Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Of branches and logs and bonfires of vanities....

Sam Harris has gone completely off the rails. Call it the curse of writing a best-seller; but his fame has gone to his head:

You believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that 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. Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. 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....

I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ was an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this....So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 3-5.

And if you think that is arrogant, you haven't read the foreword:

While this book is intended for people of all faiths, it has been written in the form of a letter to a Christian....In Letter to a Christian, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms....I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths....Even the most progressive faiths lend their tacit support to the religious divisions in our world. (pp. vii-ix)
You have to let this sink in to truly appreciate it. There are two kinds of people in Harris' world: those who believe in the cartoonish version of Christianity he describes, and those who believe nothing at all. The rest are just fools who delude themselves into thinking the world doesn't cleave into such a simplistic dichotomy. It's a weltanschaaung that can't even be labeled sophomoric. It's a thesis that would get him dropped from Philosophy 101.

On the same day I saw that book, I shelved A Significant Life, a book with a foreword by Joel Osteen. That should tell you all you need to know about it. In a celebrity besotted culture, we all (presumably) long for "a significant life." Many of the reports I hear about mothers of suicide bombers indicate they are young men (mostly) who want: yes, "a significant life." It's no accident Osteen's bestseller was titled: Your Best Life Now. We no longer want to be just happy: we want to be important. We want to matter. We want to be significant.

Kierkegaard saw this coming almost 200 years ago. He saw that we would long for meaning, significance, importance, attached not to our lives, but to our existence. Thoreau touched on it when he said "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." There is a spiritual hunger in human beings, a need that is not satisfied by power or wealth or comfort or even physical security. You don't need to agree with Augustine that "our hearts are restless until they rest [in God]," to agree that humans have restless spiritual hearts. So when Sam Harris says he thinks he's got the answer, and yet he makes no reference to Kierkegaard, or Sartre, or Henri Nouwen, or even the sociologist Robert Wuthnow, excuse me if I'm lump him in with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (company he would welcome; their recent books on religion are the first two of his 10 books he recommends for further reading), and dispense with the whole lot of them, none of whom seem capable of forming a coherent argument. In fact, there's a parable about that; about seeing the splinter in your brother's eye, and ignoring the log in your own. As I've mentioned before, objects reflected in a convex surface are much closer than they appear, and if you are close enough to see a speck in someone else's eye, what you are probably seeing is simply something in a very tiny mirror (Jesus was a subtle one, wasn't he?).

So I discard them all. Hitler didn't kill 6 million Jews because he was on a religious mission. He didn't turn Europe into hell and drive Stalin's troops to the gates of Leningrad because God told him to, and Rommel didn't drive deep in to Egypt in his zeal to make it Christian again. Osama bin Laden doesn't urge his minions on with assurances that he's just gotten the word from Allah on what their next mission should be. He justifies his attacks as a defense of Islam, but in his mind, he is reacting to injustices done against his beliefs and his sense of right and wrong. That doesn't justify a thing he does, but he doesn't act because he thinks God tells him to destroy the infidel wherever the infidel might be, or because only Muslims who kill will make it into the afterlife. And even George Bush didn't go to war so he could destroy non-believers and non-Christians.

I know how Harris puts his theories together, but they are pasted together with spit and short pieces of string. He takes the most absurd and ridiculous positions possible, and then posits them as the only ones either possible or viable. His ridiculous "either/or" about the validity of Scripture and the consequences of Christian belief or non-belief don't even pass the laugh test. It is a reductio ad absurdum that is an insult to anyone with a passing knowledge of world religions or just of Christianity or even simple logic. Like Dennett and Dawkins, when it comes to the subject of religion Harris simply seems incapable of applying the simplest principles of logic to his reasoning. Worse, he ignores the real problems of modern life in favor of advocating a solution that can never be imposed, and charging entire nations with crimes simply for the way they think. He tries to conflate the two subjects in his introduction, which makes the entire argument even more farcical. Thomas Merton may have found profound similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, but Sam Harris hasn't even figured out what Christianity aspires to, much less does he present credentials equivalent of Huston Smith's which make him knowledgeable enough about world religions to generalize about them as he does.

There are profound problems in the world, and many of those problems are the result of modernity, especially of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the physical results of empiricism (technology prime among them). But rather than address those very real human problems, problems my Pastoral Care teacher reminded us were "messy," just as human life is messy, he creates a straw man of his own delusions and proceeds to beat it into fragments. It reminds me of another line from Thoreau: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Except Harris isn't even hitting the branches; he's just flailing away madly at the air.

By the way, on p. 85, Harris asserts that all adherents to Islam are dangerous, crazy, and violent. His support for this sweeping generalization that encompasses over 1 billion people? I will quote his explanation: "Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith." The emphasis is in the original. Reflect on the fact that, were this statement made about Jews, or African Americans, or even Asians or Mexicans, he would be vilified as a racist. The difference here is...?

I'll be glad when this kind of nonsense has run its course.

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