The revolutionary, evolutionary and revolting rhetoric of Letter to a Christian Nation

Regular readers of Catholic Heart and Mind know of my ongoing conversation with a young man who is an atheist. At his request I’ve been reading Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. Every day I hear of someone reading this book or ones like it, and “losing their faith”. Friends have questioned why I would read such a thing. Because, I tell them, I want to know what the New Atheists are saying and why they are saying it.

And now I know.

On page 90 of his book, Sam Harris asserts that:

“As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say that religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all, nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.” —Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris, pg 87. (Emphasis in the original.)

Let us leave aside for the moment the unsubstantiated claim that religion is a “biological phenomenon”, that it is “the product of cognitive processes deep in our evolutionary past”. (1) Let us also leave aside, for the moment, any speculations as to its value to our prehistoric ancestors with the implication—that it has no value for us today, sophisticated beings that we arean implicit point made very explicit a few sentences further on in the book. Let us, instead, look very closely at one particular sentence nearly buried in the midst of all this verbiage:

“There is, after all, nothing more natural than rape.”

I tell you in all honesty and candor that as I read those words, I stared in disbelief at the book in my hands. I read the sentence again and then the paragraph again, and then I had to put the book down because of the revulsion I felt rising within me. Where in the name of anthropology and all scholarship does this claim come from? (1) I’m not denying that rape has occurred and perhaps from earliest times. (That’s the rub with prehistory, being pre-history and all that, you know.) What I have a problem with is claiming that the occurrence of an act makes it natural.

Of course, it could be that this is precisely the thing that humans do when they leave God and the supernatural (the real supernatural, not ghosts and goblins) out of their lives and insist on acknowledging only the natural instead: they begin to see others as objects ripe for exploitation, the other not as someone to whom I want to give; but, rather, merely as someone who can give to me. A completely different take on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. As in “Take from others and do not let them take from you.”

And this is the message of the late Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life and his truly groundbreaking work, The Theology of the Body: that when we insist on viewing others in a reductionist way, leaving God and His meaning out of the picture, we necessarily end by seeing the other as merely a means to an end, as an object for our pleasure. This is the Original Sin and its result: losing sacred vision, the ability to see the God-meaning of creation and of ourselves within it, and being left with the poverty-stricken, loveless and monstrous vision of a Sam Harris, a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens. (3)

“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.” —Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris, pg 87.

Well, I’m still waiting, Mr. Harris, for some evidence of critical thinking and intellectual honesty on your part. All I’ve seen thus far is a lack of critical thinking, much sleight of hand, vitriolic polemic, and some of the most revolting rhetoric I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.

To be continued. Comments and discussion are, as always, welcome.
1. From the About page at Sam Harris’s website: “Mr. Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University. He is completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).” Well, I guess that makes him an expert on religion, faith and culture, then. All of them, everywhere, in every place and time. Yeah. Right.

2. How could anyone read this pseudo-intellectual trash and embrace it? How is it possible that anyone can read what this man (and others; he is not alone) is saying and, not only believe it, but embrace it as if it were Gospel Truth? The book is one unsubstantiated claim after another. A litany of poorly conceived arguments wherein clauses of sentences containing the word “if” are followed, unaccountably, by clauses containing the word “then”, implying that a conclusion has been derived following the laws of logic. But throughout the book the “if” and “then” clauses of sentences bear no (or, at most, weak) relation to each other, making a logical conclusion impossible.

That doesn’t stop him from claiming to draw reasoned, reasonable and logical conclusions. He draws them, alright, but logical? Reasoned or reasonable? Puh-leez. Don’t make me laugh. I can’t believe I paid for this stupid book. I could have bought coffee instead or put gas in my car. What a waste.

3. If you ever wanted to understand what the story of Adam and Eve really means and why it matters, you owe it to yourself to learn about JPII’s life-transforming insight. One good place to start is here at the Theology of the Body Institute. I just discovered that our Bishop Baker is on their Episcopal Board of Advisers. The more I learn about the man, the impressed I am.
I would like to thank a dear friend with whom I shared a lively and inspiring conversation over coffee last night, wherein we discussed atheism, apologetics and the Theology of the Body until Barnes and Noble kicked us out at closing time. I owe much of my insight into the subject to him and to his riveting account of a book he recently read, The Body Reveals God, by Katrina Zeno. I’d add it to my Amazon wish list, but the title doesn’t come up in my search there. Yet. Drat!

6 thoughts on “The revolutionary, evolutionary and revolting rhetoric of Letter to a Christian Nation

  1. Janet Holmes

    What makes rape natural is the observation of its ubiquity in nature. It’s everywhere. And not just heterosexual rape either. Ducks come to mind as they seem to rely on it rather a lot. But wherever males can get away with it they do it. The imperative is to reproduce your genes not be a gentleman.
    People have a tendency to conflate ‘natural’ with ‘good’ but nothing could be further from the truth. Nature is the ultimate proponent of the philosophy, the end justifies the means. I am with Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) in The African Queen when she says, “Nature, Mr Alnut, is what were put in this world to rise above!”.

    FYI Dennet wrote “Breaking the Spell” it was Christopher Hitchens who wrote “God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything”.


    1. Thanks for correcting the author attribution in JW’s comment.

      But as to your other remarks, apparently you are in agreement with Harris about the naturalness of rape. I agree that in animals there is a violence that some of us humans tend to see as revolting. Where we seem to disagree is that some think of humans as no more than comparatively hairless animals, equating animal nature with human nature and refusing to see that there is any difference. I’m not saying that there isn’t a certain sense in which this might be true. But we also have something that animals don’t. People who have lost touch with that something else act like animals and we tend to call them “brutes” to show that we recognize how low they have fallen. Human nature and animal nature are not the same. We are capable of things animals are not. We have the ability to rise above what is low and violent (ie, animal) in our nature. Animals do not.


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  4. Disciple

    Hey, again, JW :) (Waves) Yep, I have to admit, his hatred, which is glaringly evident in every in-your-face page, didn’t bother me nearly as much as his incessant trumpeting of the superiority of reason…and his abject failure to use any in his “arguments”. Oy ve. What a maroon, as Bugs Bunny would say. ;)


  5. Gah, I pity you. Slogging through that book was one of the hardest experiences of my life. The God Delusion was another challenge. I haven’t had the heart to look at some of the other books like “god is not Great” by Dennet. It’s just annoying to read not only someone who is spitting bile the entire time at your core beliefs, but also to read that in a context that is inundated with illogic.


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