Second Letter to a Secular Nation

Posted: Apr 04, 2008 12:01 AM

On just the second page of his introduction to Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris says it is well known that “the beliefs of conservative Christians now exert an extraordinary influence over our national discourse – in our courts, in our schools, and in every branch of government.” The key word is “now,” which is inserted to create the false impression that we are a nation moving away from secularization – perhaps even towards a theocracy.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone with an IQ above room temperature could imagine that we are not becoming an increasingly secular society – witness, for example, the accelerated and largely successful efforts to remove prayer or any mention of God from the classroom. That the beliefs of conservative Christians are exerting less influence in these realms has never been a question for serious debate. The debate has always centered on the effects of these rather obvious trends.

A native of Wilmington, North Carolina recently asked me some rather pointed questions about the state of education in America today. He attended New Hanover High School several decades ago when prayer in schools was still legal. He also claims to remember when students put their shotguns in their lockers and went hunting after school. Perhaps his best question was this: “Why is that we have more violence in schools years after we took the guns out of students’ lockers? Do you think that has something to do with us taking God out of our schools, too?”

The question is not an easy one at all. It requires a thoughtful, or, one might, say, “nuanced” response.

Christians who believe that restoring prayer in schools is a “solution” to the “problem” of school violence are deluding themselves. The issue is so much more complex than that. Along with the removal of God from our schools we have also seen the removal of fathers from our households. And we do a disservice to ourselves to focus merely on what is missing from our schools and from the lives of our students. We must also look at new threats they are facing.

Just across the street from New Hanover High School there are crack houses and heroin houses. Sadly, some of them have been owned by local community “leaders” who have turned a blind eye to what their renters have been doing just a stone’s throw from our public schools and school children. Conservatives are right to point out the fact that so many of these dealers are products of a failed experiment in welfare – and this also speaks to the issue of the absence of fathers. But liberals are right to point out that Wilmington’s drug problem skyrocketed during the 1980s when conservatives were leading the so-called war on drugs.

Since both the conservative Christian and the liberal secularist have failed our nation’s children it is important for both sides to retain a bit of humility. That is why I am concerned when I read words like this in Letter to a Christian Nation: “I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.”

Harris certainly falls short of his goal when he makes statements like this:

“According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved though a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been ‘guided by God.’ If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of ‘intelligent design’ would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.”

It is temping to quarrel over Harris’ use of the term “unintelligent design.” But there is a more important problem with his statement; namely, that it ignores the true reason why so many people reject the position that life on earth has evolved entirely through a natural process. That reason, of course, is a lack of fossil evidence supporting the notion that evolution explains variations between, not just within, species.

The problem is compounded by the dismissive tone of atheists like Richard Dawkins. After years of hearing that gaps in the fossil record account for the reluctance of many to embrace Darwinism he attempted an extraordinarily dishonest sleight of hand. He argued that the presence of some intermediate life forms would actually increase the number of gaps to be explained. Thus, Dawkins tried to turn the absence of evidence into support not refutation of Darwinism.

Hence, Dawkins’ position can be summarized as follows: When Darwinists are right, they are right. When Darwinists are wrong, they are still right.

Clearly, Dawkins thinks that all those who question his worldview are stupid, perhaps best referred to as “Un-brights.” Harris seems to share that view, which is reflected in the following statement:

“53 percent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago.”

It is difficult to believe that Sam Harris has never heard of the distinction between “old world” and “new world” creationism. Archbishop Usher’s assertion that the world was created around 4000 B.C. is an antiquated idea from the 19th Century. Unlike the Darwinists, creationists have been willing to modify their ideas over the last century-and-a-half when the evidence calls for modification. I now believe the universe is around 14 billion years old. Like Augustine, I’m an old world creationist. Harris may not have heard of old world creationism but, hopefully, he’s heard of Augustine.

Put simply, Harris’ assertion that all Christians believe the earth is six thousand years old (and are therefore stupid) is both patently false and patently offensive. It is on par with saying that all blacks believe whites invented the AIDS virus to kill blacks. It is simply a device born of bigotry meant to breed hatred and division.

But, of course, the question of when the earth was created cannot be addressed until we answer the question of whether there was a Creator. That is really the central issue. Once it is resolved, we may argue over the issue of when the creation took place. When we get to that point, I will gladly argue with supporters of Archbishop Usher who assert that the “entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago.” Of course, no one I know actually adheres to that belief.

(Note to Sam Harris: Genesis 2:4 says “… in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” The Greek word for “day” is the same word used in Genesis One. The implications for Biblical literalism are rather obvious. See also, 2 Peter 3:8).

The purpose of this series of letters is not to advocate prayer in public schools. Nor is it to advocate the teaching of creationism in public schools. But I will question why so many professors assign Sam Harris in public university classrooms.

…to be continued.