Sam Harris and the Prosperity Gospel

You know, I sometimes get the sense that Sam Harris doesn't have a damn clue what he's talking about:

Happily, Obama did a fine job of distancing himself from Reverend Wright's divisive views on racism in America, along with his fatuous "chickens come home to roost" assessment of our war against Islamic terrorism. But he did not (and should not) acknowledge that the worst parts of Reverend Wright's sermons, as with most sermons, are his appeals to the empty hopes and baseless fears of his parishioners--people who could surely find better ways of advancing their interests in this world, if only they could banish the fiction of a world to come.

... The problem of religious fatalism, ignorance, and false hope, while plain to see in most religious contexts, is now especially obvious in the black community. The popularity of "prosperity gospel" is perhaps the most galling example: where unctuous crooks like T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar persuade undereducated and underprivileged men and women to pray for wealth, while tithing what little wealth they have to their corrupt and swollen ministries. Men like Jakes and Dollar, whatever occasional good they may do, are unconscionable predators and curators of human ignorance. Is it too soon to say this in American politics? Yes it is.



I suppose it would be too much to ask for Harris to familiarize himself with the literature on the correlations between religious observance and positive personal and financial outcomes, in the nation as a whole but especially in the African-American community; it would apparently be too much, as well, for him to actually read the works of T.D. Jakes before declaring him an "unconscionable predator." There are pure charlatans in the world of the prosperity gospel, but what figures like Jakes (and Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and many many others) represent is something else entirely: They're self-help authors on the one hand and apostles of moralistic therapeutic deism on the other, slapping Christian window dressing on how-to guides for upward mobility and psychological satisfaction. They aren't playing to the follies and fantasies of the poor and desperate; they're responding to the real-world aspirations of the working and the middle classes. They aren't peddling fatalism and false hope; they're offering ambitious Americans advice on how to be prosperous and happy in the workplace and the home, with a little God-talk worked in around the edges.

From the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, obviously, this sort of thing is deeply theologically problematical. From the point of view of a hardened materialist like Sam Harris, though, the sort of religion T.D. Jakes is selling is exactly the kind of religion that he ought to like: A faith that's relentlessly focused on success and happiness in this world, rather than on self-abnegation for the sake of the life to come. But to understand that, he'd have to expand his understanding of religious practice beyond the usual run of atheistic cliches and prejudices. Which would obviously be too much to ask.