Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Letter to a Christian Nation

In response to The End of Faith, Sam Harris received thousands of letters from Christians excoriating him for not believing in God. Letter to A Christian Nation is his reply. Using rational argument, Harris offers a measured refutation of the beliefs that form the core of fundamentalist Christianity. In the course of his argument, he addresses current topics ranging from i...

Title:Letter to a Christian Nation
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0307265773
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:91 pages

Letter to a Christian Nation Reviews

  • Manderson

    What is interesting about this book, as in most atheist thought, is that in lambasting fundamentalist institutional religious dogma, the author ends up doing exactly what he accuses his opponents of: polarizing, claiming to know what truth and reality are better than anyone else, and pushing moderates into extremism. He claims, as all atheists do, to be speaking solidly from the standpoint of reason. As a reasonable man, then, he should have recognized that fighting antagonism with greater antag

    What is interesting about this book, as in most atheist thought, is that in lambasting fundamentalist institutional religious dogma, the author ends up doing exactly what he accuses his opponents of: polarizing, claiming to know what truth and reality are better than anyone else, and pushing moderates into extremism. He claims, as all atheists do, to be speaking solidly from the standpoint of reason. As a reasonable man, then, he should have recognized that fighting antagonism with greater antagonism will not convert any Christians to his cause. I agree completely with his points, especially when he tears down the idiocy of opposing stem-cell research, and questions the morality of those who call themselves Christians who would uphold the life of an embryo over that of a living adult, or prevent the distribution of condoms in HIV rampant countries. Yes, these are indeed problems that need to be addressed.

    But my issue here is with his approach: it does absolutely no good to simply directly label all Christians and Muslims (he side-steps addressing the Jewish religion) as complete morons. There are some very intelligent people who adhere to a religion (and/or a religious culture), and while they can understand his criticisms completely, it doesn't aid the cause of reason to bitterly strike out against all religions of the world and label a majority of the populace as idiots.

    I felt like his final pages were the most cohesive, level-headed writing of the book, and I would rather see that kind of analytical approach to these issues more than the kind of "I'm superior because I am a rational atheist" line of argument that does nothing constructive except for those who already agree with him.

  • Steve

    I agree with other reviewers that there are no new or surprising arguments here. He goes over ground which is thoroughly familiar to those who think critically of religion. What makes the book so worthwhile is not, therefore, any (ahem) great revelations.

    What I found thrilling about this book, as an atheist of 50 years, was the startling, forceful simplicity, directness, beauty, and artistry with which he made his points. Consider one quote: "If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordin

    I agree with other reviewers that there are no new or surprising arguments here. He goes over ground which is thoroughly familiar to those who think critically of religion. What makes the book so worthwhile is not, therefore, any (ahem) great revelations.

    What I found thrilling about this book, as an atheist of 50 years, was the startling, forceful simplicity, directness, beauty, and artistry with which he made his points. Consider one quote: "If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion."

    Beautiful. Just beautiful. Took my breath away. There are similar sparkling passages throughout the book. I'll read it again, for the sheer pleasure of the writing.

  • James

    Wow! Concentrated essence of critique. This book is passionate, and tightly reasoned and put together. It catalogues some of the problems organized religions have inflicted on humanity, past and present, ranging from causing division, hatred and war to putting the brakes on truly free scientific and intellectual inquiry.

    Harris takes a number of common arguments in favor of the existence of God and/or the validity of various bodies or tenets of dogma, and shows that under logical consideration th

    Wow! Concentrated essence of critique. This book is passionate, and tightly reasoned and put together. It catalogues some of the problems organized religions have inflicted on humanity, past and present, ranging from causing division, hatred and war to putting the brakes on truly free scientific and intellectual inquiry.

    Harris takes a number of common arguments in favor of the existence of God and/or the validity of various bodies or tenets of dogma, and shows that under logical consideration they just don't stand up. As in his book The End of Faith, he argues that even though liberal and moderate religious communities may not advocate actions that hurt society or other individuals, by providing religiosity with a cloak of respectability they create a niche, immune to logic, where fundamentalists can operate, whereas if all human movements were expected to meet the test of providing some objective evidence to support their beliefs, they'd have nowhere to go. For that matter, he classes totalitarian political systems that aren't overtly religious, such as fascism or communism, as being similar to religion in that dogma is held higher than rational questioning and following the rules is more important than relieving human (or animal) suffering.

