Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, Part I

As Mr. Harris makes so many logical and factual errors in Letter to a Christian Nation, I'm going to cover this book in parts. In part I, we'll see Mr. Harris appeal to ignorance and bigotry, get his history wrong, and display a willful ignorance despite the accessibility of Google.

"The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims." (p7)

Atheism has nothing to do with accepting "beliefs", only deities. This is a lovely cheap trick, but it does not follow from logic. Even if the audience can empathize with Mr. Harris via this example, it does not provide logical justification for their beliefs or his.

"Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn't it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn't it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry?"

Is Mr. Harris' appeal to the perceived ignorance and bigotry of his audience reasonable? How can these facts be "obvious" to his supposed target audience since most have probably never read the Koran and therefore cannot determine the reasonableness of those who follow it? It is only "obvious" because it appeals to their narcissism and bigotry against Muslims. It is far from "obvious" that "Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry" considering that Muslims created the scientific method, amongst many other accomplishments based on "honest inquiry."

I'm not sure if the next example is an appeal to the audience's ignorance or an argument from Mr. Harris'. The Golden Rule did not originate with Jesus of Nazareth, on this Mr. Harris is correct. However, Mr. Harris forgets that the historic Yeshuah Bar Yehoseph was a Jew, a rabbi, and intimately familiar with probably the earliest known source of that rule, The Babylonian Talmud, which originates from the 13th Century BCE and thus predates his examples, "Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, [and] Epictetus."

My favorite part of the book so far is Harris' brief exposition of the Martin Luther King/Ghandi/Jainism connection (p12). MLK is inspired by Ghandi who is inspired by Jainism, so Jainism is "objectively" better than Christianity at producing someone like MLK. (We'll leave aside the fact that early Christians were pacifists for centuries.) Surely, Harris knows the difference between pacifism as a philosophy and the tactics of nonviolent protest? Surely, he understands that MLK would have been directly inspired by Ghandi in large part because Ghandi was a man of his own time who used these tacts successfully against a similar enemy and for a similar purpose? Does Harris even realize that Ghandi's hunger strikes and and other forms of civil disobedience were inspired not by the Jainists but by the use of these tactics by the Catholic Irish nationalists? I would also ask if Mr. Harris is familiar with the logical fallacy called "proof by example," but he obviously is.

"The moment a person realizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany--and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known." (pp18-19)

This epiphany came "remarkably easy" for the Quakers, who took their first stand against slavery in 1688. Unfortunately, it didn't come "remarkably easy" for Western scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries and those who depended on them for the creation of public policy and for determining the circumstances under which their moral decisions were made. Yes, slaveowners justified themselves with the Bible, but they also justified themselves with science.

Science, unlike the Bible, gave them specific justification to enslave the African race based on its supposed inferior characteristics, the "benefit" Africans received from slavery, and scientific assessments of the African's "inability" to rule himself. Furthermore, via the theories of scientific racism, science actually circumvented the white man's ability to perceive Africans as either "human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness" or as capable of that reason which grants humanity its meaning and value.

As for his interpretation of the Civil War and its relationship to the abolition of slavery, Mr. Harris is a bit too naive. First, Abraham Lincoln made it well known that his intent was only to preserve the union, a goal he was prepared to achieve either by abolishing slavery or preserving it. Secondly, slavery along with other forms of oppression were practiced in the Union as well. Third, I'd like to know what objective assessment Mr. Harris used to determine that Southerners were "among the most pious Christians this country has ever known." I have my suspicions that this is more complicated than Mr. Harris realizes for two reasons: 1.) Christianity was probably far less influential amongst the Southern elite and thus the majority of slaveowners than it was and is amongst the South's middle and lower classes. 2.) Thomas Jefferson (for one example) was a Southerner, a slaveowner, and a deist and although he opposed slavery in theory, he owned slaves until the day he died. (If we accept the Sally Hemmings story, Mr. Jefferson enslaved his own children.)

Mr. Harris' take on the Ten Commandments (pp21-23) is laughably inaccurate and, since a five minute google search or a bit of simple reasoning would have informed him of this, must reflect willful ignorance. I'll only briefly mention his reference to the commandments as "Judeo-Christian" despite the fact that they predate Christianity by more than a millenium and despite the fact that there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian. The term is a conceit that originated in 1899 as a way to describe the Christian emergence from Judaism and came to have its current meaning via World War II anti-Nazi propaganda.

My favorite of Mr. Harris' many inaccuracies is perhaps his characterization of the third commandment as having "nothing whatsoever to do with morality" and forbidding "utterances like 'G-d damn it!'" This may come as a surprise to those who are not theologically literate, but the commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the L-rd thy G-d in vain." has absolutely nothing to do with profanity and everything to do with honor and morality.

In the era that the Hebrew scriptures were written, all contracts and oaths were made "in the name of G-d." So this commandment forbade using the name of G-d for a vain, pointless, or insincere oath and by extension forbade vain, pointless, or insincere oaths of any kind. This practice continues somewhat to our own day and can be found in the courtroom. A violation of this oath, taken in the name of G-d, is called perjury, which is also covered under the commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor." We could also extend this to those supposed Christian politicians who vow to uphold and defend the United States Constitution and who, upon violating their oaths or taking them insincerely, violate this commandment. I will assume that most people would consider keeping one's oaths an important part of morality and honor, not to mention a vital source of social stability.

"And what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of our universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock?"

And what are we to make of an author who, although intimately familiar with Buddhist philosophy and its prescriptions against desire, is unfamiliar with the application of this commandment to morality? Covetousness is forbidden due its relationship to the actions which we may take to obtain that which belongs to another. (In the Jewish interpretation, this commandment includes both the desire AND the act.) Adultery, theft, murder, kidnapping, bearing false witnesses, etc. are all linked to covetousness in many instances. In the Bible, David has Uriah sent to the front lines so that he'll be killed, making Bathsheba available for David. In history, accusations of witchcraft, heresy and other crimes were often used to obtain the property of the accused. History is also replete with examples of how the desire to seize power from another can lead to unspeakable horrors.

I will end part I here. In part II, we'll analyze Mr. Harris' "objective morality" and the blatant inconsistencies and not a little hypocrisy inherent in condemning the Christians for opposing stem-cell research while praising the Jainists.


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