01 February 2007

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, submitted by Doctor J

Another fine book review by Doctor J. And I like his advice that, "you must buy this book. You must read it. Then read it again. Then give it away to someone who needs to read it...and ask them to do the same." If you are stimulated by this book and the topic--pick up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins--also a current best-seller.

In this short book—91 pages—author Sam Harris explains to American Christians that he does not accept their religious belief because of its lack of intellectual rigor. That is, he has no faith in religion because it cannot be touched, tested and verified. More importantly, Harris (above) warns of the danger Christianity poses to our society and the world. Of course there are many kinds of Christians—dozens of denominations and myriad levels of intensity and fundamentalism. Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) invites everyone, Christian and otherwise, to read and talk about their ideas in the spirit of open and learned discourse. Herein lies the rub. There are Christians who won't read this work because they are forbidden to engage in open and learned discourse, much less have ideas. These are the most dogmatic creationists, those who believe the world was created only six thousand years ago and look forward to the time when it will be gloriously destroyed as a prelude to their Man-God's return to save all true believers and damn the rest to eternal suffering. These people won't read this book due to the fear instilled in them by those who claim to speak for their god—a vengeful Father-God who prohibits any opening of eyes and minds to any interpretation of reality other than its own. The rest of the Christians, and those of us in other categories—the more reasonable, the less frightened, the less hateful, the more open-minded ones—will read it, fortunately, and will consider its straightforward ideas regarding religion, belief, and reality. And when we have done so it is our charge to find a way to keep the fundamentalists from taking over this country and destroying it in the name of their god.

This may sound alarmist, but Harris cites public opinion surveys that show 53% of Americans are literal creationists who believe the Earth to have been created from dust and divinity about six thousand years ago. Fifty-three percent of anything is a big number so, yes, these people already shape our society and institutions and they are not shy about their agenda to dominate it entirely. The creationist agenda includes (but is not limited to) the destruction of science education, to be replaced with so-called intelligent design; the destruction of a woman's right to control her own body by gutting, then strangling, and finally killing Roe v Wade; the display of religious icons in public places (such as the Christian Ten Commandments in public schools and government buildings) to indoctrinate and threaten society at large and—you may wish to sit down for this—to hasten the end of the physical world so their beloved Man-God can return, give them their well-deserved heavenly splendor for being such good followers, and perpetually punish everyone who doesn't agree with them.

Sure, this sounds crazy. There's a good reason for that, but here's the really alarming part. These people vote en masse. Scarier still, they get elected or appointed to office themselves (G.W. Bush and John Ashcroft come quickly to mind) and bring this apocalyptic wet dream to the job with them. Fundamentalist Christians WANT THE WORLD TO END. They dream of it, they pray for it, they live for it. And they base all their belief in this end as a desirable one on a literal interpretation of a book.

These fundamentalists, THE MAJORITY OF AMERICANS remember, believe a book written by dozens of authors over scores of years is the literal word of their god. You may have heard of it. It's called the Bible. This book, a collection of letters, sermons, essays, parables, warnings and more than a few quite unintelligible ramblings, has been edited and re-edited dozens of times, whole chapters banished and others added at intervals spanning centuries. It contradicts itself hundreds of times as a result. Yet we must live our lives according to its every word or we get no reward when the end we so desire arrives.

OK, says Harris, let's live by this book. God says, when one's child is "out of line" we must beat him with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23: 13-14). If he "talks back to us, we should kill him"(Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13 and Matthew 15:4-7). Can any of us honestly say we would be alive today if our parents had followed these edicts? Add to this that "we must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images…and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes." Which of us shall cast that first stone at the homosexual? The Christian political official who cheats on his spouse? The fundamentalist Wal-Mart employee who works on Sunday? The creationist schoolchild who pledges allegiance to the flag each day? What about the gay politician who leads the pledge of allegiance in a workplace on a Sunday campaign stop? Is there anyone more worthy of public execution? What about anyone who has ever masturbated? They are condemned to be killed by their communities as well. Let he who has not done that cast the first stone. Come on. I dare you. I thought so. Yet 53% of Americans profess to believe this and live their lives accordingly. Of course they tend to pick and choose which parts of the bible to follow literally. You can bet most don't kill their children even if it means their eternal damnation. You can also bet if you masturbate they'll cry out for yours.

