Wednesday, February 6, 2013

This Is Probably A Few Years Late--A Response to Letters to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

I feel like I finally earned my atheist badge after reading Letters to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris recently.  As I had no doubt, Harris proves himself to be the most reasoned person writing nowadays, emotions stabled by reason, rather than reason getting pushed aside for carried away emotions. Thinking mistakes poofed away, Harris isn’t crying for help or being dogmatic in his response to the dogmatism of Christianity. He’s laying down facts. His just happen to come in the form of a letter to an entire people, a powerful and “normal” group of people. 

He’s brilliant in his organization, his reason, and his morality. Via organization, he perfectly addresses the issue, proves that it’s an issue, puts forward a powerful response, a response that’s reasoned, making it hard to refute most of these claims with actual facts (i.e. the Bible condones violence and murder, i.e. it’s all very contradictory). And his view of morality, with human suffering at the forefront, is plain and clear and totally right: "Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering” (p. 8).

My (only) (large) (saddening) concern with this book, as an atheist, as someone with similar fears and frustrations as Harris, is his approach. The letter. Moreover, his general rhetorical strategy, one that at times is borderline attacking, and at others is heavily hidden beneath his reason, is that of blame and scare tactics, at least at first glance. One of my favorite quotes is from p.51: "Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs." But what kind of noise are we making? What kind of noise are people hearing?

At times, his goal is muddled for me, or maybe it’s just two parts very loudly coming out at once: to prove to the Christian people their errors and to arm nontheists with the arguments and insight to help in their everyday struggles as nontheists. While I get that he doesn’t expect to change the mind of every Christian nor does he think every nontheist is as reasoned and adamant as he is, I still fear the way he approaches the book from both of these goals is problemsome. There are several parts where Harris blatantly points the finger of blame at Christians for the suffering of others thanks to their decisions. And while he’s undoubtedly right, the aforementioned stellar three things proving such, I fear he’s shouting when he really could turn the argument to an impactful Q&A on the page. 

In the same way Christianity believes you will be punished for ignorance, of not knowing one’s Savior and such, Harris might seem to some to be doing the same to Christians, ones who have been brainwashed essentially by family and society, ones who haven’t been exposed to the level of reason Harris offers. Sure, as he says, "[i]t is a scientific face that moral emotions--like a sense of fair play or an abhorrence of cruelty--precede any exposure to scripture” (p. 21). However, these have to be the most animalistic and comprisable of instincts, ones easily succumbed to social norms, societal pressure, and history. No one besides someone with the discussion capabilities and sincere knowledge of Harris could dig deeper into that layer of indoctrination than the man himself. 

However, with this mechanism of blame Harris uses, I worry he’s giving Christians, who are already often rather defensive, often for no reason (see: War on Christmas; see: Prayer in Schools), another reason to hate and distrust atheists. Furthermore, he’s providing nontheists, ones who are possibly less rational and more militant than myself and Harris, strong rhetorical statements that could easily be strapped to hateful means. While I see beyond this finger-pointing, I fear those we (society, America, nontheists, etc.) crucially need to read and understand this book—Christians, agnostics, youth—might get hung up on/confused by such strategies.

That being said, inside Harris’s wonderful facts and logic could likely be a great discourse for getting people to rethink their faith, or at least the application of that faith, and to put true human suffering first. The pieces Harris links, like the absurdity of concerns of abortion and birth control and homosexuality, seem very obvious, but to some, it might not. This helps in the effort, no matter their religious beliefs, to get more people to realize that human suffering is the key thing to worry about in this life and ways to reduce that are the concerns to spend the most time on. 

So yes, I enjoyed this book, but I can’t help but wonder: what if Harris had written a more inviting book, for all, one that exposes faith’s contradictions and irrationality, but instead of blame, it was focused on reinstituting human compassion and decreasing human suffering, no matter what one believes.  As he says on p. 25, "[i]ndeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral--that is, when pressing these concerns inflict unnecessary and appalling suffering in innocent human beings." This is the thing to change! As “[p]eople make religion out of the full fabric of their lives, not out of mere beliefs,” we have to get that fabric to blanket the ‘this life’ suffering and issues, as much as it worries about what’ll happen to our poor souls when we die. And that’s the greatest thing Harris’s book does, as I certainly see it, and I hope others, not just atheists, do as well.

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