Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Religious Wars and Publishing after 50!

The April issue of Writers Digest magazine arrived in my mailbox this week, containing an article called “Religious Wars.” The author, Kara Uhl, talks about the role of September 11 as the catalyst for many of what she calls “anti-religion” books. She highlights Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, which was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction in 2004, as the leader in a nonfiction, bestselling subcategory, which Uhl says, “indicates a culture shift.”

But unlike many subcategories that take a strong stance, here publishers have seen anti-theism readers pick up anti-religion books, and vice versa, if only so they can better argue their views…. It’s an age-old war being fought on pages and marketed on the front tables of major bookstores, and while some say the trend has peaked, other think the crusade has only just begun.

Uhl discusses some other key players in her article: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, and The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath, God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger, and Nica Lalli’s memoir, Nothing. But her article reminded me that I'm overdue for another installment of my continuing "review" of Harris' book, The End of Faith.

My earlier reviews are (Chapter 1) here, (Chapter 2) here, and (Chapters 3 and 4) here.

I think there are several reasons I’ve been avoiding Harris’ book. One is my own feeling of inadequacy…. Not knowing if I’m up to the task. This is heady stuff. I only agreed to read the book because someone I love very much asked me to. This friend was very much taken with Harris’ book, so I agreed to read it with an open mind. And that leads to the second reason I’ve been avoiding the book. I don’t think I’m capable of reading it with an “open mind,” if that means with an empty slate. I’m not sure any of us can do that. We take in everything around us through a filter, don’t we? Everything we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and read goes through a filter that’s been developed through years of sensual and intelligent input. And yet, I try. The third reason is that I’m choosy about what I read. I try to balance my reading with books (and essays, short fiction and poetry) that are uplifting, spiritual, and artistic and books that are educational and informational. Some times a book can accomplish several of these tasks simultaneously. And yet, I’m pressing on a bit today, having just read Chapter 5 of The End of Faith: “West of Eden.”

Harris deals with what he calls “the influence of religion in the West” in this chapter, and starts with a warning:

The degree to which religious ideas still determine government policies—especially those of the United States—presents a grave danger to everyone…. For many years U.S. policy in the Middle East has been shaped, at least in part, by the interests that fundamentalists Christians have in the future of a Jewish state…. Fundamentalist Christians support Israel because they believe that the final consolidation of Jewish power in the Holy Land—specifically, the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple—will usher in both the Second Coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Jews.

Right off the bat, Harris is taking an extremist fundamentalist view and applying it to all Christians. When Pilate asked Jesus if He was the King of the Jews, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

The Orthodox Christian Church (some good links to read about Orthodoxy are here, at the Antiochian Archdiocese's web site) does not take a political stance on these issues, because we believe what Christ said to Pilate. Our faith does not, or should not, lead us to extreme actions based on what Harris calls “intrusions of eschatology into modern politics.” His statement that “Millions of Christians and Muslims now organize their lives around prophetic traditions that will only find fulfillment once rivers of blood begin flowing from Jerusalem” is again, not an indictment against Christianity, any more than extreme behavior on the part of an individual American, or even a group of Americans, is an indictment against America.

The War on Sin

In his section on “The War on Sin,” Harris talks about what he calls “the tension between private freedom and public risk.”

Behaviors like drug use, prostitution, sodomy, and the viewing of obscene materials have been categorized as “victimless crimes.”…. Indeed, what is startling about the notion of a victimless crime is that even when the behavior in question is genuinely victimless, its criminality is still affirmed by those who are eager to punish it…. The idea of a victimless crime is nothing more than a judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin…. It is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others. This impulse has less to do with the history of religion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God…. Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulness of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power.

As I read these words this morning, having just finished my Morning Prayers, I thought about the Prayer of St. Ephraim, which Orthodox Christians pray every day during Great Lent. His words speak directly to Harris’ accusations that Christian faith leads to the desire to curtail the private freedom of others:

O Lord and Master of My Life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.


When I judge my brother (and I do this, unfortunately, quite a bit) it’s not in obedience to my faith. Quite the contrary—it’s a sin against my brother, and against God, the judge of all. I’m not sure who Harris is referring to when we says that we, as a people of faith, are “taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulness of our neighbors,” but it’s certainly not the historic Christian Church.

I don’t know the scientific and medical facts necessary to argue with Harris about his assessment of the danger of alcohol and cigarettes (which are legal) vs. the harmless and possibly even helpful effects (according to Harris) of marijuana and other illegal drugs. But I do disagree with his assumptions about how prohibition causes crime:

The crimes of the addict, to finance the stratospheric cost of his lifestyle, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his territory and his goods, are likewise the results of prohibition.

This is just illogical. Would Harris have a state with no laws, so that there would be no crimes against the law? I guess I’ll find out what his plan is in the final chapters of his book, if I can make myself read them.


The God of Medicine

In his final section of this chapter, “The God of Medicine,” Harris deals with embryonic stem-cell research. He states his beliefs about stem cells dogmatically:

Here is what we know.

Immediatly, I'm asking, who is “we”?

We know that research on embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos at the 150-cell stage. There is not the slightest reason to believe, however, that such embryos have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life in any way at all.

