Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of "Letter to a Christian Nation"

I confess at the outset that I was hesitant to read any of Sam Harris' books about religion after being unimpressed with his performance in a debate on ethics with William Lane Craig. However, after listening to his podcasts and interviews, he began to grow on me. So, I gave his book Lying a try and was impressed with it for the most part. I committed to myself that I would read all of Harris' books, so I purchased them and then had to decide whether I would start with The End of Faith or Letter to a Christian Nation. A friend of mine recommend the latter, so that is what I started with.

Within the first few pages, I was instantly reminded why I initially disliked Sam Harris; he refuses to seriously engage the major intellects of world religions and prefers to go after the low hanging fruit. Consequentially, he is unlikely to achieve his goal, which is to have a rational conversation about how to conquer the trials we face both as a nation and as a world community. If Harris is really interested in ridding the world of religion (which he does not explicitly state, but it is more than implied), perhaps he should get in the ring with the heavyweights such as St. Thomas Aquinas rather than picking on those who are Christians in name only.

His book goes off the rails right from the beginning. The title of his book is a mistake in itself; America is a secular republic where one may believe in Christianity or not; in no way are we a Christian nation. He then goes on to say that the type of Christian he is going after is those who identify themselves with the Christian Right, who have played far too much of a role in public policy. The problem, of course, is that the Christian Right does not voice the views of all or even most Christians, so if this was his target audience perhaps the book should be called Letter to the Christian Right. However, this shows exactly the problem with Harris' writings; he never seems capable of grasping that religion is nuanced and complex. He seems to think that religion is as simple as a virus, which even prominent atheists would disagree with (Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Daniel Dennett, Bart Ehrman, etc).

A perfect illustration of this point comes at the beginning of the book where Harris gives his definition of what it means to be a Christian:
You believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true.....The Bible is either the word of God , or it isn't. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so. (Letter to a Christian Nation, pg. 3)
Harris goes on to say that these beliefs mean that a Christian must believe that the Bible is the best book ever written, free of error, a guidebook to ethics, and has more wisdom than any other book. If one does not accept these terms, then one is not a Christian in Harris' view.

There are numerous problems here. First, what is meant by "word of God?" For Harris, this means that it is a book brought into being by the creator of the universe. However, this is not how Christians anciently or modernly understand the Bible. The Bible is not a book; it is a collection of books of different genres. Some are historical, some are poetic, some are mythological, some are direct revelations. In short, it is a collection of books that touch on different themes, but the Bible never claims to be a complete revelation of all the facts that a person will ever need. Neither does it claim to be a book that is just about ethics. Nor does it claim to be the best of all books. If that is the case, then we need not accept Harris' definition because it is fallacious.

As far as the doctrine of hell is concerned, the view that hell is a place of fire and torment is actually a minority view. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (the two churches that account for more than half of Christians), reject that view of hell explicitly. This is the view of hell according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell." Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather... all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!" The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, which is described (in quotes) as "eternal fire."

It is unclear if Harris considers members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) Christian, but on the off chance that he does he will be relieved to know that they also do not believe that unbelievers will be punished by burning eternally. So, the view that Harris is criticizing is a very minor view, although he makes it seem as though that is what most Christians believe.  This again goes back to my main contention: Harris is very unfamiliar with theology, but instead of learning about it he writes books about it that reveal his ignorance.

Let's turn to the question of ethics. Harris is a utilitarian, as he points out in this book and in his doctoral dissertation The Moral Landscape. So, he thinks that ethics is about relieving suffering and achieving happiness, which he argues will improve human well-being. He then says that Christians think that the ten commandments are the foundation of ethics (odd that neither Moses or Jesus of Nazareth mentioned that), and that these commandments are outdated and not a good compass for guiding our morality. He seems unaware that Christians can be utilitarians (Bishop George Berkeley, one of the founding fathers of British empiricism supported this view, as do I), and that very few if any Christians think that the ten commandments are merely ethical statements. If Harris had studied elementary theology before he wrote his book, he would realize that the ten commandments were what God gave to the children of Israel as a reminder of the covenant that he had made with them; there is no statement in scripture that the ten commandments are the foundation of morality or that they are the best guide to morality.

Harris moves on by saying, and he is largely right in saying so, that Christians cause harm to medical research and that they cause others to suffer because they won't change their beliefs.  He uses the issue of stem cell research as an example. Again, Harris fails to do his homework. The Roman Catholic Church does not oppose stem cell research, it opposes it on embryos. Stem cell research can be conducted on adult tissue, since this poses no moral problem. And other Christian churches are fine with embryonic stem cell research, or take no position like the LDS Church. So, looks like there is no problem after all, or not a large one. Sure, there may be Christian groups who are vocally opposed to this research, but that is their right in a free and open society.

The last thing that Harris mentions is the conflict between science and religion and the problem of the Intelligent Design movement. Some of the latter movements most vocal critics have been Christians, such as theologian John F. Haught, philosopher Edward Feser, and biologist Steven L. Peck, to name only a few. Science is a method of inquiry, religion (in the Abrahamic sense) is about the discovery of the divine and our relationship to him. So, there is no reason one cannot be a committed disciple of the scientific method (which cannot disprove religion) and a person of faith. Harris seems to have forgotten that the people who gave him the scientific method were men of faith (Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, etc).

In short, this letter is not about Christianity because the author does not understand what Christianity is. It is a list of problems he has with certain people in Washington who push their agenda in the name of Christianity. I am happy to join the fight to keep church and state separate, but there is nothing in Harris' book worth taking seriously, considering he does not take his subject matter seriously enough to represent it correctly.

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