Saturday, August 27, 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation

Did you ever read a book you mostly agreed with but still didn’t like? That would be my reaction to Sam Harris’ 2006 Letter to a Christian Nation.

Let’s start with the worst part, and the part I most disagreed with. Harris not only attacks Christians throughout, even moderate and liberal Christians, he launches into a three-page diatribe against Muslims in which he claims that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith” (his italics).

His extreme anti-religious stance is as arrogant in its atheism and as intolerant of religious faith as any of the believers he attacks for their arrogance and intolerance.

Harris asserts that atheism is not a dogma: “It is time that Christians like yourselves stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as dogma” (his italics). He then turns around and defines atheism as “simply an admission of the obvious.” Sorry, but that sounds pretty dogmatic to me.

He claims to rely solely on reason, evidence, and logic: “The conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes or he does not.” (I assume women are included as persons here, but Harris’ use of the generic “he” only reinforces male dominance.) He goes on to say that “…faith is nothing more than the license religious people give each other to keep believing when reasons fail.”

The problem is that reason, evidence, and logic don’t answer all questions or account for all human experience. They don’t fully account for ethics, values, human empathy or other moral feelings, and they certainly don’t account for the origin of the universe, which, as Harris admits elsewhere, remains a mystery to this day. When reasons fail, we still have to make ethical choices and we do so on the basis of our experience, the values we hold dear despite the lack of evidence to support them fully, and our feelings of human concern. Likewise we value aesthetic experience and beauty, not on the basis of reason, logic, and evidence, but on the basis of human sensibility. Are we to suspend making any moral or aesthetic choices because reasons fail?

In the same way, do we suspend all belief because reasons fail? When reason, logic, and evidence fail to support atheism fully (for as Harris says we simply do not know about the origin of the universe), does Harris suspend his belief in atheism? Hardly.

And I would really like to see him base his love life on nothing but reason, logic, and evidence.  Maybe religion is akin to romantic love.  In addition to common sense, they both require some chemistry, some tenderness, some imagination, and a strong appreciation for the mystery of it all.  Throw in enough compatibility and commitment and you have a life-long relationship, whether it be with a significant other or with a faith community that shares your world view.

For someone who claims to be guided strictly by rationality, Harris’ own logic is inexcusably sloppy at times. He repeatedly falls into the fallacy of simplistic either-or thinking, as in the “fact” that “either a person has good reasons for what he believes or he does not,” when “good” is a relative term that may mean different things to different people and when “reasons” may encompass one’s experience, intuition, values, and feelings.

Elsewhere, Harris states “Either the Bible is an ordinary book written by mortals or it isn’t.” Is it possible for the Bible to be an extraordinary book written by mortals, like other great works of literature? Considering the Bible is a collection of works by different authors from different sources, could it be a mixture of great literature, full of beauty, wisdom, and even symbolic truth, and “ordinary” writing full of both the mundane and the nonsensical? Harris’ simplistic language and chop-logic allows for no such complexity.

Next Harris reduces morality to the alleviation of suffering: “Religion allows peole to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not—that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation.” As important as the alleviation of suffering is to human morality, surely that does not exhaust the topic. What of honesty and truth-telling? Equity and fairness? Hypocrisy? Taking turns? Sharing? Do these principles rise to the level of morality only when human suffering is involved? Again, in his zealous enthusiasm to attack religion, Harris repeatedly oversimplifies and overstates.

I completely agree with Harris on the issues of abortion and stem cell research. I abhor the religious absolutism that would let a woman suffer and even die rather than abort a fetus and that would let countless fully conscious humans suffer from disease rather than seek treatment and cures through stem cell research. Yet, when Harris equates a human fetus with a skin cell as equally potential human beings, he has once again let his anti-religious zealotry get the better of balanced rationality.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his references to intelligent design. He begins by saying that “nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.” Note the subtle shift from “designer” to “design,” as if they were the same thing. And is “compelling evidence” a matter of fact or a matter of interpretation and opinion?

Later, Harris gives numerous examples of what he calls “unintelligent design” in nature. Yet the underlying assumption of his argument is that every imperfection is evidence of unintelligence, as if intelligence were always infallibly perfect.

Despite numerous scientifically and rationally based theories of intelligent design in the universe, Harris rejects out of hand any form of rational science that does not support his own atheistic convictions. (See for example the work of Paul Davies, David Deutsch, and Bernard Haisch, as well as the process theology of Alfred North Whitehead. And see Brian Greene and Michio Kaku if you want your mind blown by scientific theories of the universe just as seemingly fantastical as the concept of God.)

