The following are some further reflections on the book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. I have to tell you, I really don’t like spending my time re-reading this thing, it was painful enough the first time. I read it the first time because I promised my young atheist friend that I would; and I’m re-reading it now because I know some people who are waiting to read what else I’m going to write about it. (See more in an earlier post.)
Sam Harris has an agenda and he clearly states toward the end of his book (see pages 90-91). It is a goal he shares with other people who style themselves the New Atheists. Sam Harris and three other writers call themselves the Four Horsemen and see themselves as bringers of the end of faith. That is actually the title of a Sam Harris book: The End of Faith. Harris, et al, see religion as the biggest impediment today to building a global civilization.
I wonder if they realize that the Church has been building a global civilization for around two thousand years now. No matter. The global civilization that the Four Horsemen want to build does not resemble what the Church wants to build. The Church works toward “Building a Civilization of Love” and the New Atheists work toward building a world in which people have moral value which can be determined mathematically. The Church places value on each and every human being because that person exists. The New Atheists place value on human beings who can demonstrate usefulness to other human beings, and personhood is something to be earned and measured. And even taken away.
For all her much-touted “authoritarianism”, the Church has never proposed anything so exceedingly obnoxious or truly authoritarian in her entire history. So who would decide which human being is to be allowed to retain the status of personhood and who would lose it? (If you haven’t heard of “Personhood Theory”, I invite you to do a wordsearch on the web and read about it for yourself. Treat yourself to some fine reading by Peter Singer, John Harris and others. But you might want to read it on an empty stomach. And keep some bicarbonate of soda nearby, just in case.)
Beginning on page vii and throughout, Harris charges religious people with the vilest and most hate-filled crimes ever perpetrated on humanity. The only way to move forward, says he, is to wipe religion from the face of the planet. Let’s see just what the planet would look like with no Christianity, one of the two religions Harris is particularly fond of hating. Well, for one thing, there would have been no churches, so no churches as places of asylum for villagers fleeing hordes of barbarians in the so-called, unfortuntately named “Dark Ages” (which were so-called because we have little to no written history of the time, not because they were filled with darkness and ignorance). There would be no hospitals as we know them, since that was yet another development of the evil and hate-filled Church. There would be no universities as we know them, because the Church who invented them and started them and nurtured them would not have existed. The scientific method as we know it also would not have existed, because it is another product of that evil, ignorant and backward Christian way of looking at the world and seeing order all around and evidence of Divine Intelligence, a Creator, if you will. There would be no genetic research as we know it, because the research into heredity that led to the discovery of genes was pioneered by Gregor Mendel, who was at the time a novice in the Augustinian order, later ordained a priest and eventually an abbot. His findings challenged the theories of Darwin which were growing in acceptance at the time and which eclipsed Mendel’s work until after his death.
It is telling that in the chapter entitled, Are Atheists Evil? (starting on page 38), Harris ridicules the notion that Christianity has anything to do with morality. Anticipating that Christians will reply with the well-known examples of notorious immorality such as Hitler, Stalin and other megalomaniacs, he counters this move by side-stepping it, re-defining the atheism of these figures as “quasi-religious”, saying that:
The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths. (Harris, page 41.)
Here, as I said, Harris sidesteps their atheism and at the same time implies that their “quasi-religious” views led to the atrocities they committed. If only they had had no religious leanings whatsoever, says he, then they never would have indulged in genocide.
Interesting take. We’ll never know what they might have done. But we do know what they did do. And as I recall, millions of religious people fell victim to these godless men, Christians as well as Jews and others. Christians, though some people will not admit it, have historically been more often victims of violence due to their religion than perpetrators of it. Christians have been persecuted for being Christians for centuries and the murderous violence continues down to this day in countries like Africa and India. If Harris has his way, if people agree with him, we may soon see such violence erupt in our own land.
And wouldn’t that make Sam Harris proud?
*The Church has, on the other hand, repeatedly, throughout her long history, urged men to treat others with love. Popes repeatedly denounced, and condemned slavery and exhorted men and nations to stop the practice. But then, as now, some people listened and others did not and slavery continues to this very day. It is to be noted that in countries where Christianity is the pre-dominating religion, slavery does seem to be vanquished. Is this one of the evil effects of religion in general and Christianity in particular that bothers Harris so much? Or is this one of the good effects that he admits that religion may have had in the past but that religion no longer needs to fight against such affronts to decency?
**As regards the often repeated and entirely false charge that the Catholic Church has never spoken out against slavery, I submit the below quote from The Catholic Encyclopedia. (I know that the mere fact that the quote is from that work will disqualify it in some minds.)
…[I]n 1462, Pius II declared slavery to be “a great crime” (magnum scelus); that, in 1537, Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians; that Urban VIII forbade it in 1639, and Benedict XIV in 1741; that Pius VII demanded of the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, the suppression of the slave trade and Gregory XVI condemned it in 1839; that, in the Bull of Canonization of the Jesuit Peter Claver, one of the most illustrious adversaries of slavery, Pius IX branded the “supreme villainy” (summum nefas) of the slave traders. Everyone knows of the beautiful letter which Leo XIII, in 1888, addressed to the Brazilian bishops, exhorting them to banish from their country the remnants of slavery — a letter to which the bishops responded with their most energetic efforts, and some generous slave-owners by freeing their slaves in a body, as in the first ages of the Church.
***What Mendel observed was that progeny did not develop:
“…in a haphazard manner, but in one which was reducible to the terms of a so-called ‘Natural Law’.” This was ignored for a long time. Indeed, it is still ignored by many today who accept Darwinian evolution as a proven fact. From the Catholic Encyclopedia..
But biomedical science is making breakthrough discoveries by viewing biosystems as being a result of design. They are using an “engineering model” and discovering things that the Darwinian model never revealed.