Sam Harris Rehashed
“This letter is the product of failure…the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand.”1 With such incinerating and provocative statements, Sam Harris wraps up his Letter to a Christian Nation. The diminutive size of this bestselling book should not deceive you: it is nothing less than a full-scale attack on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in general and religious fundamentalism in particular. With scathing rhetoric, Harris argues that religion is an obstacle to rational thought and a dangerous denial of reality. In this article, I will address three of Harris’s arguments and show that while attacking fundamentalism within the religious traditions, Harris himself would benefit from a more nuanced understanding.
Let us begin with Harris’s contention that God is either impotent or evil. In considering disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Harris questions what God was doing when elderly men and women prayed to him as they slowly died in their attics, all the while believing that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate.2 God was doing nothing, Harris would undoubtedly believe, for he asserts that “an atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl—even once in a million years—casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.”3
When Harris argues that God is either evil or impotent, an underlying assumption is that suffering is bad and that God would be evil to allow someone to suffer. As we will see, however, there are several problems with tying morality to suffering and its alleviation. First of all, how do we define happiness and suffering? Can we objectively impose definitions of these terms on the world and if so, on what basis? Although considering how much suffering an action causes is a useful method of considering morality, it is not infallible. What about actions that do not cause suffering but are morally wrong or instances when the morally right decision causes suffering? Furthermore, who can deny that the transformative power of suffering can be immense?
I do not mean to suggest that we should never try to alleviate suffering, but neither should we see suffering as always bad. Indeed, suffering is often revealed to be a blessing in disguise. As any good parent knows, it is sometimes necessary to allow children to experience the painful results of their actions in order to grow. Thus experiencing suffering can give us a depth that we wouldn’t have otherwise. It is both the door to empathy and the contrast to happiness that deepens our appreciation for that happiness. Thus by labeling God as evil for not alleviating all suffering, Harris demonstrates a one-sided understanding of suffering. The religious traditions of the world would also remind Harris that our earthly existence is only one frame in the movie of our eternal life. If God wants to bring a child to him for eternal happiness after a brief time on Earth, who are we to call him evil? Our attempts to judge God with our own limited logic are futile.
Let us now turn to Harris’s argument in regard to European society and Muslim immigrants. Pointing to statistics like seventy percent of the inmates in France are Muslim, Harris maintains that secular Europe is being damaged by Muslim immigrants and religious tolerance towards them.4 He contends that political correctness and fear of racism have hampered Europeans from countering extremists in their midst and maintains that the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion is a “fantasy.”5 The solution, Harris argues, lies not in interfaith dialogue but in being reasonable and recognizing that other worldviews are fundamentally incompatible with Islam.
As Harris’s suffering model falls short in regard to judging God, his arguments about Islam and European society similarly fall short. By oversimplifying a complicated social dynamic, he scapegoats Islam and fuels the very religious sectarianism he wants to overcome. For example, his statistic about seventy percent of inmates in France being Muslim, while completely ignoring other explanations, implies that Islam is a dangerous religion that leads to criminality. Moussa Khedimellah, a sociologist who has studied Muslims in the French penal system for years, points to a more likely answer: “The high percentage of Muslims in prisons is a direct consequence of the failure of the integration of minorities in France.”6 By ignoring this underlying sociological problem and pointing a finger at the wrong culprit (the Islamic faith itself), Harris’s argument fails to address the real problem—the need to build bridges between cultures—and instead feeds an unreasonable fear that Islam breeds hate and criminality.
Let us now conclude by considering Harris’s argument in regard to stem-cell research. Harris points out that stem-cell research shows the greatest potential for breakthroughs in medicine in all fields. He maintains that although human embryos are destroyed for stem-cell research, the embryos that are used are composed of less cells than the cells in a fly’s brain. “Consequently,” Harris asserts, “there is no reason to believe that they can suffer their destruction in any way at all.”7 Thus to Harris there is no moral reason why the interests of such an embryo should be considered more important than the needs of a person who could potentially be helped by stem-cell research.
Here again we find Harris’s simplistic reasoning on display. He blithely presents the life or death of a human embryo as if it were an easy moral question that can be resolved by punching human suffering into a simple equation. Since a human embryo at three days old does not experience suffering, by Harris’s calculation it basically has very little right to its own life. In contrast, religious traditions hold that all life is sacred and that we are stewards of the mysteries of God. While this belief cannot be proved to the satisfaction of Harris, it leads to a healthy caution in regard to manipulating nature and the mysteries of God, particularly in regard to taking life. Given the numerous examples of humanity’s meddling with nature that have gone awry, most notably in the unprecedented environmental crisis we now face, this caution is prudent.
While Harris primarily uses his suffering model to justify killing an embryo, he does concede that some might argue that an embryo has rights due to its potential to become a fully developed human. But here again Harris dismisses objections with astonishing ease. Saying that any cell has the potential to become a human, he thereby concludes that human embryos should have no more rights than dead cells sloughed off the body. Leaving aside the practical considerations in regard to the viability of human cloning, can all the moral questions about human cloning really be answered with Harris’s simplistic suffering model? Obviously not. Thus while labeling religious concerns for the soul of an embryo as naïve, Harris fails to realize that his arguments are not only simplistic but also odious: under some circumstances he sees human life as nothing more than a commodity to be harvested.
In conclusion, while Harris has highlighted numerous shortcomings of religious fundamentalists, his conclusions are extreme and his solutions often simplistic. Eradicating religion from society is both improbable and highly questionable. A more feasible approach to solving the problems Harris highlights is to concentrate on building bridges between people of different religions and addressing the underlying sociological, political, and economic problems that are the real causes of violence in the name of religion. While this approach is certainly more involved than Harris’s solution of doing away with religion, it is a far more reasonable and realistic. Developing greater understanding between people is a time-consuming investment, but it has lasting value. In contrast, wholesale rejection never pays off. As Bhaktivinode Thakura reminds us, “Thought is progressive. The author’s thought must have progress in the reader in the shape of correction or development. He is the best critic who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of nature.”8
- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Vintage, 2006), Kindle edition, locations 795-801. [↩]
- ibid., 477-82. [↩]
- ibid., locations 472-77. [↩]
- ibid., locations 404-9. [↩]
- ibid., locations 741-46. [↩]
- Moore, Molly. “In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims.” Washington Post, Tuesday 29, 2008, accessed April 20, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/28/AR2008042802560.html [↩]
- ibid., locations 293-98. [↩]
- Bhaktivinoda Thakura, The Bhagavata. [↩]