    For myself, I differ with Harris in that although I do not subscribe to any organized religion I am not an atheist; but I believe his criticisms of religion are valid and agree that spiritual belief systems should be able to stand up to the same kind of analysis as any other belief systems.

    Together with his other book, The End of Faith, this is must reading for anyone exploring spiritual questions.

  • David

    This seems like a completely unhelpful, pointless book. Sam Harris knows full well that the likelihood the people he purportedly addresses in his 'letter' (conservative Christians) will actually read it is close to zero. OK: he does state in the preface that its primary purpose is to "arm secularists", which I guess means he really had a different audience in mind from the start. Fair enough. But why use the particular framing device that he does - a belligerent, hectoring letter to fundamentali

    This seems like a completely unhelpful, pointless book. Sam Harris knows full well that the likelihood the people he purportedly addresses in his 'letter' (conservative Christians) will actually read it is close to zero. OK: he does state in the preface that its primary purpose is to "arm secularists", which I guess means he really had a different audience in mind from the start. Fair enough. But why use the particular framing device that he does - a belligerent, hectoring letter to fundamentalist Christians? They're not going to read the book anyway, and there's nothing helpful about the 'angry attacking letter' framework. In fact, it's particularly unhelpful.

    I consider myself a rational person; definitely

    likely to be receptive to the line of argument I had expected to find in this book. But my immediate reaction to it was one of annoyance and dislike. Annoyance at its overall tone, and dislike because I think the author indulges in such a selective interpretation of the Bible, history, and the world's current political situation that it simply undermines the case that he wishes to make. The best that I could say is that reading the book made me re-examine some of my own beliefs. But to no greater extent than reading the newspaper can sometimes have the same effect.

    Towards the end of the book Harris acknowledges that "this letter is the product of failure". To paraphrase Lear: "nothing comes of nothing". This book must be judged a continuation of that failure. It may generate some heat in the ongoing debate, but it fails to add any useful light.

    No stars, because I view the book as being actually detrimental.

  • Werner

    New Atheist spokesman Harris published an earlier book attacking religion,

    , in 2004. Written in response to "hostile" mail, mostly from Christians, reacting to the first one, this second book is designed as a concise (91 pages of text) distillation of his argument, both to irrefutably "demolish" any possible case for theism in general and Christian theism in particular, and primarily "to arm secularists... who believe that religion sho

    New Atheist spokesman Harris published an earlier book attacking religion,

    , in 2004. Written in response to "hostile" mail, mostly from Christians, reacting to the first one, this second book is designed as a concise (91 pages of text) distillation of his argument, both to irrefutably "demolish" any possible case for theism in general and Christian theism in particular, and primarily "to arm secularists... who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right." Harris uses the term "Christian" loosely, apparently including various types of nominal "Christians" and Christian-influenced Americans; but he directs his attack here on those who hold to the traditional form of the faith, though defined somewhat inaccurately and treated as monolithic, without nuance. As a Christian, I obviously didn't come to the book without a prior opinion. But I did honestly seek to give it a fair hearing, considering his case on its merits, and seriously interacting and engaging with it. (That's been an intellectually stimulating and enriching process, despite the fact that the book itself is disorganized and poorly argued, IMO; I did quite a bit of study as a result, and learned some significant things.) I've attempted to organize my review topically, rather than following the rambling order in which subjects are treated in the book. First, I'll consider his arguments against theistic/Christian belief; second, his critique of Christian positions on social issues; and third, the significance of New Atheist attitudes for our common life in a pluralistic culture.

