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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10 Responses to “Book Review– ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ by Sam Harris”

  1. David Baker Says:

    You begin your attack of Harris by saying, “Sam Harris advocates the end of faith and wants to put a stop to all religious worship.” If you truly think that, then you have misunderstood. If you realize that that is a false statement, but are using it anyway to set up a straw-man argument, then you are being intellectually dishonest.
    I say this even though I, too, have some qualms with Harris’ logic–though for other reasons. But please, criticize Harris on the basis of what he actually advocates.

  2. Dan Kallem Says:

    I agree with David Baker’s post that you have apparently misunderstood the intent of Sam Harris’ two insightful and challenging books. It is not that he wants to, as you so crassly put it, “put a stop to religious worship,” (and I imagine for you this simply means Christian religious worship). Rather, he challenges us to subject the tenets of the world’s three predominant monotheistic religious faiths–Christianity, Islam and Judaism—to the imperatives of reason so that we may know the truth of the propositions declaimed so loudly by the faithful, to truly see if they have any place in, as you so sanguinely put it, “interfaith dialogue.” As Mr. Harris amply gives examples for, past and present, these propositions not only serve to separate us from our fellow human beings, but continue to be used by “believers” to justify absolutely horrific practices that result in untold misery and the wanton destruction of human (and other) life.
    You charitably—and rationally, I might add—suggest that Harris has made some good points in his slim, second polemic (you would do well to withhold your final judgment until you have digested and better understand his entire thesis), suggest then that he has overreached, but provide no reason why you believe this to be so. (I’m going to conjecture that you believe–or is it “feel”…?–this because he has the temerity to use the words “ludicrous obscenity” to describe the idea of raising our children as Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.)
    Similarly, with regards to your rejoinder that he is “shrieking” (whatever you mean by this?) and that this “isn’t going to make it better,” may I remind you, to cite but one example, that those who first “shrieked” about the contradictions inherent in a nation which advanced the cause of personal liberty to perhaps its apex, yet somehow found room to allow slavery, were also told how such “shrieking” wouldn’t “make it better.” This attitude is in fact the “moderate cover” Mr. Harris so aptly condemns that has allowed many, arguably more pious religious believers to pursue their murderous, and god-sanctioned (no, God-demanded) aims. I would say some shrieking is well in order, if only to get the attention of the moderates who help perpetuate the simplistic and utterly fantastical theistic beliefs now destructively operant in so much of the world.
    Your review is, in my opinion, poorly informed, simplistic, shallow and not particularly rational, especially peppered as it is with your “feelings” (as if these carry any particular weight in a well-reasoned dialogue). Please read Mr. Harris’ first, more fully developed thesis in “The End of Faith” and then let’s have a real interfaith dialogue, one that includes a rational appraisal of the propositions contained within the respective “faiths.”

  3. pudge Says:

    I’ve not read the book, but if Harris is really saying that we cannot have a peaceful or harmonious world until religious absolutists don’t have access to powerful weapons … wow, has the 20th century taught us nothing?
    Maybe Hitler pretended to be a Christian (he wasn’t), but that had little if anything to do with his slaughtering of Jews, which was based more on a Darwinianism than Christianity. And then there’s the communist regimes of China and the USSR, which had nothing at all to do with religion (and indeed, tried to destroy all religion that possibly conflicted with their iron-fisted rule … and China still heavily oppresses religious groups today).
    We will not be more peaceful without religious absolutists. Religion is not the problem, nor is absolutism. People are the problem, and the only solution on earth to that problem is worse than the problem itself. You cannot solve it. You cannot immanentize the eschaton.
    Also, if you properly characterize him as saying that creationism has anything to do with morality, he is mistaken. Christians do not hold to creationism or ID for moral reasons, but for truth reasons. Not that those views are necessarily true, but that is why they hold to them. They have nothing to do with morality.

  4. Simon Says:

    If reading this book is the first time you have spent time pondering the thoughts that Sam espouses, then I think your comment about “shrieking” is valid. However, I agree with tone that Same has chosen to write his “letter.” This is because I find most religious people unwilling to take the time to think and ponder rationally their faiths. Without provocation, this type of conversation will not happen.
    The other comment that you made that I found to be off is your response to Sam’s comments about interfaith dialogue. Your response seems a bit short-sighted in the sense that it is “obvious” that dialogue is better than no dialogue or fighting. However, I believe Sam’s point is that by maintaining separate faiths and having to divide our planet along these lines, we will never have a full reconciliation as a planet. Instead, we will always be divided and always have to have “dialogues” in order to attempt reconciliation.

  5. Paul Says:

    I find it somewhat interesting that for every argument I have listened to in favor of religion of any denomination, the claimants never seem able to convey clear or concise deliveries of their arguments in a manner that a rational person can comprehend. The numerous ones which I have listened to or read, seem to support their stances with logical fallacies without any substantiated evidence or conclusive merit. I find Sam’s points are exactly the opposite conclusive and well substantiated. A highly recommended read!

  6. ed Says:

    Hitler’s soldiers had ‘Got mitt uns’ on their belt buckles. Also, the swastika is a cross.

  7. Bailey Says:

    Alright guys. This is all ridiculous. I am about to read the book because someone told me that they lost their faith after reading it. If Sam really thinks the world will be a better place without religion then he is quite mistaken. If everyone followed the Bible exactly how God outlined it in the New Testament then the world would be an amazing place. Some people who are religious have taken the free will we have been given by God and twisted it. They are not following what the Bible says, therefore it is ridiculous that Sam is judging all people of faith in the same way. Think about how the Bible outlines to live:
    “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
    —John 13:34-35
    You will know someone is truley a disciple of God if they have love for one another. No one is perfect, but as a Christian myself I have found that living the way God intented is the best way. No one can argue that loving people is wrong, or that having a servants heart is wrong, or being patient and kind is wrong, or that being giving is wrong. You just can’t. Because if everyone lived like that, this world could reach the peace Sam thinks can only be reached without religion.

  8. PLevensohn Says:

    Re: Pascal's View – New comment requires moderation on: Book Review– 'Letter to a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris


  9. Oscar Obando Says:

    The danger of religious faith is that it allows other wise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need to be justified in the way that all others must , civilization is still besieged by the armies of the presposterous. We are, even now, killing oursevves over ancient literature.

    Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible.
    Richard Dawkins.

    I am ashamed of my self for belonging to the human race.
    I love life but not this way, religion for what honestly.

    Honestly is so sad to talk about this, that I get a knot in my throat.

    Message to a superior being if theres any: Havent you seeng ENOUGH OF YOUR CREATION trying to ERADICATE IT SELF FROM the palm of your hands

    Think about that Mr Almighty.

    But of course you say in a book written a long ass time ago, that the end there would be more blood shed and well you know the rest .

    So righteous you feel your own creation killing itself and you come in a kill some more.

    Great example you have giving Mr All Mighty.

  10. Jixiang Says:

    Well, I agree that Sam Harris exagerrates when he says that "the practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish" is a "ludicrous obscenity", but then I think that is because, just like other Western atheists, he doesn't understand to what extent Judaism and Islam constitute cultures as well as religions. In the case of Judaism, it even constitutes a sort of ethnic identity. If you take the religious ritual away from people, you have taken their identity away, in a way which is not true for Western christians. The way Harris attacks Islam, in particular, seems to me to be prejudist and excessive, playing in to the prejudice that Muslims are all dangerous fanatics.

    Then again, a lot of people literally believe in the nonsense and superstition which religions, including Islam and Judaism, are theoretically promoting, and that is a problem. We have to find a way to hold on to our identities while being rational. A bit like secular Jews.

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