Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Last week, Adam Kirsch wrote a pretty scathing review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. (The nature of the "letter" being, as far as I can tell, "Dear Christian America, You're all idiots. Love, Sam.") The full review is here. Kirsch really gets at something I've come to believe when he writes this, after pointing out that both the religious and anti-religious are penning books bemoaning how the American deck is stacked against them:
Atheists and believers cannot, of course, both be under siege. The truth is that America is probably much the same as it has ever been: both worldly and pious, secular and churchgoing, thanks to a benign cognitive dissonance. The polls cited by Mr. Harris, which show that "forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years," tell us less about the American character —- which remains deeply materialistic, optimistic, and self-centered -— than about the idleness of asking people to define their religious beliefs in a telephone poll. The uses people make of religion are very various, and have less to do with subscription to a set of dogmas than with intuitions and aspirations. Mr. Harris is right that, for each of us, intellectual honesty demands a full reckoning with the claims of religion; and he is right that a life without religion is not a life without meaning and moral purpose. But such a reckoning is difficult and often painful, and Mr. Harris's deliberately obnoxious book can make no contribution to it.



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