David Aikman: Is this how to bring grace and savor to a crumbling civilization?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

When atheist Sam Harris wrote his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, a radical attack on religious belief in any form, he was prepared for strong rebuttals from Christians.

What may have surprised him was the vitriol in which many of the emails and letters were couched. The most hostile messages came from Christians (not Muslims or Hindus). "The truth is," he explained in the forward to his latest bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation, "that many who claim to be transformed by God's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism."

"How do I know this?" he asked rhetorically. "The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse." Indeed, Letter to a Christian Nation is his response to those vituperative critics and yet another weapon in the armory of people hostile to Christianity.

I am not surprised that Harris attracted negative feedback. What disturbs me, however, is the extent to which some Christians have turned themselves into the self-appointed attack dogs of Christendom. They seem determined to savage not only opponents of Christianity, but also fellow believers of whose doctrinal positions they disapprove.

Read it all.



Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* TheologyPastoral Theology

8 Comments
Posted August 29, 2007 at 1:34 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Some of us have long suspected that the vitriol issuing from extremists on both sides might have a big psychological component. Apparently there’s research to support the notion that the psychological component is the fear of death.

The latest issue of The New Republic (Aug. 27) has an intriguing piece, Death Grip, by John B. Judis. He reports on extensive research by experimental psychologists, suggesting pretty clearly that:

... the mere thought of one’s mortality can trigger a range of emotions—from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.

Judis writes (emphasis and extra paragraphing added):

To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes “worldview defense”—their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger—they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality.


One [exercise] asked the judges to “briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you”; the other required them to “jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.”


They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $50. The psychologists knew they were onto something.


Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what they now called “mortality salience” affected people’s view of other races, religions, and nations.

When they had students at a Christian college evaluate essays by what they were told were a Christian and a Jewish author, the group that did the mortality exercises expressed a far more negative view of the essay by the Jewish author than the control group did. (German psychologists would find a similar reaction among German subjects toward Turks.)

They also conducted numerous experiments to show that mortality exercises evoked patriotic responses. The subjects who did the exercises took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States than the control group did and also expressed greater veneration for cultural icons like the flag.

The three even devised an experiment to show that, after doing the mortality exercises, conservatives took a much harsher view of liberals, and vice versa.

In conducting these experiments, they took care not to tell the subjects what they were doing. They also devised experiments to answer obvious objections to their theory. For instance, they substituted other exercises designed to increase anxiety—by reminding subjects of an upcoming examination or a painful dental visit—to determine if these thoughts had the same effect as the mortality exercises, but they didn’t. It wasn’t anxiety per se that triggered worldview defense; it was anxiety specifically about one’s own death.

It’s definitely worth reading the whole thing.

I would add: Anxiety about death is natural, but it also suggests a lack of trust that everything will be OK — in other words, a lack of faith, the faith of Abraham and Jesus, lauded by Paul in his letter to the Romans.

Contrast mortality anxiety with the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor’s definition of faith as openness to truth, no matter what truth turns out to be — that would seem to be just the opposite of worldview defensiveness.

August 29, 2:42 pm | [comment link]
2. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

Apparently this is news to Mr. Aikman, but all people are fallible. Yes, even Christians. Every grouping of people from Muslims to Atheists to Political Parties has its fair share of vociferous voices that are willing to mud sling.

It is not that I am defending the people who sent him hate mail. That’s just wrong, but the old saying “like attracts like” applies here. I read Mr. Aiken’s first book, and I can’t imagine why would be surprised at the response. His tone through that book was dripping with all sorts of vitriol and, as I recall, more than a few parts were outright hateful. If you tack into the window, you are liable to get a facefull when it returns.

August 29, 2:52 pm | [comment link]
3. Alice Linsley wrote:

Many Christians act this way because they lack the information they need to offer a confident rebuttal. The Church has failed to teach the pertinent facts, such as:
After 80+ years of ardent searching by paleoanthropologists, no proto-human fossils or “missing link” has been found.
Religion is a universal phenomena.
The priesthood is one of the oldest religious institutions.
The more pluralistic a society, the more secular it will be.

August 29, 3:09 pm | [comment link]
4. Sherri wrote:

I think people are being frightened by a society that is living like there is no tomorrow and they respond in anger. Alice has a point, too, that many don’t know how to respond confidently - they are upset when what they love is trashed and they don’t know how to respond/disagree with love. Something I know I fail at sometimes. Hope that doesn’t make me a nutcase extremist, DC. grin

August 29, 3:37 pm | [comment link]
5. William P. Sulik wrote:

I have a few thoughts on this.  First, I think of my friends who have been the subject of scathing attacks and think, yeah, Sam Harris is right.

Second, I think, well, it’s nothing new: 

The scathing insults that fill texts by sixteenth-century Christian reformers can shock even a jaded modern reader. In the prefatory letter to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), for example, Martin Luther begins by wishing for “grace and peace in Christ” before launching his attack on the “brainless and illiterate beast in papist form” and its “whole filthy pack of … asses,” and concludes by exhorting his reader to rise up against the Catholic hierarchy: “Continue courageously, noble sir; in this way the disgrace of the Bohemian name will be abolished, and the sludge of the harlot’s lies and whoring shall again be taken up in her breast.” Or consider the nasty invectives by the English Lord Chancellor and future Catholic martyr, Thomas More, against not only Luther but also Matthew Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English. More calls these men the “devil’s disciples”: Luther “a pimp, an apostate, a rustic, and a friar”; and Tyndale “a babbler, and a devil’s ape.” Even Desiderius Erasmus, the erudite Catholic humanist, filled his writings with insults both satirical and blunt and proclaimed that theologians “are more stupid than any pig” (sue stupidiores). Fierce words commonly appear in the midst of religious controversies, and one may choose to skim past this hyperbolic outrage in search of the real message. Insulting rhetoric, however, does provide a sensitive barometer of religious concerns in the sixteenth century and yields unexpectedly complex answers to a simple question. What does negative speech accomplish?

From “Invective and Discernment in Martin Luther, D. Erasmus, and Thomas More” by Constance M. Furey; Harvard Theological Review (2005), 98:469-488.
Quotation found here

  No, this doesn’t make it right—just an observation.

Third, calling Rick Warren, a “milquetoast” - well, so what?  I read movie reviews rougher than that.

I agree with David Aikman - one only has to look at around to see that things aren’t great.  His conclusions are correct, but his examples seem weak. 

Last, I think withholding criticism might be worse than leveling it. 

Of course, I guess all this brings us back to I Cor. 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.”

So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

August 29, 5:41 pm | [comment link]
6. NewTrollObserver wrote:

Perhaps this is why spiritual athletes, whether Abrahamic or Dharmic, recommend the meditation upon one’s own (certain) death.

August 29, 6:26 pm | [comment link]
7. Larry Morse wrote:

But Archer has probably hit the target, hasn’t he? The contemporary atheists are as loud and invective laden and the farthest right extremist. This calls forth those whose temperments are most like Harris’s and his ilk. The essay condemns all Christians, more or less, and this is obviously inaccurate.

  But it is also true that our culture has stripped away every psycho-social protection that religion used to offer, and at the same time has created a rapacious, high-pressure, confrontational society which desperately needs the consolations that religion brings. Harris is one of the loudest threats. Is it any wonder that his challenge produces anger and counter-challenge? It would not be so bad if it were not for Dawkins and his kin, and if the media have not played up their vituperation with a certain - what shall I call it? - salacious? - pleasure. LM

August 29, 6:30 pm | [comment link]
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