A few years ago, in the small mo
untain town where I live, a developer threatened to clear cut a mountaintop in order to build a high-end resort. Members of the Buddhist community here were dead-set against the development. In fact, we were pissed. Our teacher, John Daido Loori, Roshi, himself an old-school environmentalist, as well as ex-sailor and scientist, spent months working with us on our anger, relentlessly coaching us how to talk to people “on the other side” so that we might actually have a chance of reaching people who had been fed a steady diet of pro-development rhetoric. Red-faced discussions listing the “facts” would not cut it, as was made painfully clear by embarrassing (for all sides) town meetings. As Buddhists who had taken vows to practice the precept of “do not elevate the self and blame others,” we had our spiritual work cut out for us.
I wish Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and most recently Letter to a Christian Nation, had been in on those conversations. Harris does not consider himself a Buddhist because Buddhism is a religion. But he is, by his own account, someone who sits in meditation as taught in Buddhist centers, with other Buddhists. He is engaged in the rational pursuit of evidence-based spiritual knowledge, much like, say, the Buddha. But I digress.
For anyone who read his earlier book, Letter to a Christian Nation will sound familiar. The main difference in Harris’s second book is that it is addressed to “you” the Christian who believes, along with Harris that, “if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the inerrant 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 all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so.” The second-person pronoun highlights Harris’s snarky attitude, which is part of his appeal (to the choir, at least), but also, I believe, his downfall.
Harris’s arguments against religion, and Christianity in particular, make perfect sense and are compelling. His strength lies in unpacking some basic assumptions about faith and the ways our liberal-pluralist culture has become complicit in allowing destructive and just plain silly beliefs to proliferate and rule. For instance, he writes: “While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.”
Harris also makes strong cases against creationism, in support of atheism, and generally attempts to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” And he uses the language of scientific certainty (he is himself a neuroscientist) to support his claims. It is easy to say, as many do, that Harris is prone to fall into the same fundamentalism that he so articulately dismantles. But this is simply the nature of an argument like his. He is trying to say that some things actually are intolerable, things like beliefs that inspire people to fly planes into buildings. But unlike the intolerance of religious absolutism, these things are intolerable for good reasons.
Unfortunately, Harris weakens his arguments with inflammatory language. He has set up his book to be a response to a “moral and intellectual emergency,” saying that it is his “sincere hope that you will find it useful.”
I agree with much of what he is saying about this emergency, but unfortunately I am not the “you” who needs to find it useful, and the Christians to whom he is writing this letter are addressed with arrogance and sarcasm. For instance, when he’s on a roll pointing out all the violence in the history of scriptural interpretation, he writes, “You are, of course free to interpret the Bible differently — though isn’t it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed?” And, when unveiling how “examples of God’s failure to protect humanity are everywhere to be seen,” he brings up Hurricane Katrina and the poor souls who lost their lives. He challenges his reader: “These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Do you have the courage to admit the obvious? These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend.” I’m sorry, but if he lost me with a line like that, as true as it may be, imagine how someone who actually believes in God is going to feel.
There is no doubt that Sam Harris is a brilliant guy. And his first section of the book, his “Note to the Reader” is fantastic in its simplicity and even-handedness, while maintaining his hallmark edge. For instance, “It is…not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ.” These few pages should be distributed en masse to churches across the country.
The rest of the book, I’m afraid, is not going to advance Harris’s cause. But maybe I’m way off since, according to Harris, I am a religious zealot myself. I am a Buddhist who believes in the power of non-dual discourse, and as such I don’t see how name-calling and insulting ever work on any level — from the unremarkable interpersonal squabble to the most global geopolitical war. I suppose my intolerance of intolerance makes me part of the problem.
Nonetheless, I am glad that Sam Harris wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, and I am still a fan of his because he is so damn sincere, his arguments are tight as a drum, and because, within the comfortable realm of our shared critique, he’s really funny.
Too bad his good sense of humor and an even better sense of justice will be wasted on people like me. Harris’s “Christian nation,” if they even read the book, will not find him very amusing. And more to the point, human nature being what it is, his “Christian nation” may well be strengthened at the very moment they face such an articulate enemy.
A scary thought.