Sam Harris‘s award-winning 2005 book The End of Faith carefully laid out his arguments about the negative influence of religious belief on society and on prospects for a more peaceable world. Extensively reviewed and discussed, it made Harris a darling of the New Atheist movement. It also established him as that modern rarity, a public intellectual.
Last year Harris followed up his book with a monograph called Letter to a Christian Nation, which received a thoughtful summing-up and review from Tim Gebhart. This more pointed work narrows the focus to one of the first book’s themes: while it is Islamic radicals who are responsible for the mayhem that has thrown the world into what threatens to become a never-ending state of war, Christian fundamentalist beliefs are just as morally flawed and just as harmful, though at present less spectacularly so.
Letter takes the form of an epistle to the majority of Americans who (according to polls) believe the Christian Bible to be the actual word of God. The End of Faith, while fiercely argued, was, in form, a standard work of popular scholarship, but Letters is a polemical monograph in the manner of Thomas Paine, with the associated virtues and limitations. It’s short — less than 100 small pages — and even more plainspoken than the longer book. Were we a society of readers, its accessibility would likely have made it the more important of the two.
Unfortunately we are not a society of readers. The more American Christians who receive the gospel of Sam Harris, the better for our world. Having his perspective available in compact, digestible form is a boon. He shows the enormity of the stakes and argues effectively that we must strive for a world less dominated by irrational beliefs.
Faith, he writes, “…inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamist terrorism is a recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict…because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation. Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics…[Even] conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns…are often deeply rooted in religion.”
A key problem is that believers and nonbelievers hold different conceptions of morality. “Questions of morality,” Harris writes, “are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks.” That makes sense on the face of it, but a lot of people aren’t thinking about “questions about happiness and suffering” when they talk about morality.
To fundamentalists, morality usually means following (or loudly paying lip service to) scriptural commands. Often the commands are cherry-picked. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is much more palatable to twenty-first century Christians than “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5). Whether followed or not, they are taken as dictates from God. Too often it is this, and not any inherent sense or goodness, that leads to the veneration of these laws.
Harris writes that violence is often caused by people defining their “moral community” in terms of their religion, and observes that religion “tends to divorce morality from the reality of human suffering.” I would put it a little differently: for too many people, morality and beliefs become two words for the same thing. Many religious people think that their beliefs, however irrational, are morality.
Scriptural commands, such as the Ten Commandments, have roots in the evolved biology of the social animals we are. Murder, stealing, and adultery cause suffering and strife in apes as among humans. Increased societal peace (leading to more happiness) and decreased suffering are certainly goals that come into play as morals evolve and harden into scripture, but in complex societies, morals are also honed and shaped by reason. In rejecting reason, fundamentalists subvert morality with horrifying results.
Before the believers out there start attacking, let me add that irrational beliefs can and do coexist with rational moral thought. Regardless of our religiosity or lack thereof, most of us repeatedly make day-to-day ethical decisions based on common sense and basic human decency.
The small, personal ways in which people create peace and obviate suffering for themselves, their loved ones, their friends, and co-workers, stand apart from the larger moral failures that have led to 9/11, unnecessary suffering from AIDS, and the civil war in Iraq. People who believe in 79 virgins or a Rapture — people fixated on an end to history, rather than concerned with actual humanity — have washed their hands of personal responsibility. For them, essential morality has broken down.
Harris writes, “Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral – that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide…[and] why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.
“Clearly,” Harris concludes, “it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous… Only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”
He may be wrong in believing that, in the philosophical conflict between rational thinkers and superstitious believers, “in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.” Unchecked religious fundamentalism may yet result in the end of civilization, but we live in unprecedented times and can make no such assumption.
What is certain, and what the gospel of Sam Harris is helping to make clear, is that our world is awash in religious wars, and we had better learn to think of them that way. As the writer, documentarian, and humanist Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, pointed out at last Fall’s Beyond Belief conference, there is room to hope “that we are on the eve of a swing in the pendulum, that tomorrow we’ll wake up and we’ll realize that our fellow citizens have been aroused from their stupor, from their fear-based religion and their fear-basic politics, to see what we have to do to make this tiny pale blue dot a place of peace and true goodness.”