    Truthfully, given the hype surrounding the book, I expected a much more cogent case against Christian faith than Harris makes. There are actually no arguments here that I hadn't heard before, and they're for the most part shopworn chestnuts that have been bandied about (and already answered) by village atheists for generations, delivered with an in-your-face stridency and belligerence. (Calling it a rant is an objective description, not a deliberately pejorative epithet.) Due to time and space constraints, I won't touch on every point he makes, but I'll try to cover the most important ones.

    1. Theism, Harris says, has no evidential basis as all; it's believed in on faith (which he regards as by definition blind belief without evidence), and so is obviously irrational. But "rational" scientists believe in the existence of various real things that are, like God, not themselves directly observable; they're believed in on the indirect evidence of their effect on things that

    empirically observable. That's the basis for Christian theistic faith, which turns out to have a lot of indirect empirical evidence, all of which Harris ignores here. (The most exhaustive summary of this that I know of is Josh McDowell's

    ; Frank Morison's more narrowly-focused

    is also instructive.) In weighing this kind of evidence, there is obviously a subjective element; most of us assess the cumulative force of the case to justify a decision one way or the other, and base our faith (in theism or atheism) on that, recognizing that it stops short of absolute demonstration. This isn't the same thing as blind belief without evidence.

    2. Harris argues that a benevolent God could not possibly allow human suffering (represented here by natural disasters, viruses, and crimes against innocent children); the existence of the latter cannot possibly be explained if one posits the former. However, Christians explain it by the fact that God created humans endowed, like Himself, with a free will; we're not robots or clones, but conscious beings who make real choices and enter into voluntary relationships. But that autonomy carries with it the possibility of making wrong and even horrendous choices as well as good ones, and those choices have meaningful effects. This affects even the natural realm. God created the Garden of Eden as a paradise in which He would have directly controlled nature for humanity's benefit; but because of the Fall He has backed off to allow natural law to operate, for the most part, without His direct intervention. This allows humans an environment in which their spiritual choices are not coerced, and that provides the maximum scope for purgative character formation. IMO, that explanation makes sense. Harris may subjectively disagree; but it is not an explanation that's illogical or fallacious on its face.

    3. Unlike some atheists, Harris admits that objective morality exists, and can be recognized by humans apart from special revelation. On that basis, he argues that atheists are more moral than Christians, based on lower crime rates in "blue" states than in "red" ones, and on the supposedly Utopian state of society in Western Europe and other Western nations that have lower rates of religious belief than the U.S. He admits that the red/blue state dichotomy isn't a "perfect indicator of religiosity." This is true, given that blue states are often blue due to the presence of large numbers of blacks (who are more Christian proportionately than the white community) and Catholic Hispanics, as well as of ethnic white Catholics who traditionally vote Democratic. It also seems to be true that the high crime rates of red states are driven by the rates in their blue counties, and that lower crime rates in blue states owe more to low rates in their red counties than in their blue ones. In general, Harris ignores every other factor, like income and education, that affect crime rates as much as religion. Those factors are particularly applicable in other Western nations with cradle-to-grave welfare states (which may not be economically sustainable). However, despite the myth of the "happy atheists" in those nations, the two countries with the largest per capita use of antidepressants are Iceland and Denmark, and four Western European countries have significantly higher suicide rates than the U.S. (see

    and

    .) [Note: that Wikipedia link does not work; see message 4 below for one that does.] And it happens that several recent university studies that actually DID measure the effect of religious affiliation on crime (unlike Harris' red/blue state comparison) all demonstrate that communities with a higher rate of religious affiliation have less violent crime (

    .)

    It should be noted that Christians don't claim that every individual Christian is more moral than every individual non-Christian. All humans are fallen, and marred by psychological shortcomings; all humans also have consciences, and most to some degree receive the subconscious ministration of the Holy Spirit to move them in a better direction. Genuine Christians benefit from a moral reorientation and a more conscious attempt to cooperate with the Spirit, so that they're in a process of becoming morally better than they individually would have been without conversion. But the results don't break down into a "Christians=perfection, nonbelievers=monstrous vileness" dichotomy, and the Bible doesn't suggest that it does. So Harris' suggestion that the moral shortcomings of Christians across the 2,000 year history of the faith disprove the truth claims of Christianity has no more validity than a claim that the moral shortcomings of some atheists, such as serial-killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who defend moral nihilism on the basis of what they consider a legitimate interpretation of atheism, in themselves disprove atheism.

