Book Review– ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ by Sam Harris

There is something terribly disturbing about Sam Harris’s latest libretto. I met Sam at a seminar/retreat that we jointly attended earlier this year, and he thoughtfully sent me an autographed copy of this new manifesto, for which I thank him.  I didn’t read his 2005 New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, but I definitely get the picture of where his head is after spending some time with him and reading "Letter to a Christian Nation." 

Sam Harris advocates the end of faith and wants to put a stop to all religious worship. He sees this as the only way that the world will ever experience lasting peace. Like many rational people, Harris demands an end to the tragic contradictions thrust upon us by those (particularly Muslims) who choose death in the name of doing God’s will. He is outraged by people of any faith who anoint themselves the arbiters of right and wrong in the absolutist vacuum of radical religious fundamentalism and then impose their will on others. He is a rationalist, pure and simple.

But, after reading his book, I am left feeling that he is a fanatic rationalist who leaves no room for nuance or interpretation. In his writing, Harris appears to feel so alone in his rationalism that he is compelled to shriek at his audience, using blasphemy and insults to get a reaction out of people of faith.

As I read "Letter to a Christian Nation", which one can easily do in an hour and a half, I started to feel that the author, perhaps deliberately, perhaps despite himself, transforms his monologue into the same fanatical, fundamentalist, incomprehensible dogma that he so thoroughly denounces.

I find it hard to believe that any person of faith will agree with or be converted by his diatribe, but, if you take some time to consider individual elements of this angry polemic, you can see that he does make some good points.

In my view, Sam should have opened the book with one of his conclusions:

"I would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good. Still, the same could have been said about efforts to abolish slavery at the end of the eighteenth century." (page 87)

This would at least make you think that he is not entirely out of touch with reality himself.

To his credit, Harris makes important points such as:

"One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not—that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral—that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings." (p25)

And he backs points like this up with crystal clear examples such as (1) the mindless controversy over creationism and intelligent design versus evolution; and (2) the millions of HIV deaths in Africa that the Church ignores by categorically prohibiting education about HIV prevention through condom use.

But he goes too far in his condemnations and loses the powerful punch that some of his examples carry when he concludes:

"We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity—birth, marriage, death—without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. Only then will the practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish be widely recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is." (p 88)

Sam Harris joins the rest of us who are not radical fundamentalists in fighting the same battle that Maimonides fought in the 1100’s, the battle between rationalism and faith. In his writings, Maimonides, a physician and a philosopher, a Jewish Rabbi and an advisor to Muslim Caliphs, succeeded in finding a place where religion—that which cannot be explained by scientific observation—co-exists with rational thought. We should all be working to find that middle ground of tolerance and pluralism while recognizing that the vast majority of religious radicals of any faith are never going to be turned away from their intolerant, myopic tunnel vision.

As long as religious absolutists have unfettered access to increasingly powerful weapons and are able to take the middle ground away from the rest of us—the world is unlikely to be harmonious or peaceful. But shrieking about how this is a stupid contradiction isn’t going to make it better either. I reject Harris’ assertion that interfaith dialogue is "profoundly unlikely" to "heal the divisions in our world." (p. 86).

On the contrary, the alternative to dialogue is more death. I’d rather keep trying to find a way to get along with my fellow man than throw in the towel on bringing together the rich diversity from thousands of years of human history that is embedded in religious affiliation.

In my view, by having and sharing faith, we may some day find that we do, indeed, all drink from the same river.

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