That archaeology has proven the Sumerians discovered glue almost 7000 years ago—a thousand years before the Earth was created according to creationist belief—won’t dent the thought process of this majority, or their elected favorites. This is a profoundly disturbing reality. Stone-age technology and culture are well-documented on five continents. That's more than ten thousand years ago. Dinosaurs? The entire idea is either a secular, scientific, liberal humanist, Darwinist conspiracy or they were on the ark with two of everything else. And if you don't belief this you are denying god and banished from its heaven. Worse, you are delaying the great catastrophe that will bring the end to this universe and fucking up everyone else's rapture. Who do you think you are? Again, this is 53% of Americans. How does one rationally argue with another individual who is so deeply psychotic as to ignore verifiable reality because it denies his hopes of fire and brimstone hurled by a hateful god at people who disagree with them? How does one argue with a majority of his countrymen who are locked into this self- and other-destructive mentality?

In an effort to begin this dialogue I could ask questions, as Harris does, of the Ten Commandments (universal to all religions in tone, Christians are the only ones to have these handed down in stone), of Christianity's views regarding morality and atheism (Hitler was a proud Christian and is, presumably, in heaven today. As an atheist, I have no chance to go, a rather comforting thought, really. Who wants to spend eternity with Hitler?) and, especially, of Christianity's assault on science, reason, and logic, i.e. evolution. But that may discourage you from buying this book.

And you must buy this book. And you must read it. Then read it again. Then give it away to someone who needs to read it (and everyone needs to read it) and ask them to do the same. Yes, it's that important. No other developed nation on earth, says Harris, believes in a literal interpretation of a religious text to the extent Americans do with their Christian Bible. "Our country," he writes, "now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant. Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying." Literal Christians are a numerical majority and as such constitute the single most dangerous threat to our nation and the world today. It is the duty of all rational, thinking people to understand that threat. This book is the primer for that education.

In my world you are, of course, free to believe Harris' arguments or not, just as you are free to believe in literal creationism. In a creationist's world you are not free to consider anything but the literal word, contradictory and inhumane and hateful as it is. But you do owe it to yourself and to all of us to look at both sides. Then decide which world you want to live in. One world is controlled by people who will buy any story on faith, follow any rule out of fear, pay any tithe, deny any reality, hate anyone their magic book and its un-seeable, untouchable, unknowable god tells them to. The other is a world where ideas are shared, considered, debated, verified or rejected by observation and analysis, and ultimately respected. One world denies reality, the other investigates it. One world seeks death, the other life. The choice is an easy one for rational people.

Christianity, like all religions, was invented between 8000 and 6000 years ago, after human beings had adopted agriculture as a social and economic system. A steadier food supply, more permanent dwellings, and a rhythmic work schedule allowed far more free time than was available to their hunter-gatherer ancestors and this free time was used, in part, to develop a psychological relationship with nature. Part of that process was the invention of gods. This occurred in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas all, more or less, about the same time. Man invented God about two thousand years before creationists believe that God invented Man. These are traceable, testable and verifiable facts.

Poor Jesus Christ. He comes along and has his name attached to a generally decent set of ideas, thousands of years in the making, adding his own charge to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Then, over the next 2000 years, small-minded, power-mad, hateful people take that long history and positive message and turn it into bullshit that serves only to divide as it begs destruction for all who disagree with it. It almost makes me wish I was wrong. It makes me wish he was actually coming back. I'd love to see the look on his face when he sees what these people have done, and are doing, in his name. But, of course, he's not coming back. Lucky for them.

1 comment:

LLL said...

There are, to be sure, plenty of religious whackos out there, and they deserve all the derision and suspicion we can heap upon them. But if you look at many of the great reform and humanitarian movements around the world, (as well as, I'll grant you, many of the worst human atrocities in our history) they were made possible by a strong spiritual base or component. And while science is superior to religion in creating guiding principles to help us understand and to observe our universe, harness it, and explain its workings, it still can't explain the "first cause" of it all. Is the likelihood of a "Big Bang" that somehow randomly created life as we know it today really a comprehensive or satisfactory explanation of our origins? (And NO, I'm not arguing for "intelligent design" curriculum in ANY school.) If we really want to express ourselves as we see fit, isn't it better to tolerate the opinions of others rather than ranting back at them even more rabidly than they're ranting at us? Can't there be room under our tent for the Reinhold Niebuhrs and Jim Wallises and Anne Lamotts of the world who want to use their faith to support progressive causes and promote human rights and human dignity? Can't we let people like Barack Obama campaign under our banner without insisting that he closet his faith in the same way right-wingers want gays and lesbians to closet their lifestyles--their very EXISTENCE? Can't we, at the end of the day, resist the juvenile tendencies of our past and lead the way in demonstrating respect for ourselves AND respect for others?