Thursday, February 21, 2008

Immoral Majority

Sam Harris' tiny volume Letter to a Christian Nation deals a crippling blow to the idea that religion, especially Christianity, is a force for moral good. While Richard Dawkins pursued a broad-based intellectual argument against belief in god, Harris cuts right at the heart of the supposed strength of religion: morality. Using simple examples and clear language, he relentlessly dismantles notions of divine morality.

In one deft passage, he starkly contrasts that which science offers to humanity with that which religion offers. For me, this excerpt so convincingly illustrates the impotence of religion to render aid or comfort in the face of real adversity that I had to read it several times:
...there had been ample warning that a storm of "biblical proportions" would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Religion offered no basis for a response at all. Advance warning of Katrina's path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely upon the beneficence of God, they wouldn't have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet a poll found that 80 percent of Katrina's survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

...It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world's suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is - and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgments of their happiness for no good reason at all.
I have always felt uneasy listening to people carry on about the miracle of their holy deliverance, but I have never been able to articulate so directly and eloquently the madness of such stories.

Not content to call out fundamentalists only, Harris also takes to task liberals and moderates for their religious apologia, and posits that any defense of religion by definition lends credibility to radical fundamentalists, because religion, whether moderate or fundamentalist, asks its adherents to accept facts without evidence. For Harris, this leads to a primacy of dogma at the expense of truth.

I could go on about Harris' little tome. It was a quick, informative, and engaging read. Remarkable, given that was just an impulse buy that I made last Sunday. But I have been thinking about his book all week long - Harris lays a great thumping upon the tired, soft-shell head of theological morality. Instead of rambling, however, I will simply end with Dawkins' jacket quote: "I dare you to read this book... It will not leave you unchanged." Well said.

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