    4. According to Harris, the Bible teaches an objectively horrible code of ethics, his main example here being that it supports slavery. This charge and a good many others are rebutted in Paul Copan's book,

    (which I've reviewed elsewhere).

    5. Christian morality, in Harris' view, is inferior to the morality of Jainism, summed up in the command, "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being." In other words, Jainism draws no distinction between the lives of humans and of lower animals. Atheists who eat meat, use glue and leather, euthanize their terminally ill and suffering pets, and omit to strain their drinking water through layers of thick muslin (to avoid swallowing and digesting an innocent microorganism) may see Jain ethics as more problematical than Harris does. (And might also have a problem with the ideal of suicide by self-starvation, which Mahavira is said to have attained, as the pinnacle of moral performance.) Jain pacifism may have influenced Gandhi's development of non-violent civil disobedience, which M. L. King in turn borrowed from Gandhi (and from Thoreau, who was a Deist and whom Harris does not mention). But he got his pacifism from his interpretation of the Bible; what he got from Gandhi and Thoreau was a technique for affecting social change, given a stance of pacifism. Most Christians, however, agree with Harris that the Bible doesn't teach absolute pacifism; we just don't view that as a defect in a fallen world. When you confront someone raping and torturing a child, tearfully remonstrating with him accords with Jain ethics, but a hard punch to the jaw works better. Biblical ethics allows for the latter.

    6. To Harris, the idea that God will someday bring the current world order to an end and finally judge the wicked is so self-evidently vile that it discredits Christianity, and Jesus' acceptance of that idea can "justify the Inquisition." No, it can't, because Jesus' explicit teaching forbids His followers to try to assume God's prerogative of judgment; that will be His function in His own time (Matt. 13:24-30). Nor is the judgment directed, as Harris suggests, at everyone who isn't a Christian; classical Christian thought has always understood the Bible to teach that Christ's sacrifice atones for all those who follow the light of general revelation to the best of their understanding. (Even Christians who have a more exclusive view of salvation don't see their mandate as to slaughter unbelievers to send them to "hell," but rather to peacefully invite them to embrace a place in God's community.) Final judgment is reserved for those who make a deliberate choice to embrace egoistic selfishness and persist in it --and as long as they live, there's hope that they won't persist in it, so Christians can't presume to finally judge anyone. God's role as Judge is consistent with His role in the moral governance of the universe He created; and His plan to bring that universe to a final state of social justice and happiness is a constructive teleology that differs from the Utopia advocated by people like Harris mainly in that God actually has the capacity to really achieve it.

    7. As Harris sees it, "Science" categorically disproves the existence of God. (Since the National Academy of Sciences officially denies this, his response is to slur their collective integrity.) It does this by supposedly proving, through the dogma of Darwinian evolution, that life came into being without a Creator. This contention is rebutted in, among other books,

    by Michael Denton,

    by Hugh Ross, and

    by Peter W. Stoner (none of whom are "young earth" creationists).

    This doesn't exhaust Harris' arguments, but it covers the most important ones; the others are more obviously flawed on their face. As for the pernicious positions of Christianity on social issues, Harris identifies four that he considers "obscene" and "genocidal."

    1. Christians oppose abortion. While Harris calls it "an ugly reality," without saying why he thinks it's ugly, he maintains that there is a "need" for it as long as there are unplanned pregnancies. Presumably, this is because raising an unplanned child might threaten a woman's career and financial well-being. Things like adoption, paternal financial responsibility, educational and employment options, affordable day care, community support for single mothers, etc. aren't seen here as solutions. (Slavery apologists, of course, saw a "need" for slavery if the white community was to be able to live the good life.) Christians base opposition to this on the fact that unborn human babies are, as Harris says about slaves, "human beings like [ourselves], enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness." Being at an earlier developmental state doesn't change that, and the comparison with skin cells brushed off your body (which "could" be grown into a clone using high technology, but won't naturally develop into a living being at all) is spurious. So is the argument that humans often naturally miscarry, and God doesn't prevent it. God allows people to die of a good many natural causes, but that doesn't establish that it's morally neutral to actively kill those who don't naturally die. Nor does it become innocuous to kill someone if they don't feel pain (although developing babies do at a fairly early stage); the injury to a murder victim isn't just in the pain of the act, but in depriving him/her of life.

