Saturday, September 23, 2006

Letter To A Christian Nation

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns -- about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering -- in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.
-- Sam Harris, in Letter To A Christian Nation --

Well, I know I should be writing about the Roger Waters concert, right?
But I can’t do it just yet.
Perhaps it is still too holy of a moment for me to properly regurgitate all that this evening meant to me. I will try to write a bit about it tomorrow. It will have to suffice, for now, to leave you with the report that it exceeded my expectations. It was OVER THE TOP, good!
For now though, I am reeling over this book that I read today.
It is the new one from Sam Harris, Letter To A Christian Nation.

I have never read anything that spoke so directly, and so succinctly, to the issue of the dangers inherent in the current religious faith of our day. In short, we are in a real shemozzle! I sat down with it, and did not get up out of my chair until I had read every page.
It is indeed, a letter, addressed to the Christian “in the narrow sense of the term.” →Those who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Christ will be saved.
Since the publication of his first book, entitled The End of Faith, Harris has received thousands of letters from readers who feel compelled to warn him of the peril of being an atheist. This letter is his response.
Fascinating stuff. I was spellbound.
And I myself am not an atheist. I am what I would call an LBHA. [Lapsed-believer/half-agnostic.]
But from start to finish I believe that every topic that Harris touches upon here, ought to be brought fully into the realm of Christian discussion.
During a survey of The Ten Commandments, Harris raises the issue of what “real morality” is. He says that it always involves “questions about happiness and suffering.” How sad that at 42 years old, this tidbit should constitute a profound insight to me! He points out [for instance] that the first four of the Ten Commandments have “nothing whatsoever to do with morality.” [p.20]
He then moves to discuss prevalent Christian attitudes toward sex, abortion, stem-cell research, distribution of wealth, infant mortality, evolution, disaster [theodicy], prophecy, and offers a glimpse into where our discordant religious certainties are leading us, on a global scale.
It is ominous. Really.

See, Harris is writing this thing to the committed Christian out there. And at the end he is saying [basically]: Listen. I don’t mean to make light of the fact that your religious experience is very important to you. It has probably coincided with some positive changes in your life. That is a good thing, perhaps.
But… but… but… BUT, "It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis." [p.89-90]
According to Harris, we should conclude that we cannot conclude very much, based on faith alone. That what may have been “a necessary function for us in the past” may now be “the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.” [p.91]
I fully concur.

What a terrific, monumentously important, timely, little book!



Brandon said...

I envy you. I can't wait to read this book. It's one of the few that I'm really looking forward to reading, and have been since first hearing about it. Of course, the book has already been checked out at my local library, but with all the buzz surrounding this book, that's not too surprising.

My Boring Best said...

I just read the book the other day. I loved it.

I saw Sam speak about a year ago, and have been a fan ever since. He is able to take this important subject matter and make it interesting to read. As an atheist, I know that most atheist's have trouble in that department.

Great blog!


cipriano said...

Thank you for your comments.
Yes, Harris's "letter" is one of the most important, well-written, logical, clear-headed things I've read in a long while.
As I have said about his other book, The End Of Faith, I sort of think that there is nothing more IMPORTANT for us [the world, irrespective of religious/spiritual ideology] to look into.... partially because, if we destroy ourselves on this planet, well.... we destroy everyone, right? No matter what they believe in.
This is crucial stuff.

Cold Molasses said...

Cip, I went to the Indigo library this evening and "checked out" this book (to the nearest soft seat available). I sat and I read...all of it. I must admit it was very well written and to the point. And while I do not disagree with his point, I can't say that I enjoyed his "finger pointing style". The same way I could not take the finger pointing from a pulpit, I have found that I don't like that style any better from an athiest. And unfortunately, that style will turn off people he is writing his letter to more than it will win them over.

Again, let me state that I don't disagree with his thesis on the whole. But having said that, the outright dismissal of anything that cannot be scientifically proven strikes me as being as foolishly "certain" as those he criticizes in this book of being "certain" of what only their faith has led them to believe. I don't disagree that the interpretation that has been put on Christianity (and other religions) has not resulted in a wholly positive contribution to the world (and sometimes, as in the many topics he covers, it has caused many problems and catastrophies). But, for me, the condemnation of anything not purely scientific and prove-able was a little over the top. And I'm not sure that a few hundred years from now, that viewpoint won't be seen to be equally as foolish as the views he challenges in his book.

All in all though, worth a read.