Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reviews of "Letter to a Christian Nation"

James Wood of The New Republic offers up his review of Sam Harris's recent addition to the war on fundamentalism, Letter to a Christian Nation, in an article called The Celestial Teapot. This title, of course, refers to a favorite trope of Harris, who uses Bertrand Russell's little metaphor often.

The article is more than a review of Harris's book, it is a look at atheism by an atheist. So you have to read a bit to get to the review in this review, but once you do, it's over quickly:

We are in the midst of that tragedy, and America is drowning in God's attributes. The Lord will increase your salary, teach your children, raise your self-esteem, boost your career, be a lifelong friend, and take you into his heart if you only take him into your heart. He is love, and gentleness, and charity, unless he is forbidding homosexuality or stem-cell research or punishing New York with September 11 for its high proportion of gays, lesbians, and degenerates. He greatly dislikes evolutionists, largely because he created the world six thousand years ago. He certainly dislikes Nancy Pelosi -- and now, alas, Pastor Ted Haggard. The Bible is his inerrant word. According to recent polls, 53 percent of Americans are creationists, and 87 percent -- or 260 million people -- claim to "never doubt the existence of God." An avowed atheist cannot be elected president. And so on. You know the stupefying recital. Many millions across the world are absolutely sure they know what God is like, and what he likes. Heine's unbelieving joke, reported by the Goncourt brothers, rises up: on his deathbed, while his wife was praying that God might forgive him, he interrupted her to say, "Have no fear, my darling. He will forgive: that's his profession."

The rise of evangelicalism, and the menace of fundamentalism, along with developments in physics, and in theories of evolution and cosmogony, has encouraged a certain style of public atheistic critique. Many of these names are well-known: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris. The events of September 11 were the direct spur for Harris to write his best-selling book The End of Faith, which vibrated with an admirable anger. It has a suggestive thesis, too, which is that America cannot possibly fight fundamentalist Islam while it is itself gripped by Christian fundamentalism. This symmetry of fundamentalisms means that America will not stoop to defeat the religious content -- and dangerous idiocy -- of its foes. I am not sure if this is exactly provable. Britain, for instance, almost 40 percent of whose citizens profess not to believe in God, has not yet mobilized its secularism in victorious ways (though Harris would doubtless point to Tony Blair's strong Christianity). But it is not his job to win the so-called war on terror, and the essential intellectual approach seems right: attack all the troops of irrational religiosity at once.

The End of Faith starts well and then becomes a bit predictable, because it begins to follow the rules of its rather thin genre. Letter to a Christian Nation, which is an open letter to the many Christians who wrote to Harris in complaint, is even thinner. I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheistic texts, but there is a limit to how many times one can stub one's toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor. There is a limit to the number of times one can be told that the Bible is a shaky text, and that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nasty things. Ratio vincit omnia, but the page-by-page demonstration of this rationalist conquering can become wearisome. This may be no especial insult to Harris so much as to his family; Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian made a great initial impact on me when I was a teenager -- it was like seeing someone in the nude, for the first time -- until I began to get bored with its self-exposure. Russell complaining that Jesus was not a moral teacher, that he was really rather a bad example because he threw the money lenders out of the temples and cursed the fig tree, seemed somehow a little undignified. Russell is reliably at his least philosophical when he is at his most atheistical.

The genre tends to proceed thus: the atheist must first remove all possible respect from religious belief. The tone is a little perky, and lively thought-experiments bloom. They go a bit like this: if I told you that President Bush prays every day to his vacuum cleaner, you would judge him insane. But why is there any evidence that the God he prays to exists? It is fun, knockabout. Harris likes to compare belief in God with belief in Wotan or Zeus: "Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus."

Read the whole article here.

If you'd like to see how a Buddhist reads Harris's book, check out the review by
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