Letter to a Stupid Atheist

Posted: Feb 18, 2007 12:01 AM
Letter to a Stupid Atheist

Dear Sam Harris:

I hope you don’t mind that I’ve adapted the title of your bestselling pamphlet bound between two hard covers and foisted on to an ignorant public as a book. Of course, I am referring to your pretentious Letter to a Christian Nation.

In this little polemic you take the liberty of directly addressing those like me who believe in the divinity of Christ and in the truth of Bible. Your primary charge against me is holding thoughts and beliefs that do not square with yours. You do show some mercy and leniency toward those you deem moderate and liberal—those vaguely Unitarian, who believe Christ was a cool dude, with some nice ideas, who would have gone to peace marches--but not much more. I take your upbraiding personally, as I think you intend.

My letter is addressed also to those who fall into the category you do. I have seen them—biologists with visibly rising blood pressure at college debates, writers of angry rhetoric in “humanist” magazines, bitter middle-aged men still chasing skirts, and one college sophomore who stands out in my memory among the hundreds of students I have taught over the years.

I can’t remember the young man’s name, but I’ll call him Sammy. Since the class was a survey class on early British literature we couldn’t avoid reading distinctly Christian literature, like religious poetry and mystery plays.

Sammy sat towards the back of the class. He was bright and articulate and I believe he earned at least a B. Away from parents who apparently sent him to church most Sundays, Sammy was feeling his oats amidst 30,000-plus students, and the professors from whom he took up the challenge to think “outside the box.” He prided himself on his independence of thought, and like you, revisited the Bible. He found it did not square with what he was learning in Biology 101.

Like many liberals he assumed the mantle of bravery by speaking out in class. He ‘spoke to power’—the ultimate power you might say. (But we know who else did that; he figures prominently in a poem by John Milton.) So whenever we came to a passage that alluded to religious faith Sammy would add to class discussion by declaring it “poppycock.” He boldly used the same word on papers.

I tried to be charitable. I asked Sammy to address the concerns in more scholarly language. I marked his papers for diction. (“Poppycock” is too colloquial, I wrote.) I asked him to reconsider his assessment of all Christians as stupid and bad.

I thus avoided getting into a heated debate on religion in that public university, a place where the only debates on religion allowed in the classroom are about the various degrees to which Christians are wrong, stupid, and bad.

This young man, like you, Sam Harris, put his faith in science. I believe that he, like you, equated goodness with the absence of suffering. Although he carried a pinched, sour expression, he did not strike me as anyone who would deliberately harm another. He probably was a vegetarian.

Mr. Harris, you charge us Christians with holding back scientific research on stem cells that you insist could alleviate suffering. You charge us with crimes against humanity by our concern over “blastocysts,” clumps of cells, unable to feel pain, much less consciousness--according to science. Indeed, you present all the progress of science up to this point in the twenty-first century as the model that should replace religion, which you call superstition, as the basis for ethics. Use science to help humanity is your cry.

But this was a motto used throughout the twentieth century by other “bold” thinkers who thought for themselves; there were many around in the 1930s. I don’t want to charge you with plagiarism, but I have not found one statement in your little tract that differs in any way from their points of argument.

You seem to put an incredible amount of faith in science, Mr. Harris. But many before you did too. Were you aware that at one time a group of scientists fancied themselves on the cutting edge for their belief in the science of phrenology, or the assessment of character by skull size, shape, and topology? These men presented scientific papers on their clinical work, which involved fondling and measuring skulls. I am quite surprised, Mr. Harris, that you would put so much faith in an endeavor whose base of knowledge changes on a daily basis. Think back to all the scientific theories of even a decade ago that have been surpassed. Think about how we scoff at the foolish scientific ideas of our father’s and grandfather’s times.

You have a degree in philosophy, I see, but were you aware that science as a mode of thought came about through monotheism? You see, the idea of a single creator made it possible for human beings to view creation as separate from spirit. And thus humanity advanced from one that believed that spirits lived in trees and rocks to one that believed that one Creator created this intricately marvelous world we live in. The scientific endeavor then became one where individuals observed and studied various aspects of this creation. That is called science.