Harris may be right that the universe and everything in it are nothing more than material phenomena, at most epiphenomena dependent on physical reality, but just because the material is all we can observe, measure, and quantify does not mean that that is all that exists. In the end, we do not know. Maybe someday we will. Meanwhile, it may be the better part of wisdom to keep an open mind.

After reading this post one might ask what is left for me to agree with. Well, most of Harris’ specific attacks on religion are directed at the most unreasoning, literal-minded, hard-hearted tenets of fundamentalist and absolutist believers. I have no quarrel with his rejection of mindless, uncompassionate, and downright inhumane religious belief and action, but (1) he extends his attack to all believers, leaving little room for complexity, subtlety, and even the rationality of belief, and (2) his own zealotry blinds him to his own irrational, arrogant, and intolerant attitudes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Beloved III: The Mythic Message

From a mythic perspective, Sethe, the mother who murders her own child, is the Earth Mother or Great Goddess. She is Mother Nature, who takes the lives of those to whom she has given life. A nursing mother of one child while pregnant with another, Sethe is the ultimate fertility symbol. Having arranged to send her three children ahead to their free grandmother’s house, Sethe escapes slavery on her own, giving birth in a rowboat on the banks of the Ohio River, across which she and her new baby are later ferried, like dead people crossing the River Styx, except they are reborn to freedom among the living instead of being taken to the Underworld.

After 28 days, the length of a moon/menstrual cycle, the slaveholder arrives to take Sethe and her children back to captivity, and the blood flows freely when Sethe cuts her third-born “already crawling” baby with a handsaw before she can be stopped from killing all four of her children.

Sethe’s quest to free herself and her children from slavery thus takes a twisted route, taking her back to captivity in prison for murder. Released after emancipation, she is restored to her family in her mother’s house followed by the ghost of that dead baby, Beloved, which is all Sethe could get carved on her gravestone (in return for ten minutes of sex with the engraver). Her two boys eventually flee the haunted house and her mother dies, leaving Sethe and her now grown born-in-a-boat baby, Denver, alone with the vengeful spirit of Beloved. Having finally achieved physical freedom, Sethe’s quest now becomes a psychological journey of healing and recovery.

Like Sethe, Denver has her own quest to fulfill. Like a mythic hero, she shows early signs of special powers and a special destiny. As an infant in jail with her mother, Sethe claims, “the rats bit everything in there but her.” Upon being asked by a schoolmate if her mother had been in jail for murder, and if she had been with her, Denver temporarily loses her hearing and develops an acute sense of sight. Living in fear of the Terrible Mother, Denver’s hearing is restored when Beloved is resurrected in fleshly form. Denver is the first to recognize who she is.

Having ingested her dead sister’s blood when she nursed at her mother’s bloody breast immediately after the murder, Denver forms a close bond with Beloved, a bond that represents her own psychological attachment to that moment in their personal history. She jealously seeks to protect Beloved from both Sethe and Paul D., Sethe’s lover.

When Sethe submits to Beloved’s power, however, and deteriorates into psychosis, it becomes Denver’s quest to save her mother and their household from the succubus that Beloved has become. She ventures out on her own for the first time, finds work to support herself and her mother, and seeks help from the community, which results in a kind of exorcism ritual conducted by the neighborhood women as Sethe re-enacts the murder but this time directs her rage at the white man instead of her child. This purging of the past that Beloved represents frees both Sethe and Denver from its power. Thus Denver, like a mythic hero, achieves her quest for liberation of both herself and her mother.

Beloved herself plays many mythic roles. She is a ghost, a spirit, familiar, devil, witch, seductress, temptress, femme fatale, succubus, enchantress, sacrificial lamb, both destroyer and redeemer. If Sethe is the Terrible Mother, Beloved is the vengeful child, the memory of the painful past and the legacy of slavery, which must be suffered and purged before the next rebirth and resurrection can occur.

In one scene, during those 28 days of glory when Sethe and all four of her children were together, the family enjoys a treat of wild blackberries “tasting so good and happy that to eat them was like being in church. Just one of the berries and you felt anointed.” If there is a governing deity in the novel, it is nature, which, as in pagan mythology, brings both death and life, pain and pleasure, destruction and triumph, suffering and joy, guilt and redemption, illness and recovery, apocalypse and creation, sacrifice and resurrection.

Just as “anything coming back to life hurts,” so the vitality of nature cannot be separated from loss and suffering, life cannot be separated from death, and good cannot be separated from evil.

The mythic message of Beloved transcends the separations of race, class, gender, and politics to unify us all.