This week I picked up Sam Harris’ excellent Letter to a Christian Nation. Even though it seemed on the surface to be something I already knew, agreed with, and thus something of fan-service to people like me who are tired of religious-based thinking dominating public discourse, I was pleasantly surprised to find it excellently written and concise (the main letter, before the afterword, checks in at just under 100 pages), as well as giving me a couple of new ways to think about and articulate just what this problem is and why it’s a problem.
The most succinct one of these points, and the one I think we need to address more than any other, is this:
Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks. To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply. (p.8)
Happiness and suffering. That should be the basis for our actions, our society, our laws of governance. We should strive in all our actions to increase the happiness of any sentient beings we can affect, including ourselves, and similarly to reduce the suffering of any sentient beings we can affect, including ourselves.
Many of our laws that fundamentalist Christians support– despite their claim to follow a God of complete love and acceptance– not only do neither of these things, they often reduce happiness and increase suffering deliberately. (Harris cites examples such as conservative Christians opposing HPV vaccines, because they believe women should get cervical cancer as punishment for premarital sex. [pp. 26-27] That’s insane, right? I mean, obviously so?)
So if you call yourself a Christian, and you support, for example, a ban on gay marriage, ask yourself this: How does a ban on gay marriage increase your happiness? What, in any tangible way, does that do to make you a happier person?
While you’re at it, you might want to ask yourself, How does a ban on gay marriage affect other people’s suffering? I don’t think you’ll need to think hard to conclude that it significantly increases the suffering of homosexuals, who have already by and large had to suffer in this country from being treated like they don’t belong, they’re sub-human, and that there’s something inherently wrong with them.
If you believe that your God is a god of compassion, then you have to believe that causing His creations to suffer needlessly is bad, right? Cruel, even? Not what he would want? (Of course, if you don’t have the filter of religious dogma clouding your observations, it should be easy to see that creating suffering is cruel; in my case, it’s because I understand what it is to suffer and I understand the humanity I share with other people, and do not want to needlessly cause the same to them.)
Anyway, I do recommend the book, and just as importantly, I recommend that, religious or not, we all think about why we hold the principles dear that we do, and just what those principles are, and how we put them into practice in our lives, both daily and with the large decisions we make.