Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation)

24 May

“Atheists are the most reviled minority in America.”

Sam Harris has it exactly right.  Polls—even some taken shortly after 9/11—show that the majority of Americans would rather have a Muslim president than one who doesn’t believe in any God at all.  Maybe that seems hard to believe when we think back to the horror over our current Presidents highly suspicious middle name, but the number bear it out.  Atheists aren’t likely to achieve high office.

Maybe that’s why one of our most famous nonbelievers in American history, Thomas Paine, is the most notable of our founding fathers not to have a monument.  They don’t even mention him in the recent History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us (which is otherwise both moving and surprisingly objective) in the Valley Forge segment.  George Washington thought the political pamphleteer important and inspiring enough to read to his starving, freezing men at Valley Forge (and thus keep the army together through a terrible winter)—but this isn’t the Age of Reason anymore.

In high school, I was nostalgic for the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine rallying patriots to the Revolutionary cause.  Nostalgic not because I’d been there (though I’m still holding out for time travel), but because today’s political debates involve so much more mudslinging and snide soundbites than any meaningful debate, and because—to someone who compliments acquaintances on brilliant extended metaphors in emails and cries after every re-reading of Plato’s Phaedo—good rhetoric is so, so hard to find.

Especially on the issue of religion and faith.  On a small scale, the University of Alabama club “triple-A,” Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, had its chalking vandalized by devout Southern Christians about half a dozen times this past year.  Pouring slushies on a chalk portrait of Darwin is the college equivalent of a shut-down of intellectual debate, I guess—which is something atheists face in the “Christian nation” of the United States.

I can’t help but have a wonderful time reading the gleefully irreverent Christopher Hitchens.  As might be expected, I can’t say the same for my ex-roommate at UA, who never looked at me the same after she found God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything on my Kindle.  But Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation satisfied my sentimental longing for Thomas Pain-esque writing, and then some.  His short book—more a manifesto—echoes Paine’s celebrated Age of Reason in that he’s not on the defensive.  Harris explains that the New Atheism isn’t just a negative (not believing in God): it’s about a positive too, belief in science and reason.

Last fall, I awarded Thomas Paine the Scattering’s premier literary award—the Heretic Badge of Honor—for his 1794 Age of Reason.  Today, I’m awarding the Heretic Badge to Sam Harris for Letter to a Christian Nation, for taking up the torch.  He writes in his conclusion, after all, that:

“This letter is the product of failure—the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures—failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God an despising those who muddle differently.”

In his letter, the New Atheist does revive for a modern audience some ideas that reminded me of past doubters very strongly.  The foundation of atheism, he argues, is a scientific mindset, but that might mean something different than many people expect:

“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honest.  It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”

Atheists don’t revile God (although, as Harris points out, there’s a whole lot of evidence to do just that)—we respect rationality.  That’s the scientific mindset.

This definition of “intellectual honesty” struck me as particularly reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, in which he wrote my favorite 18th-century quote:

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Or for Harris, what is impossible to believe in in modern society, with so much scientific evidence stacked against the need for a God.  It’s as incongruous as, well, to use one of my favorite expressions from the Letter—“souls in a Petri dish.”

I won’t go into detail on Harris’s arguments, because I couldn’t begin to write more clearly or concisely than he does in Letter to a Christian Nation.  And personally, I wonder how many of the Christians the book’s addressed to will actually read it—but for those who do or are considering it, let me say that while it’s bold and certainly controversial, it’s written in some of the most clear, logical prose I’ve ever read.  It’s accessible, and written more to persuade than inflame (like some of Hitchens’s writings).

The book’s only 900 locations on the Kindle (as opposed to the 5-8,000 of the average novel), so I’d place it at about 100 pages.  In any case, it’s a one-afternoon read.  So head on outside on this beautiful summer (is it summer yet?  I never really know) day, relax in the sun, wear a hat or a beekeeper’s veil if you’re easily sunburned, listen to the rustle of leaves in the wind and insects buzzing in the grass, and remember that you can thank evolution for it all—not God.

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

Letter to a Christian Nation is available in paperback as well as an ebook on Amazon for $8.64

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2 Responses to “Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation)”

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  1. WATCH: Video for Christian Singles | Christian Dating - May 24, 2010

    […] Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation) « The … […]

  2. Author Response: Faith, Science, and The Proximian « the Scattering - August 4, 2010

    […] had a hearing too.  He felt strongly enough to leave a very generous comment on my review, and I felt strongly enough to re-publish my review of atheist Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. But not everyone scrolls down to read the comments, so here’s […]

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