Letter Christian (1)

Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006) Harris is so impressively earnest in both his books that he ends up sounding like the high school nerd trying to tutor a crowd of uninterested jocks (although that nerd is more often than not the freshman born-again with the plastic haircut). The nerdiness is at least in part a bit of rhetorical ornament; indeed at no time was it more important to be earnest than after 9/11. Needless to say every text has a rhetorical component, tinkered or borrowed, and in sum, Harris’ earnestness may serve just as well as Voltairean hijinks toward the common goal.

Still the rhetorical ornament is married to an important substantive point that is not without consequence. I profess, says Harris, exactly the same moral precepts that you Xtians do (at least in your better moments). The sole difference is that I choose to correct you in one very important point of fact concerning which I am right and you are wrong. The conclusions I draw about the way we should behave are largely the same as your own (in your better moments). That point of fact (the existence of Godot), however, cannot be overlooked because in your heart of hearts you know as well as I do that you are wrong, and the attempt to juggle in your psyche a lie and the simultaneous suppression of the lie leads to all sorts of unhappy results, such as your notorious propensity for violence. (To be accurate, this bit of on the spot psychology is the way I see things; even if it were erroneous, Harris would say the record alone speaks volumes about the relation between religion and violence).

One consequence of Harris’ moral brotherhood with Xtians (in their better moments) is to leave aside the concerns of noble libertines from Sade through Alfred P. Doolittle for whom the existence or non-existence of Godot is not enough, who see something fishy in this whole middle class morality business. The ills of Xtian society is an inexhaustible topic, better left for discussion elsewhere. Let us simply note that Harris shares what he sees as the better side of the Xtian moral vision.

But one further point should be made about the commonality of moral goals. Harris in fact subscribes to a version of the rational justification of what is considered good behavior (p. 24). This rational justification was hugely popular in the seventeenth century among those who argued that Xtian beliefs need not be based on the commands of revelation alone. Harris’ Real Morality is based on a principle of enlightened self-interest. According to this principle I can start from a knowledge or intuition of what is good for me and by reasoning reach conclusions that enjoin duty or altruism, because I discover that certain sorts of dutiful or altruistic behavior are actually good for me in the same way that, for example, the direct immediate pleasures of nourishment, and indeed the nourishment itself, are good for me. The enlightened self-interest justification of moral behavior has had its highs and its lows. One particular woe is that it can be used to justify devious behavior if the perpetrator thinks he can get away with it. And Freud may have discovered that pleasure and self-preservation are not the only instincts that motivate our behavior. But this is once again a huge topic that deserves more than cursory mention. The only thing I would like to point out here is that Harris appeals to the self-interest theory to provide an alternative justification for moral behavior.

In fact one feels a certain reluctance to even bring up these points in a context where the truth of Xtianity is at issue. For reflections of this sort require a degree of dispassionate objectivity and a willingness to be proven wrong. Xtians have no interest in being proven wrong. Xtian psychology is to begin with the conclusion and marshal whatever arguments are available to support that conclusion. The Xtian apologist is like a defense lawyer who knows his client is guilty, but, since he cannot admit as much (All he can do is withdraw from the case), he does whatever he can to promote the verdict his client desires. Xtian apologists are the Johnnie Cochrans of the intellectual world, in which case Godot must be O.J. In this particular situation, the Xtian apologist is as likely as not to shout, “Aha, the self-interest or pleasure principle has not been shown to be an adequate basis for moral behavior! Therefore, god exists so let’s kill Harris!” It is this sort fallacy that I believe Hobbes referred to as error dumborum asinorum, and is the main reason one should keep serious intellectual debate at a discreet volume if one senses a Xtian is in the room.

With that caveat in mind, I believe it is equally worthwhile to point out that Harris is distressingly uncritical in his use of secondary source material (especially sociological and biological sources). We see a lot of this lascivious use of source material in New Age post positivist sort of literature where an enthusiasm for some science often merges with strange messianic messages (“Research has shown that dolphin communication is based squarely on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.1 – 1. Ernesto von Doodlefinger ‘Are We Really All Quantum Computers?’ New Worlds Research, 1969”). Harris’ message is not strange, but in his anxiousness to forestall the Xtian blackshirts, he does take on something of a messianic tone. And, in The End of Faith (Cf. his footnotes on pp. 243 ff.), he often cites promising but unsettled research as established fact. He fortunately eschews much of the source lasciviousness in Letter to a Christian Nation, though that may simply be due to the nature of that short manual where discussion in depth, critical or uncritical, of scientific research would be out of place. At one point, however, Harris does cite “studies of primate behavior” (p. 21) with no qualms over the fact that this is a very unsettled area of research. It is the demand that experiments be duplicated, often several times, and that non-experimental observations be verified, before the theories that may be drawn from those experiments or observations are accepted - it is that demand that is the strength of scientific practice. Xtian apologists do not in the end endorse verification or falsification of observations and theories as principles in the search for truth. Their principle is what we might call the Conformity Principle. If a theory or observation conforms to Xtian doctrine, it is true; if it doesn’t, it is false. Clearly the Conformity Principle and the principle of scientific verification (or falsification) are incompatible. You cannot follow both principles at the same time.

