James Wood on Sam Harris

The excellent literary critic and novelist James Wood has explored religion in all three of his books: The Broken Estate; The Book Against God; and The Irresponsible Self. In a forthcoming New Republic essay called “The Celestial Teapot,” ostensibly a review of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, he begins by writing of his own turn away from religion:

I have not believed in God since I was fifteen, and now, at forty, I suspect that I am too late to change. But the velocity of that flight from belief has not been constant: there have been hesitations, interruptions, acute nostalgias. Like many raised in a religious household, I often find myself caught in a painful, if comic, paradox, whereby I am involved in an angry relationship with the very God whose existence I am supposed to deny. There is the joke of the atheist out fishing with a believing friend. The atheist casts his net and draws up a stone on which is carved: “I do not exist. Signed: God.” And the atheist exclaims: “What did I tell you!” Contradictory this kind of atheism might at times be, but those contradictions feed, perhaps constitute, its brand of militancy; it is because God cannot be entirely banished that one is forced to keep on complaining rather than merely finalize one’s elegies. 


We are in the midst of that tragedy, and America is drowning in God’s attributes. The Lord will increase your salary, teach your children, raise your self-esteem, boost your career, be a lifelong friend, and take you into his heart if you only take him into your heart. He is love, and gentleness, and charity, unless he is forbidding homosexuality or stem-cell research or punishing New York with September 11 for its high proportion of gays, lesbians, and degenerates. He greatly dislikes evolutionists, largely because he created the world six thousand years ago. He certainly dislikes Nancy Pelosi–and now, alas, Pastor Ted Haggard. The Bible is his inerrant word. According to recent polls, 53 percent of Americans are creationists, and 87 percent–or 260 million people–claim to “never doubt the existence of God.” An avowed atheist cannot be elected president. And so on. You know the stupefying recital. Many millions across the world are absolutely sure they know what God is like, and what he likes. Heine’s unbelieving joke, reported by the Goncourt brothers, rises up: on his deathbed, while his wife was praying that God might forgive him, he interrupted her to say, “Have no fear, my darling. He will forgive: that’s his profession.”

I happened to read Sam Harris’ new book this afternoon in the bookstore – it’s just 90 pages – and it’s a lucid and timely piece of work with a few flaws. Wood himself sees a few. (“I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheistic texts, but there is a limit to how many times one can stub one’s toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor.”) I suggest reading the whole piece yourself. It seems TNR has decided to offer the review as a free web piece, if only you’ll take the time to register with a name and password. Wood is always worth it.