Last week I attended another in a series of talks sponsored by the New York Public Library, this one a “debate” between professional atheist Sam Harris and Oliver McTernan, a former priest and humanitarian. Ostensibly, it was supposed to address the charges leveled against religion in Harris’s slight new book [Letter to a Christian Nation], but it never really took off. McTernan tried, repeatedly, to get Harris to respond to charges that he was as anti-pluralist as he charges religious people to be — a secular fundamentalist — but Harris wouldn’t play.
The book under discussion, a pocket-sized polemic (literally, at 5 x 7.5 inches and less than 100 pages), is hardly worthy of serious consideration. It simply rehashes ages-old atheist complaints about the inconsistencies of ancient religious texts and the disconnect between the moral protestations of conservative Christians and their immoral behavior. In it, he holds up a straw man version of Christianity — closely identified with the loonier precincts of the faith — and ridicules it.
The entire effort reeks of “up-sell”, an attempt by Harris and his publisher to make a few more coins off the popularity of his first book, [The End of Faith], especially during a political season where the Christian Right and GOP are expected to take a drubbing in the mid-term elections. Though the book is written in the form of an open letter to Christians, no faithful Christian would touch it — it’s clearly targeted to the legions of Harris fans who have turned him into something of a star on the freethinking left. Fans like the spry little lady who popped up during audience Q&A and prefaced her question by gushing that she considered Harris to be one of the smartest people on the planet! She then asked him how he would solve some of the more vexing problems facing the world. You know — from an atheist perspective. I don’t think the irony of her question — asking an atheist for his prescription for salvation — was lost on Harris, who looked pained and remarked, “Yes, I was waiting for that question.”
It’s too bad Harris isn’t using his intelligence to plumb the more essential qualities of religious fervor (such as the spry lady’s desire for a figure in which to invest her faith) and seriously analyzing how they do or do not adapt to a world made more dangerous by technology. But that would require seriousness and subtlety and one thing you will not find in books like his, or those of his zealous friends Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, is subtlety. They are quite happy to chuck thousands of years of bathwater out with the accursed baby. Granted, there is something exhilarating about calling out crazy religious ideas — but it’s the same exhilaration a 16-year-old feels once he realizes that he can thumb his nose at God without fear of a lightening bolt. One would hope that by the time he is old enough to write books, the nose-thumber had acquired a more sophisticated view of the meaning of religion in the life of humanity.
Harris is supposedly working toward a Ph.D. in neuroscience. We can see where this is going. He aims to find the part of the brain that lights up when we think of God and surely it will only be a short jump from there to finding a cure for what ails us. But who, of those who need it most, will buy it?