Harris is really at his best in both books when he leaves the dense treasure house of scientific research and simply highlights particularly telling passages from the Bible or the Koran as evidence that both texts enjoin violent behavior. But this fact, a pretty darned near verified fact thanks to the research of Harris and many of his sources, of the Xtian and Mahometan taste for violence that seems so odd to any sufficiently reflective visitor from Saturn and certainly, outside of religious dogmas, unnecessary for personal salvation - this fact is troubling. One cannot rid oneself of the lingering suspicion that Xtians and Mahometans are not capable of rational argument. You might say that their brain circuitry operates with no more than a primitive truth functional mechanism defined by the Conformity Principle. Or else, if to be human is to be rational, they are not really human but something less than human (They are descended from monkeys, after all). One hopes that Harris’ project is not doomed to the failure of not reaching its intended audience not only because most Xtians can’t read (That’s why they listen to the radio, dumb ass!), but also –as the above suspicion may tell us – they do not have the human capacity for language that goes with deductive reasoning. When a Xtian hears “There is no God because…,” his primitive brain circuitry erases all the words except “no God,” immediately maps that phrase onto the truth value False, which then triggers his violence hormones. They are zombies, responsive only to simple commands like “Fetch!” and “Kill!”

Harris obviously believes that Xtian superstition can be overcome, both in the life of the individual and in society, by rational argument. He may be wrong. The persistence of superstition over the centuries is a puzzle to anyone capable of following rational argument (Dennett has unearthed a trove of research suggestions that may point to an answer). He may also be right. Some progress seems to have been made in European nations (not to speak of China and Japan many of whose citizens apparently s’en foutent de tout ça). Only a few centuries ago Harris would have found himself rubbing shoulders with Giordano Bruno in a tasty auto da fe. Nevertheless no one ever went to the stake for overestimating the extent to which the human population are fundamentally animals driven by instincts. Perhaps the solution is not rational argument as we understand it, but a much more developed theory of instincts and some sort of psychological program for manipulating those instincts away from both religion and violence.

Harris does take the opportunity to correct what I thought was a puzzling admission in The End of Faith to the effect that fascism was an atheistic political system. Indeed fascist politicians, like almost all politicians, are prone to say whatever is to their momentary advantage and it shouldn’t be surprising that a categorical assertion made on a Monday will just have to cohabit with a contradictory but equally categorical claim made the following Thursday. The acquisition and maintenance of personal political power is the real goal, and professing or acting according to a consistent set of beliefs matters not at all. That said, fascism was about as Xtian a political movement as you can find. Harris finds a speech where Hitler makes hay with his Xtianity (p. 40. It is interesting that Hitler’s real concern as always was his hatred of the Jews. Even in this speech he approvingly equates Xtianity with anti-semitism), and to this can be added a fact cited by Jacoby where Mussolini denied visas to atheists and agnostics. On the other side, the Xtian churches, papist and fanatic, in fascist countries were simply delighted that a few strong leaders could finally deal with those horrible communists. I am sure Pius XI dreamt about sucking Mussolini’s cock every night. The relation between Xtianity and fascism is not particularly subtle. The evangelists of fascism – De Maistre, Donoso de Cortes, Gobineau, Gentile – were all not just Xtian. They were papists. Indeed among European fascist countries Germany was a partial anomaly (Bavaria, Hitler's breeding ground, the Rhineland and the soon to be annexed Austria were all papist. Japan was the other exception, although one may doubt whether its political ideology was really fascist in the European sense) because of its large fanatic (i.e. protestant) population. Italy, Spain and some Eastern European countries that elected fascist governments were all papist, as were the Latin American nations that remained centers of fascist ideology long after the Axis defeat.