That is what was presented to my son’s Cub Scout troop by a chemistry professor and a Christian (and not of the moderate or liberal persuasion of your approved list). After amazing the boys and fulfilling their natural little-boy pyromania proclivities with shows of bubbles, bangs, and mini-explosions over Bunsen burners, the professor presented them this carry-away thought: though they might be impressed by the magic that he performed they should remember the greater magic that made all that possible to begin with.

I thought you might enjoy that little story, Mr. Harris.

And since science changes, or as you like to think, progresses, I wonder what you would say if science, forty years from now, when you are nearing 80, would find some use in the cells or organs of 80-year-old men for the benefit of those much younger and of more use to society?

You feel that an ethical system can be based on the feelings of empathy that have evolved in us. You share your colleague Peter Singer’s view. Singer, Ira DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, gushes with sympathy for little piglets—to the point where he thinks the healthy ones should be allowed to live, while the handicapped month-old baby should be put out of its misery. He begins his argument, as he necessarily must, by doing away with Biblical principles and law: the idea that we are formed in God’s image, and therefore are above animals. He, like you, thinks that Christian proscriptions—like those against killing babies or having sex with animals--are just so much “poppycock.”

You answer your critics about the atheism of twentieth-century dictators: “Christians like yourself,” you write, “invariably declare that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism. While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational.”

But would you hold up Professor Singer as an example of a rational person? How about the other respected professionals—the doctors and professors--who wrote academic and policy papers on their new-found procedures of gassing “idiots” and “imbeciles” in Germany? The method went through its testing phase in teaching hospitals on subjects who were too young or too retarded to be deemed rational enough to “live a life worth living.” Hitler then grasped onto this idea of “scientific advancement” and applied the procedure on a massive scale to other groups, as we know. While you deem Hitler “delusional,” what about the doctors who gassed three-year-olds? What about Professor Singer, who feels that euthanasia is appropriate for infants—if their parents make that “choice”?

What words of comfort would you give to the father of the three-year-old child dying from leukemia (as some, in spite of the advances of science, still do). Would you advise him to euthanize the child to prevent suffering (being as tender-hearted as you are)? Would you explain that this is natural selection?

You pride yourself on your belief in equality, in democracy, and point to the “barbarism” of the Old Testament in its treatment of women and slaves (though you didn’t bother to research the translation of the term “slave” from a more general one meaning “servant” and the Biblical reference to slavery as an historical fact that Christians had to deal with, and not something they promoted). But did you know that historically Christianity was the first real democracy? Yes, even secularists and “progressives” admit that. It is a widely accepted historical fact.

But I notice that your little book, displayed prominently in the bookstore chains, even among the suggested “holiday” reading of the last Christmas season, has been flying off the tables. It entered the New York Times bestseller list almost immediately and remains at #3 on Publishers Weekly Religion Bestsellers.

I have seen the customers who fondled your book and read the jacket with self-satisfied expressions. These were the ones you blessed as “progressive” in your pages. Your condemnatory letter was not addressed to them. Your little tome at $16.95 graces their bookshelves along with those by Bill Moyers and the atheist authors you recommend. These progressives proudly display their reading material as they serve canapés and cocktails to similarly correct-minded, nipped and Botox-ed activists, who only really just want what is good for us. Your slim, easy-to-read pamphlet is just right for trips to the salon, masseuse, and transcendental meditation retreat. Your fans cluck over the ignorance and benightedness of those like me—their gold and diamonds shining in the ambient light of their converted warehouse condos. You amaze them with your profundity, your ability to string together clichés and tired arguments, and in 91 small widely spaced pages tear down the foundations of the civilization put in place by millennia of thinkers and the Church Fathers. For your book, they whipped out the credit cards from Louis Vitton bags.

They also paid to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and thought it was a documentary.