Sunday, November 4, 2007

‘Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point’

As I hoped, Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation has generated some responses. I hoped that this would happen not because I want to see Harris refuted, but because I would like to see some sort of intelligent, respectful discussion of religion in America.

Religion has become such a political weapon in this country that any high-profile discussion of a religious subject usually devolves into either a shouting match or some kind of cynical debate where scoring points over one’s opponent becomes more important than expressing an idea. Among religious debaters, popular notions include how “contemptuous” those who don’t hold fundamentalist beliefs are to those who do, and how official institutions (academia, the media, etc.) are actively “hostile” to religion. These are notions intended to kill any peer-reviewed challenge to biblical authority, and they are not conducive to an intelligent discussion. Unfortunately, they are among the positions that some of Harris’ responders fall back on.

One of Harris’ responders is the evangelical Protestant minister R.C. Metcalf with his book Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point. I bought the book from because I wanted to read an enlightened rejoinder to Harris’ original book, hopefully written in a logical, respectful tone. But while reading Metcalf’s book — which is outwardly respectful — I found myself disagreeing with most of his arguments. After I put the book down, I felt compelled to write a review on Amazon, but the website ended up not posting it. So, I thought that I would post it here instead:

I didn’t buy R.C. Metcalf’s Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point with the expectation of writing a review. I bought it because Sam Harris’ books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation make powerful arguments in favor of atheism, arguments that I would like to see addressed.

As an agnostic, I am about as close to an atheist as you can get while still believing in something called God. In short, I don’t believe in a personal God, and I make no claims for an afterlife. So, why do I believe in God at all? Why don’t I just throw out the bathwater altogether? I hoped to be able to answer these questions better by reading God-believing writers responding to Harris, even if the writers’ particular beliefs didn’t exactly match my own. For this reason, I turned to Counter Point hoping that the book would answer Harris’ empirically based, logical arguments in a spiritual manner equally empirical and logical. But I am severely disappointed by what Metcalf has written.

Metcalf begins his book with a fundamental flaw: his assertion that atheists “have nothing on which to ground their morality” (RCM, xi). But this is not accurate because Harris quotes the Jainist saying “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being” (SH, LTACN, 23). Along with Harris, I think that mere compassion for another — sincerely seeing one’s own well-being in the experiences a fellow creature — is a legitimate grounding for a moral philosophy, one that need not subscribe to the existence of an unseen deity in order to prosper.

Another fundamental flaw is Metcalf’s defining “Christianity” in a way that isolates his brand of Protestantism from Christianity’s excesses — such as the Inquisition and the Crusades, subjects of Harris’ criticism — and then blames these excesses on the failings of the “Roman papacy” (RCM, xiii). But Harris has already warned against scapegoating “perversions of the ‘true’ spirit of Christianity” in order to claim one’s particular idea of the religion as the only one that is correct and true (SH, 11-12). Harris is right that Christianity, taking all of its denominations together, is a “muddled and self-contradictory” belief system that can be used to affirm or condemn its own various aspects. How do we know that Metcalf’s version of evangelical Protestantism is the rightful view of Christianity to hold? In other words, if Catholicism was wrong about the Inquisition and the Crusades, how do we know that evangelical Protestantism isn’t wrong about, say, same-sex marriage?

Counter Point makes some reasonable contributions to the debate about God by putting some of Harris’ biblical quotations in context. However, given Metcalf’s flawed foundations, it’s no surprise that Counter Point’s analytical structure collapses. For example, Metcalf takes Harris to task for assuming that “many of the Old Testament laws [e.g., Deuteronomy] continue to bind Christians today” (RCM, 4). However, Harris isn’t saying that at all; the reason why he goes on at length about the Old Testament’s barbaric punishments is to illustrate how Christians are cherry-picking which biblical passages to believe and which to ignore. To Harris, such cherry-picking calls into question any belief in the Bible as moral in its entirety. But Metcalf says that Jesus fulfilled ancient Hebraic law (including Deuteronomy) by changing it with his martyrdom. In this way, the Counter Point author tries — unsuccessfully — to rationalize a context in which cherry-picking and the morality of the entire Bible are not mutually contradictory. Metcalf and Harris are not on the same page.

Other aspects of Metcalf’s argument don’t sit well with me. He often quarrels with the particulars of Harris’ statements, instead of engaging the larger issues. For instance, Metcalf doesn’t address the issue of slavery in its larger context — in particular, Harris’ charge that the antebellum American South could use scripture to sanctify this inhuman custom (SH, 19). What Metcalf does instead is define biblically sanctioned “slavery” down to the way it was practiced in ancient times, a way that doesn’t apply to the enslavement of Africans in America (RCM, 20-25).

Also, I don’t share Metcalf’s absolutist view of lust and pornography as inherently degrading (RCM, 26-27). I think of sexual desire as a God-given gift, and while this gift should never be abused (everything from the rude stare to coercive sex), I see nothing intrinsically wrong with respectfully appreciating another’s appearance in a sexual way.

Moreover, I think that Metcalf’s fleeting reference to eugenics is unworthy of a serious discussion about belief in God. Metcalf makes an aside about this dubious philosophy of human engineering: he relates how the first person to conclude scientifically that prayer was ineffectual, the anthropologist Francis Galton, also coined the word “eugenics” and was Charles Darwin’s cousin (RCM, 52-53). This strikes me as a cheap shot to imply that a disbelief in prayer or a belief in evolution leads ultimately to Nazi-style genocide. This unnecessary swipe at evolution ignores the fact that proto-eugenic philosophies existed well before Darwin’s cousin, that Darwin himself did not endorse eugenics, and that Adolf Hitler was a self-identified Christian.

In addition, Metcalf falls back on the familiar rhetorical device of conflating archaeological evidence of some biblical historical figures with evidence that the Bible is literally true (RCM, 39). Other believers in the historicity of the Bible’s stories have made this same hasty argument, but scientific evidence of some of the Bible’s characters does not necessarily confer scientific evidence onto the Bible’s various narratives. In other words, the archaeological discovery of Caiaphas’ bones does not automatically prove that Jesus rose from the dead.

Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point is not a convincing rebuttal to Sam Harris. I give Metcalf credit for attempting to address Harris’ challenge and for the clarity of his writing. But his book doesn’t meet that challenge in a straightforward, reasonable, persuasive way.


I have also bought another response to Sam Harris, Letter from a Christian Citizen by Douglas Wilson. I’ll try to post a review of that book later.

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