Again, who is “we”?

He sets people of faith over and against the “we” in terms that try to render them as idiots:

Enter faith: we now find ourselves living in a world in which college-educated politicians will hurl impediments in the way of such research because they are concerned about the fate of single cells…They believe that even a human zygote (a fertilized egg) should be accorded all the protections of a fully developed human being…. Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical equivalent of a flat-earth society.

Well, I guess we’re pretty clear about how Harris feels about Christians. I’m finding it more and more difficult to continue reading this book of his “with an open mind” as he continues to assault my intelligence, and even my humanity, with such statements. Harris’ transition into his next chapter says:

It is time we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong.

I guess we’ll learn about his approach in the final chapters of his book. But don’t look for my comments any time soon. Reading Harris leaves me hungry for something substantive, especially as I approach these final seventeen days of Great Lent. And so I refer again to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s short book, Meditations on a Theme, for some balance here:

It is not circumstances that make shadows darken our souls, nor is it God’s fault, although we accuse him all the time. How often have I heard people say, ‘Here are my sins,’ then stop a moment to take a breath and begin a long discourse to the effect that had not God afflicted them with such a hard life, they would not sin so much.’…. I suggested, before reading a prayer of absolution, that peace between God and man was a two-way traffic, and I asked whether the penitent was prepared to forgive God all his misdeeds, all the wrong he had done, all the circumstances which prevented this good Christian from being a saint. People do not like this, and yet, unless we take full responsibility for the way we face our heredity, our situation, our God and ourselves, we shall never be able to face more than a small section of our life and self. If want to pass a true and balanced judgment on ourselves we must consider ourselves as a whole, in our entirety.
On a different note, in the same issue of Writer’s Digest, I found a wonderful article called “Publish Your First Book after 50.” Looking at all the young folks at every writers conference I attend can be very intimidating. Literary agent Scott Hoffman offers great tips for writing and publishing after age 50, and you can bet I read every word! Especially some of his closing remarks:

Anna Sewell didn’t sell the classic novel “Black Beauty” to her publisher until she was 57. [Note: I’m 57!] Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie series didn’t have her first book published until she was well into her 60s. And Richard Adams, author of the children’s classic “Watership Down,” remained unpublished until he was in his 50s.

Looks like I’m in good company! Or… I will be when I get my first book published. Which reminds me, blogging is fun, but it isn’t getting the next chapter written….

4 comments:

Erin said...

"The Orthodox Christian Church . . . does not take a political stance on these issues, because we believe what Christ said to Pilate. Our faith does not, or should not, lead us to extreme actions based on what Harris calls 'intrusions of eschatology into modern politics.'"

I think that you are right and you are wrong in saying this. It is true that at the core of our faith is a belief in a kingdom "not of this world" and that our focus should be there. As such, it is not our primary role as the Church to insert ourselves into political issues. But the fact is that Orthodox leaders take stances on political issues all the time, and sometimes do it in the name of the Church. This has happened throughout history and continues to happen today. Not all of our hierarchs and clergy do this, but many do at various times. Sometimes it may seem clear that it was a place where the Church needed to take a stance, other times it is not so clear, or even seems that it would have been better for such a leader to remain quiet. I think we have to be honest that this happens, and though it may not always be completely in line with the core of our theology, it is out there and it can anger many people, both within and outside the Church. This is not at all to discredit the Church as Christ's body, but just to say that we live in the world and are led by men and women who interact with the world in sometimes good and sometimes bad ways. If we aren't willing to admit the shortcomings and the honest truth about how our Church functions, we just look silly. And yet, we still have faith that God works through his Church as a whole for good and to lead us to Him.

Susan Cushman said...

Good points, Erin. I in no way am unwilling to admit the shortcomings and honest truth about how our Church functions, but I was addressing the tenets of our faith that are under fire by Sam Harris and others. If he wants to attack individuals within the Church, be they clergy or laity, that would be a different situation, in my view. I in no way believe our Church functions perfectly on this earth, because we are fallen people. But God's Truth never changes, and that is what I was trying, albeit not very effectively, to explain. For example, when he says (p 162) "Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulnes of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power," is he placing blame on church leaders for teaching "people of faith" to "concern ourselves with the sinfulness of others"? Because it is clearly not the teaching of the Church that we are to concern ourselves with our neighbors' sins, but with our own. If I'm missing your point, please comment again! Thanks for writing.

marjorie said...

yes I sell COMFY USA - my physical store, over 10 yrs. old: ART & SOUL 225 Penn AVE SE Wash DC 202-548-0105. My websites soon to include COMFY USA but include other fabulous clothing designers and jewelers from everywhere who make their living doing this:
fashionplatewomensclothing.com
prettyandpluswomensclothing.com
indulgesterlingsilverjewelry.com

Susan Cushman said...

Marjorie-thanks for the comment, but somehow it ended up on the wrong post. Your comment really belongs on the post about modal fabric and clothes, here: http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/2008/06/i-shall-wear-purplewarning-girlie-post.html. I'll try to post the content of your comment there now, so that readers interested in fashion and clothes can find it!