Religion and faith cannot be sheltered from criticism and vigorous debate if civilization itself is to survive, argues writer Sam Harris, author of “Letter to a Christian Nation,” a quick-read, 96-page book that raises fundamental questions about belief itself.
The atheist has followed up on his larger 2004 book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason,” in which he said modern leaders have “beaten their swords” into megaton bombs while ancient, blood-stained theisms continue to assert singular righteousness and superiority over all other faiths. In “Letter,” Harris, 39, says that he received his most hostile feedback on the first book from Christians who “generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own.” But the truth, he said, is that many who claim they were transformed by Christ’s love are “deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”
Harris devotes much of the book (Knopf, $16.95) to asking how a loving, all-knowing and perfect creator could have produced such massive numbers of flaws and defects in his creation, including diseases and pain: “... we do not see optimal design. We see redundancy, regressions and unnecessary complications; we see bewildering inefficiencies that result in suffering and death” like flightless birds, creatures with nonfunctional eyes and a narrow human female pelvis that makes a baby birth’s dangerous and sometimes fatal.
“Examples of unintelligent design in nature are so numerous that an entire book could be written simply in listing them,” he writes. Cancers that hide in the body until they are too late to cure are “not a design that a compassionate and loving God, by any reasonable definition of compassion or love, would have a hand in,” he said in a phone interview.
Harris said he has strong criticism for faith-holding liberals and moderates because they squelch criticism of all religions in the name of tolerance and coexistence. In the face of religious extremism where Muslims blow themselves up in buses or Christians make a pact to live and die according to apocalyptic prophecy, apologists simply dismiss it as “just fundamentalism — a perversion of the faith. They say that is not really religion ... or is more due to economic or social ills.”
When liberals and moderates stymie criticism, “this really provides great cover for fundamentalists and extremists because we can never attack the core problem, which is the shocking fact that millions upon millions of people believe that one of their books was dictated by the creator of the universe, and these books give them reasons to demonize other human beings.”
“Why doesn’t the Bible say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe?” he writes. Odd that “God had room to instruct us in great detail about how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals” and nothing about cancer when “good, pious people are dying horribly” from it, Harris said.
The writer said he is troubled by global chaos, “but it is amazing how many will deny the role that religion is playing in these conflicts.”
Harris doesn’t discount that people believe that their acceptance of Christ coincided with positive changes in their lives, but says they can “misinterpret these experiences” and “delude themselves about the nature of reality.”
It’s still political suicide for anyone in public life to be an atheist or challenge religious influence in policymaking, he said. “Many, many doubts about God are not being expressed,” he said, noting it is “statistically impossible” that with 100 U.S. senators, not one is an avowed atheist.
Many people, especially politicians, may hold deep religious doubts, but they must “remain in the closet.”
“I think academics and public intellectuals generally have been cowed into respecting people’s religious convictions,” he said. Stem cell research serves as a clear example that “what people believe about the human soul and its entry into embryos” ends up “prolonging the misery for tens of millions of people.”
Harris said he is not calling for people to “jettison ethics or people’s search for ‘spiritual experience.’ ... I’m simply saying that believing propositions on bad evidence is never a good idea.” Dogmatism is dangerous, he said, because it is not rationally discussed, impedes medical research, starts wars and “gets people killed.” He calls faith, in its religious sense, a pure willingness to accept religious dogma uncritically. Humans should “transcend this impulse” and act for the good of the human race.
“Spirituality is an important component of human happiness,” Harris says. “I would argue, however, that we need never believe anything on insufficient evidence to be spiritual.”