    The point also needs to be made that the example of El Salvador's 30-year criminal sentences for women who abort does NOT, just because El Salvador's population is largely Catholic, demonstrate that punishing women in this situation is "the Christian position." It's entirely consistent with Christianity (and common sense) to regard abortion as an offense committed against the woman, not by her, even if it's supposedly voluntary; this recognizes the reality of women's social situation, in which economic, psychological or physical coercion almost always drives the felt need to abort. This reflects the common law tradition, and is the position of the (largely Christian) National Right to Life Committee. See

    .

    2. Christians, says Harris, oppose "stem cell research." Actually, that isn't the case; Christians only oppose obtaining stem cells by killing human embryos for them. There are a number of other ways to obtain them; research with these has already produced significant medical benefits, while embryonic stem cells research has produced none. See

    . (

    is another site with a lot of useful information on this whole subject.) Interestingly, the Jain position, which Harris earlier held up as the epitome of what religious ethics ought to be, happens to agree with the Christian one on both these points.

    The other two issues relate to Harris' view (not shared by all atheists) that any sexual behavior done by consenting adults is morally neutral, and that Christian disagreement with this is because of "prudery" that "contributes daily to the surplus of human misery." Christian sexual ethics are based on a positive view of sex as designed to be an expression of committed love in marriage, and I would contend that they can be recognized as valid by humans generally, based on natural moral intuitions of the kind that Harris admits to be valid.

    3. Christians encourage teens to abstain from premarital sex. Harris waffles on whether or not this is actually pernicious (at one point, he appears to concede that it isn't), but he misrepresents "abstinence only" education as doing nothing except preaching abstinence and withholding all other information. In fact, abstinence education is as or more "comprehensive" as any other sex education program, including providing information about birth control and AIDS preventives (and including their limitations) but it emphasizes abstinence as the only completely responsible choice (

    ). He also uses selected statistics to assert that abstinence education doesn't work, but a comprehensive review of the over 20 studies done to date demonstrates that they do (

    ).

    4. He accuses Christians of deliberately trying to prevent the development of HPV vaccine, and of discouraging condom distribution, so that HPV and AIDs can be preserved as a boogey to prevent sexual activity. For the record, Reginald Finger, the evangelical member of the CDC's Advisory Commision on Immunization Practices that he falsely accuses of this (based on a secondary source that was incorrect) voted to recommend developing the vaccine, and fully supports it (

    ; see also

    by Michael Patrick Leahy). And the Roman Catholic opposition to condom distribution is based on opposition to birth control (which is not a general Christian position), not on resistance to AIDS prevention.

    Harris does not simply think religious belief is mistaken; he thinks it's dangerous and needs to be eradicated. His earlier book declares that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." This is in a context of discussing Islamists, and he trades heavily on Islamophobic extremism (

    ). But he makes it clear here that he considers traditional Christians just as potentially dangerous as he believes Moslems are. This kind of general tarring of ALL religious people as dangerous, intolerant maniacs is, frankly, disturbing. And it's doubly disturbing because he demonstrates himself here to be as intolerant and as hateful towards those who disagree with him as any of the medieval Inquisitors he condemns. ANY worldview, religious or atheistic, that demonizes its opponents and can't coexist in civil comity with them poses a threat to the peace of the majority of people, of various faiths or no faith, who have no problem sharing the world in peace together. (Comparing the faiths of the latter to religious terrorism isn't simply comparing apples and oranges; it's comparing apples and ergot.) It tends to poison the well of our civic discourse, and to foster a polarization and fear that nobody needs.

    Note: Links to a couple of other online reviews of this book, and citations for some print reviews, by other Christian readers, can be found here:

    .


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