Friday, September 4, 2009


One thing you can say for Harris--he believes, with all the fervor of a true believer, in the profound principle first and most clearly enunciated more than a century ago by the comic-opera-writing duo, Gilbert and Sullivan:

Every little boy or gal who's born into this world alive
Is either a little liberal, or else a little conservative.

In other words, as is nowadays almost universally accepted, there can be only two opinions about anything.

It follows from this, by unimpeachable logic, that you are either a Christian fundamentalist or an atheist. (There is, naturally, only one "basic doctrine" of Christianity. This may come as a surprise to a lot of theologians--what have they been talking and writing about all their lives?) If you pretend to be anything else, you're a hypocrite, in fact worse than a hypocrite, you're an enabler who gives cover to those who burn clinic and shoot abortionists. And make no mistake, we're at war here. "One side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose" (p.5--unless otherwise indicated, all page references in this post refer to Letter to a Christian Nation, henceforth LCN).

Moreover, anyone who doesn't support his side (meaning all the "moderate" or "liberal" Christians who "cherry-pick the Bible", pp. 18 & 105) must be on the other side. Or as Jesus put it more pithily, "He who is not for me is against me" (Matthew 12.30--you jes' cain't get away from that ole Bible!)

Well, in fact everybody cherry-picks the Bible. Paul Jeter accuses Christian fundamentalists of cherry-picking ( One named "Clayvessel" accuses Oprah Winfrey of cherry-picking ( Those are just a couple of the 444,000 hits I got when I googled "cherry-picking the Bible" (exact wording). Cherry-picking's an equal-opportunity thing. Why? Because you can't NOT cherry-pick the Bible. If the Bible contradicts itself, you have no option, you have to pick. Were animals created first, then Adam? Or Adam first, then animals? (Genesis 1 or Genesis 2--take your pick.) Were Christ's last words "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew and Mark) or "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke), or "I thirst...It is finished" (John)? If your neighbor worships a graven image, should you forgive him or kill him? You just have to pick, unless, like the Red Queen in Alice, you can believe "six impossible things before breakfast".

And of course the most diligent cherry-pickers are atheists like Harris, who rake through the Old Testament for the most damning bits just as diligently as we, when kids, would rake through it for the naughty bits (I spent years wondering just what "emerods in his privy parts" could mean).

Anyway, after assuring us over and over again what nice people atheists are (because "our own search for happiness provides a rationale for self-sacrifice and self-denial", p. 24--we'll see when we get to more general discussion just how much substance there is in that claim), Harris finally lets the horns peep out from under his cloak with the following three consecutive sentences:

"Insofar as there is a crime problem in Western Europe, it is largely the product of immigration" (p. 43-4).

(Haven't I heard something like that before, somewhere? From Rush Limbaugh, maybe?)

"Seventy percent of the inmates of France's jails are Muslims"

(I wonder which part of the words "racial profiling" Harris doesn't understand. My guess is, the "racial" part.)

"The Muslims of Western Europe are generally not atheists".

Note in this passage the shift from "immigrants" to "Muslims". Not a word about "Arabs"--that would be racism, wouldn't it, and your friendly neighborhood atheist would never be guilty of that, would he?. But it's obvious that in the first sentence he must mean "Arab immigrants" and in the second, "Arabs". Because, unless you interpret the third sentence as "The Arab immigrants of Western Europe are generally not atheists", it's both tautological and nonsensical. Of course Muslims aren't atheists--duh! Or they wouldn't be Muslims, would they?

"Brave", "intelligent", "clear-sighted", "bracing", "a marvelous little book"--these are just a few of the encomia that Harris's book gleaned. Yet it bears all the marks of something written in haste and anger, so much so as to blind its author to patent absurdities. He complains bitterly that there should be a special term for "atheist" when there are no special terms for "non-astrologer" or "non-alchemist" (p. 51). Well, obviously, because there's no single thing, like "astrologer" or "alchemist" to contrast with it. There are at least four alternatives--instead of being an atheist, you might choose to be a deist, a theist, a polytheist, or an agnostic.

Oops! Sorry, clean forgot. There's only two possible opinions about anything!

Let's face it--"research-free" would have been a more accurate epithet than any of those cited above. Take this, for example: "It seems all but certain that the dogma of the Virgin Birth, and much of the Christian world's resulting anxiety about sex, was a product of a mistranslation from the Hebrew" (p. 58). Indeed, the Hebrew word in Isaiah--'alma--could mean "young maiden" as well as "virgin". So the take-home message here is, "Christians are such total idiots that they'd let a simple mistranslation screw up both their deepest beliefs and their sex-lives".

In fact belief in the Virgin Birth hasn't anything to do with any mistranslation. Given Christian premises, it represented, like most theology, a perfectly logical and indeed unavoidable deduction (the validity of the premises is, of course, another matter). The logic of it is typically expressed in this early twentieth century commentary by Professor Charles A. Briggs of the Union Theological Seminary (Briggs, please note, was regarded as a "radical" in his day, and his defense of the doctrine of Virgin Birth came as something of a surprise):

"If Jesus Christ is the incarnation of a pre-existing deity, then some mode of birth was necessary. There seems to be no alternative between the Virgin Birth and birth in the ordinary way of human generation."

And of course, that way would have meant jizzum from Joseph, ruling out God as the Father. Couldn't be. So had to be VB. The prophecy from Isaiah, readings of which could simply choose a common alternative meaning for 'alma, was just icing on the cake, seeming as it did to prophesy and confirm what must (according to Christians) have happened.

As for the VB screwing up Christians' sex-lives, that's a non-sequitur if ever I saw one. The virginity or otherwise of Christ's mum has absolutely nothing to do with the alleged anti-sexual bias of Christians (more honored in the breach than the observance--check out the list of "sexually-active Popes" on Wikipedia), which had far more to do with previous ascetic traditions by the Essenes and others or St. Paul's gynophobia. In fact the Albigenses, a sect whose elite really did practice absolute abstention from sex, got barbecued to extinction by Christians.

But Harris's gross misunderstandings of religion aren't limited to Christianity. He repeats the hoary but popular myth that Muslims blow themselves and others up so that they can enjoy "seventy-two virgins in Paradise"--if you don't believe that, it's because you "simply don't know what it is like to really believe in God" (p. 83).

As his statements about the VB (and many more scattered throughout LCN) abundantly show, it's Harris, the committed atheist, who (naturally enough) doesn't know what it's like to really believe in God. The most thorough and objective study of suicide bombing to date, Robert Pape's Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, examined every instance of suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004, and concluded that the main motive was not religious fervor but the desire to end foreign occupation of what the terrorists regarded as their homeland. Repeated reports of 9/11 terrorists hanging out in nightclubs, drinking alcohol and soliciting prostitutes immediately before the hijackings (see for example http://www.historycommons. org/context.jsp?item=a091101beforepinkpony) are absurd on Harris's view, but make sense, given Pape's.

(Note, btw, that Harris also lists the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka as yet another conflict driven by religion. Yet again, duh! True, Tamils are mostly Hindu and Sinhalese mostly Buddhist, but the conflict had zero to do with their respective religions. In fact the conflict was a purely secular one--the Tamils wanted their own nation and the Sinhalese didn't want them to have it.)

I suppose we should be thankful that LCN doesn't repeat the ludicrous account of Inquisition torture that disfigured Harris's previous book The End of Faith. With weird but typical Harrisian logic, his own approval and advocacy of torture follow it. Wow! There's material there for a whole nother post.

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