Thursday, August 06, 2009

On Sam Harris' book, "Letter to a Christian Nation"

I read Sam Harris' short book "Letter to a Christian Nation" because I wanted to get a feel for neo-atheist writing without having to completely delve into the entire body of work.

I initially learned the name Sam Harris through a bit of a media blitz where either Harris or Christopher Hitchens appeared in book reviews, numerous television discussions on C-Span or public television or the like, and in a feature story in one of my regular print reads, The Christian Century.

I believe that this short book is mostly driven by accessibility, because the people he most hopes will read this tome might be driven away by his work and other writers of his persuasion. Harris doesn't seem to have as much a chip on his shoulder as Hitchens in comparing my exposure to each on television and what little I have read of or about their writing. I can understand why, for them, the stakes for their lifetime is high. The body of evidence points them to know that this life is absolutely it for them, therefore the fundamentalists of the world are on a fast track to destroy the world in a self-fulfilling prophecy. In that sense, Harris is like Bill Maher, religion doesn't make the world better, and if the anti-religionists of the world don't speak out and speak to reason, the world will continue to suffer more than it has based on religion, only exponentially in the future. Maher is much more explicit than Harris in this respect.

The stakes are indeed high for the world and religion in the world. However, I am not a sweet bye and bye person of faith and look to Revelation as a means for interpreting the direction of the world. I believe as a Christian that I am called to do the best I can in this life that God has given me. I let God be concerned with what is going to happen after death. I can only deal with what has been revealed to me. Maybe it is that approach that doesn't produce Harris or Maher levels of anxiety about the current state of the world. I can only do the best I can. My thoughts on religion are what Harris might call a "religious moderate" position. Harris thinks moderates can be more destructive to this world filled with religion than fundamentalists, because moderates help create space for fundamentalists to exist, lead and make decisions on national and world stages that are corrosive to life today. Moderates use mystery as a crutch, and religion comes down to a crux of whether religion is true, and therefore the only real argument is between those that think religion is an illusion and the fundamentalists.

As I haven't read much atheist or neo-atheist writing, I must admit that at times I felt a little defensive reading Harris, because Harris has implicitly labeled me a fool at worst, misguided at best. It's difficult to face critique regarding my understanding, seeking, work and vocation of the last 30 years of my life. My investment level is high. I also find it important to read this kind of work, because in my work, if I can't form coherent thoughts about religion and faith, I will have lost my integrity. Though I don't find myself to be a Christian apologist, my struggle with Harris has forced me to sharpen my thought.

Reading the aforementioned critique in the Christian Century has also helped me recognize some of the holes in Harris' writing. The author is a professor from Georgetown who points out that Harris and Hitchens would not even make a reading list of atheist authors for a class he teaches because these authors merely make lists regarding the evils of religion and write little, if anything, about the consequences of a world without religion. Writing about the evils of religion is shallow, because the body of evidence is wide, and easily taken up by anyone with minimal thought. The classical writers of religionist critique go far deeper in their consideration of a world without religion. I'm guessing I need to read a little Nietzsche in order to ponder the depth of religionist critique rather than merely go wading with Harris.

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