Thursday, October 26, 2006
NEW YORK There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.
This seems obvious whenever Harris opens what he calls "my big mouth," and it is glaringly clear one recent evening at the New York Public Library, where he is debating a former priest before a packed auditorium. In less than an hour, Harris condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it "a manifesto for religious divisiveness."
Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn't target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.
"There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can't attack people's religious sensibility," Harris says in an interview. "That is so wrong and so suicidal."
This is Harris at full throttle, the Evel Knievel of ideas, a daredevil of the mind. You listen to him and think, "Well, that is going to land him in the hospital."
Instead, it has landed him on the bestseller list. His first book, "The End of Faith," won the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and sold more than 270,000 copies, making Harris a very high-profile voice of the godless. Now there is a follow-up, "Letter to a Christian Nation," a 96-page shiv inspired by the reaction to his first book, which apparently included a heap of hate mail.
"Letter," which is No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list, doesn't drill many new theological wells. Harris is the first, though, to retrofit the case against "Old Book" religions in readable form for the post-Sept. 11 world. He is also among the first to indict religious liberals, and he might be the first man to be anointed "Hot Atheist" in Rolling Stone magazine.
The un-gospel according to Sam has found a huge audience, but every bit as striking is the counter-reaction to Harris among religious scholars. Mention his name to academics of just about every religious persuasion and you can almost see their eyes roll. Oh, that guy.
Harris has grossly oversimplified scripture, they say. He has drawn far-reaching conclusions based on the beliefs of radicals. As bad, his stand against organized religion is so unconditional that it's akin to the intolerance he claims he is fighting. If there is such a thing as a secular fundamentalist, they contend, Harris is it. Even some who agree with his conclusions about the dangers of fanaticism find his argument ham-handed.
"I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion," says Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University. "But pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics, that seems like a very crude mistake."
According to Harvey, not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution -- let's all ditch God -- is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives. Others say that he has taken these "Old Books" at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures. Put more simply, he doesn't know what he's talking about.
"Religion doesn't make people bigots," says Reza Aslan, author of "No God but God," a history of Islam. "People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology."