, 'to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.'

The Bible, he shows, is irrational, inconsistent and often immoral. Through copious quotations demonstrates how the Good Book sanctions child abuse, slavery and murder. 'The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality', Harris writes, 'is simply astounding, given the contents of the book.'

Christians, Harris points out, do not accept the claims made in the Koran because there is nothing to show that these claims are valid, and they often appear absurd or immoral. 'The way you view Islam', Harris tells his Christian reader, 'is precisely the way that devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.'

This is all good knockabout stuff, though it is difficult to imagine that any believer would not have heard such arguments before. The trouble, though, is that Harris appears to take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves. Rather than burrow beneath the surface of faith and ask why it is that people increasingly take on religious identities, Harris takes both religious texts and the pronouncements of believers at face value. If the Bible is written by an omniscient being, he taunts, why does it not 'say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer?'

This is just plain silly, reducing the task of challenging religion to the level of playground jibes. In a world in which people often feel estranged from themselves and from others, and appear to lack control over their destiny, they often seek consolation in the belief that destiny is controlled for them. It is not theology that makes people irrational as Harris believes. It is rather the seeming failure of rational humanism that leads many to embrace religion.

Fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or Hindu, has found a hold in recent years, not because people have suddenly decided to read scriptures more literally, but because the failure of secular political movements, the rise of identity politics and the collapse of traditional moral codes, have all made a radical faith-based identities seem attractive. Lampooning theology but ignoring the political context, as Harris does, will do little to challenge religious belief.

What really troubles Harris about religion is its role in fomenting social conflict. No other ideology, Harris argues, 'casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments'. He is sensitive to the religious retort that 'monsters like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism'. But, Harris responds, 'the problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion but that they embrace other life-destroying myths'. Such men may be 'enemies of organised religion, [but] they are never especially rational'. This, of course, suggests that the real problem is not religion as such but irrationalism in all its forms, whether secular or religious.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Harris' argument, however, is that his own morality often seems little more advanced than that of religious bigots he criticises. He condemns the Bible for demanding that 'you shall kill' those who seek to 'serve other gods' but himself has suggested that 'some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them'. He despises Christians for holding to a theology that appears to give succour to slavery but thinks that torture is permissible. He flays religion for its bigotry and sectarianism but says to his Christian reader that 'Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes' and believes that Islamic states may be politically unreformable because so many Muslims 'are utterly deranged by their religious faith'.

In the end what Letter to a Christian Nation reveals is not simply the bigotry and irrationalism of religion but also that such bigotry and irrationalism can take more than one form.