Thursday, October 26, 2006

Sam Harris in the Wash Post

An interesting article in the Washington Post Style section about Sam Harris, the author of 2004's The End of Faith and the recent bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation.

One of Harris's points of discussion is that, taken literally, much of what constitutes the holy books of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam is at best absurd, and at worst, hateful and destructive.

But the counter-authors and scholars the Post lined up for its article basically poo-pah this concern of Harris (and other critics of fundamentalist religion):

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.


It's also wrong for Harris to assume that Christians consider the Bible the direct word of God, Volf says. Most don't, so combing the scriptures for the fingerprints of fallible authors, and then declaring victory once you find them, is silly.

"Most Christians believe that while the Bible was inspired by God, it is not free-floating, megaphone pronouncements out of nowhere by God. It was given through the medium of a culturally situated people, with the limitations of their knowledge at the time. And it's our task to ask, 'What does this mean to me today?' "


He has confused the outermost for the core. And ironically, Aslan notes, Harris is making the same mistake as fundamentalists, by taking the scripture at its literal word.

So, many of the authors the Post lined up to counter Harris all conveniently manage to argue that not only do they not take the Bible or Koran literally, but neither do most Christians. So, according to these spokespersons of theism, Harris is creating and complaining about a straw-man.

Except he isn't. Christian and Muslim scholars may not take the texts they study completely literally, but it's highly likely that the Christians in the pew and Muslims on the prayer mat do. They have to. If they want to be assured of eternal salvation, and that they are on the right path (and that everyone else, by extension, is on the wrong one), than the literalness of the passages that promise the believer this assurance have to be accepted literally, at face value.

Christian and Muslim scholars who dismiss concerns about biblical literalness from opponents of religion are really not reflective of the religious adherents who fill the thousands of churches across America every week and who collectively affect public policy via the voting booth and public opinion poll.

Religious scholars would be of more use if they recognized the disconnect between their world and the worlds of the typical believer and their agnostic neighbors. But it's disingenuous to claim that most Christians don't take the bible literally, because, most, if not all, faithful Christians do. And this is Harris's claim and concern.

And the Post writer would have performed a more valuable service had he included the views of biblical literalists in his piece.

1 comment:

Trackball of Truth said...

Good post, Sen. I noticed that the WaPost's coverage was very timid and fearful of upsetting the theistic believers so it fell into very comfy straw man territory. It seemed panicked to not let any readers go away with any doubts about their own beliefs. Of course, it met the minimal MSM requirements for presenting two sides of an issue, no matter how mismatched or how slanted the comparison is.

Wired magazine has a feature piece on 'evangelical atheism' that includes Sam Harris and is more probing and honest than the MSM take.