Another book review.
Those who know me well, know that I am not a religious person. In fact, I’m about as unreligious as they come.
In general, however, I’ve never been against any religion. I see it as a way that people fulfill social, idealistic, and spiritual needs in their lives. If they want to believe that the earth was created as it is today in seven days by a supernatural being seven thousand years ago — or any of the other ideas and themes of their religion — that’s fine with me. (Just don’t teach these religion-based ideas in public schools with my tax money.)
Sam Harris’s Letter
Lately, seeing what’s going on in the world and the political influence of America’s religious conservatives, I’ve begun to doubt whether there’s a positive value to religion in society. No book has helped fuel my doubts more than Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. This tiny, 96-page book was written as a letter to devout Christians, pointing out the inconsistencies in Christian beliefs and how some of these beliefs negatively impact today’s world.
The main gist of Harris’s book is the fact that some policies promoted by Christian politicians and their backers are causing far more harm in good. He cites many examples. The ones that stands out in my mind are those related to sex education and their affect on the population, both home and abroad.
Consider, for instance, the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The virus infects over half the American population and causes nearly five thousand women to die each year from cervical cancer; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than two hundred thousand die worldwide. We now have a vaccine for HPV that appears to be both safe and effective. The vaccine produced 100 percent immunity in the six thousand women who received it as part of a clinical trial. And yet, Christian conservatives in our government have resisted a vaccination program on the grounds that HPV is a valuable impediment to premarital sex. These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year.
He follows this up with some statistics from studies that show how the “abstinence-only” approach to sex education in 30% of American sex education programs simply does not work. American teens may be participating in “virginity pledges” for eighteen months or more, but they’re having oral and anal sex instead. American teenage girls are also four to five times more likely to become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease than teens in the rest of the developed world. Why? Could it be because they weren’t taught about condoms? Or worse yet, because were taught that birth control is “sinful”?
Mr. Harris drives the point home with this statement:
The problem is that Christians like yourself are not principally concerned about teen pregnancy and the spread of disease. That is, you are not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex. As if this fact needed further corroboration, Reginald Finger, an Evangelical member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, recently announced that he would consider opposing an HIV vaccine — thereby condemning millions of men and women to die unnecessarily from AIDS each year — because such a vaccine would encourage premarital sex by making it less risky. This is one of many points on which your religious beliefs become genuinely lethal.
I’ve done some research into this statement about Reginald Finger and, unfortunately, can’t find the New Yorker article where it was made. But you can learn more about his views on this issue on Bionity.com, Wikipedia, Time Magazine, and Dr. Finger’s Web site. It’s clear from these sources that Dr. Finger is very interested in abstinence education, but whether he would oppose an HIV vaccine, as Mr. Harris claims, is extremely difficult to believe. Surely no one would go to that extreme in efforts to stop people from having sex.
More Than Just Sex
Of course, the book isn’t just about the sex education issue. Mr. Harris goes into great detail on a number of other issues, including the Bible as the word of God, morals as defined by the Bible, and the clash between science and religion, including the conflict between evolution and intelligent design. He also writes a bit about atheism and the Christian view that atheists are “evil.”
Mr. Harris presents all of his arguments calmly, with many examples and quotes from the Bible. At no time does he become offensive — he remains quite reasonable throughout. Still, I know that what he has to say will trouble most devout Christians who read it. So although I think he hopes to reach these people, I doubt that he will succeed. Instead, he may reach the more moderate Christians who can look objectively at their beliefs and see how they might cause problems in today’s world.
My Thoughts on Extremists
I agree with much of what Mr. Harris says, but not all of it. He makes some very strong statements near the end of the book about Muslims that I find difficult to believe:
The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a fantasy, and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge…most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith…
Maybe I’m naive, but I still like to think that most people want to live their lives in peace. So, unlike Mr. Harris, I cannot generalize like this about Muslims — or Christians, for that matter.
I see parallels between members of the Christian and Muslims faiths. Just as there are Christians who make God and the trappings of their religion part of their lives, I believe there are Muslims who do the same with Allah and the trappings of their religion.
Both religions have extremists. In America, we use the politically correct terms “Conservative Christians” or “Evangelical Christians” to describe these people. We also use the term “Radical Muslim” to refer to Muslim extremists. (Funny how we drop political correctness for the Muslims, isn’t it?)
But do these people control either religion? Do they speak for all of their fellow believers? I’d like to think they don’t — that there are reasonable members of both faith that know which parts of the Bible or Koran shouldn’t be taken literally in this modern world.
I Recommend It!
I recommend this book for anyone who is alarmed by the growing power of the religious right in America. It will help arm you with the facts and background information you need to:
- argue in favor of sex education programs that include birth control information, thus reducing unwanted pregnancies (and their social and economic impacts), abortions, and sexually transmitted disease
- fight back against the proposed teaching of intelligent design in public schools
- allow vaccinations to protect your daughter from HPV and, possibly, cervical cancer
- enable government funding to continue efforts to find cures for AIDS and other diseases — yes, even through the use of stem cells
If you are a true believer, I urge you to consider Mr. Harris’s arguments — and the arguments made by others like him — and look objectively at how your beliefs affect America and the rest of the world. While neither Mr. Harris nor I am saying that you should give up your belief in God and the values of your religion, you need to understand that some of your religious beliefs and values cannot be imposed on others without drastic consequences for all.
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