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Lions Roar : November 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 99 SAM HARRIS BEGINS Letter to a Christian Nation by de- scribing it as “a short broadside against fundamentalist Chris- tianity” with the primary purpose of arming “secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy.” Millions of religious and non-religious people would happily endorse such an endeavor. He concludes his book with the declaration that “any genu- ine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse.” This is a principle for which he could also find many supporters among those who are deeply concerned with ethics and contemplation. Unfortunately, Harris spurns all such potential allies— liberal and moderate Jews, Christians, and Muslims—by insisting that even the most progressive faiths give shelter to extremists and lend tacit support to religious divisions in our world. Basically, he condemns everyone who adheres to any religious tradition as being complicit in the world’s vio- lence and ignorance. In short, this letter is a declaration of war against any belief system Harris deems “religious.” The problem is that nowhere in Letter to a Christian Nation does he explain what he means by the word “religion.” Harris’ Letter expresses intellectual disdain for religion coupled with moral contempt for religious believers. Without exploring the reasons why so many Americans are religious, he ridicules them and their beliefs. While deriding the funda- mentalist beliefs of Muslim terrorists, he then makes the ab- surd claim that, unlike such extremists, liberal and moderate religious believers “don’t know what it is like to really believe in God.” This is the kind of black-and-white thinking that characterizes every kind of ideological fundamentalism. Harris’ passionate aversion toward religion is coupled with an equally ardent attachment to science and atheism. He in- forms his readers that “science represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world...The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty.” This idealized vision ignores the limitations of science as it has evolved over the past four hundred years, and fails to take Religion and Reason LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION By Sam Harris Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; 112 pp.; $16.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY B. ALAN WALLACE into account the many kinds of biases, errors, dogmatism, and lapses of intellectual honesty to which scientists, like everyone else, are prone. While Harris disparages religious people—Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in particular—as intellectually demented and morally corrupt, he idealizes sci- entists as rational and morally upright. One of the central themes of Letter is the author’s insistence that “nothing is to be believed on insufficient evidence.” On the surface, this appears to be a valuable principle, but Harris fails to address three crucial questions: What constitutes “evi- dence”? Who needs to observe it and by what means? How is it to be interpreted? While he insists that he does not wish to denigrate the feelings people experience while praying, for in- stance, he rightly points out that they may misinterpret their experiences and “further delude themselves about the nature of reality.” But what about Christian contemplatives over the past two millennia who claim to have direct knowledge of God, visions of Jesus, and inspiration and blessings from Christian saints? Do their experiences count as evidence, and, if so, who has the authority to evaluate it? In presenting his own faith, Harris declares, “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” But for whom is this truth obvi- ous? One could rightly claim, as the author does, that the bur- den of evidence is on those who believe in God, not on those who find no grounds for such belief. But at no point does he give an objective evaluation of religious people’s beliefs based on uniquely religious kinds of experiences. What does science really tell us about the existence of God or any other possible non-physical realities? According ILLUSTRATIONBYALANGORDONANDCHRISTIEBUCALO