Let’s Give Sam Harris a Hug

Rabbi Matt,

I thoroughly enjoyed your post, with the exception of the outrageous slander against Scientology. I am currently in month three of My Year of Believing in Xenu. And it seems to me that you have a bunch of body thetans to clear, my friend.

Back to Judeo-Christianity. I can understand how you might feel involuntarily defensive while reading the Jerry Falwell section of my book. If you went in search of Orthodox Jews in the Meah Shearim who throw stones at women with bare shoulders, I’d read that piece with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

But I’m still glad I made the trek to Lynchburg, Va. I felt I couldn’t write a book about biblical literalism without dealing with Falwell. It’d be like writing a book about jeans and ignoring Levi’s. He’s the most recognizable brand name. (And, to beat your French-food metaphor to death, I should note that I did explore lots of Le Bernardin Christianity, in addition to Falwell’s Au Bon Pain Christianity.)

I actually expected to get—and still may get—readers who think I was too gentle with Jerry Falwell. That I didn’t include enough of his inflammatory quotes and underplayed his political agenda. I was struggling with that issue last week when I received a mass e-mail from Falwell headquarters—I’m still on their e-mail-blast list, now written by Jerry’s son Jonathan.

The subject header this time was “The Rise of the New Atheism,” and I clicked on it, ready to enjoy some fire and brimstone. No such luck. It was the most disarming and disorientingly mild volley in the Great Atheism Wars of the 21st century. Some sample sentences:

I certainly do not believe that the Bible endorses hatred toward nonbelievers. Jesus was never intimidating in presenting Himself as the Son of God and we, likewise, should never be vindictive or forceful in sharing our faith.Compassion should be a crucial component of the Christian life. … My fear is that many people like Sam Harris, who have chosen to live out their lives believing in a godless universe, may have come to that conclusion because Christians or so-called Christians were cruel or uncaring toward them.

So, there you go: Sam Harris just needs a hug. The e-mail was so even-handed, it made me glad I resisted undue Falwell bashing.

I’m also happy you brought up the Holy Land Experience. I visited Orlando’s beloved religious theme park during my year and wrote a chapter about it. But I cut it out of the final book, mostly for reasons of space (plus, my friend Daniel Radosh will write about it brilliantly in his upcoming book on evangelical Christian culture, so I figured the subject would be sufficiently covered).

As you say, it’s a fascinating place. I was particularly interested in the crowd: large numbers of a curious edge of Christian culture enamored of Jewish ritual culture. They snap up the yarmulkes and shofars at the gift shop. It’s weird. Like watching a Swedish guy do gangsta rap.

Thank you for your kind words about the OT. I’d like to extend an ecumenical “right back atcha.” Much of the New Testament moved me, and I loved trying to live out some of Jesus’ teachings—especially forgiveness, a tough one for me.

A couple of interviewers have asked me: Which is better, the OT or the NT? That doesn’t seem like a wise question to answer (as the ever-tactful author of  If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans proved on Donny Deutsch’s show).

As you probably noticed, I spent more time following the Old Testament, first because I am officially Jewish, and second because that’s where most of the laws are. I also discovered that—despite my secular upbringing—I do have a surprisingly Jewish and Old Testament way of thinking. For instance: I am attracted to deed over creed. This, as you know, is a handy Jewish catchphrase. The religion places more emphasis on the behavior than on the belief. It’s considered more important to follow the ethical laws and do the prayers than to believe in God.

The weird thing is, my creed eventually started to catch up to my deeds. I became more spiritual during my year. I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance. Which is how I ended up calling myself a reverent agnostic. I was praying several times a day, and it gave me a sense of awe. I’m going to sound like a high-school sophomore who just took his first bong hit, but I’ll say it anyway: My prayers helped remind me of the miracle that there is something instead of nothing, of the unlikely fact the world exists at all.

After all, we could have all easily been destroyed by Xenu’s space planes.