Taking on Christians’ gospel truth
- Reviewed by Jean E. Barker
Sunday, October 1, 2006
Letter to a Christian Nation
By Sam Harris
KNOPF; 96 Pages; $16.95
Sam Harris received many angry letters after his first book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason,” was published in 2004. His sweeping denunciation of belief drew fire from religious people, and even atheists criticized him for supporting Buddhist meditation. On the other hand, it was clear that he was describing what a number of people in this country are thinking about religion and its role in public affairs. An unexpected success, the book sold more than a quarter-million copies and was given the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.
“Letter to a Christian Nation” is Harris’ direct response to the feedback he got. “The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians,” he writes. “This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”
While “The End of Faith” cut a broad swath across the Abrahamic traditions and the problem of religions in general, Harris now turns his full attention to conservative Christianity. As in his first book, Harris, who has a degree in philosophy and is finishing his doctorate in neuroscience, dismisses the faith of moderate and liberal Christians, acknowledging that they “will not always recognize themselves in the ‘Christian’ I address.” Indeed, he hopes that these Christians “will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths.”
Harris, in his words, “set[s] out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” A few of the topics he inveighs against include Christianity’s claims to exclusive truth, the Ten Commandments, creationism and intelligent design, anti-abortion stances, opposition to HIV and HPV vaccines, biblical prophesies, and the problem of theodicy, how a good and all-powerful God can allow so much suffering. In sum, he seeks to “engage Christianity at its most divisive, injurious, and retrograde.”
The Christian Scriptures, for example, provide fertile ground for his scythe: “The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, given the contents of the book.” He cites passages from the Hebrew Bible that urge violence, including death, for various transgressions and condone slavery, and points out that “If we take Jesus in half his moods, we can easily justify the actions of St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Taking the other half, we can justify the Inquisition.” Because it says many different things, he argues, “people have been cherry-picking the Bible for millennia to justify their every impulse, moral and otherwise.”
This combination of ruthless argument with polemic designed to provoke (he describes the Catholic Church as the “institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters”) will further delight Harris’ supporters and infuriate his critics. His glee in his own intelligence aside, Harris is stricken by the amount of preventable suffering in the world and has identified ending religion as the cure. He is deeply influenced by Buddhist ethics, stating that “questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering.”
“Letter to a Christian Nation,” like philosopher Daniel Dennett’s recent “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” and, reportedly, biologist Richard Dawkins’ forthcoming “The God Delusion,” attempts to deconstruct religion from every possible angle. This small book adds little new to Harris’ argument in “The End of Faith”—indeed, he repeats a number of his examples. Its strengths are the clarity of Harris’ writing, his critique of religion’s current entanglement in public policy and his continuing willingness to speak up about some very controversial ideas, even if they’re difficult for others to hear.
That said, Harris’ dismissal of the religious middle ground may backfire by leading moderate Christians to side with conservatives against Harris’ attack rather than acknowledge his points that they agree with. And it’s hard to see how Harris’ uncritical use of logic—as a weapon to eviscerate others’ ideas rather than as a tool to foster understanding—won’t further polarize the debate. While Harris assumes that Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi are exemplars, he ignores that these 20th century leaders were successful because, in part, they refused to objectify their opponents, to settle for anger and hatred as the last word, to accept divisions between us and them. Harris states that “one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns ... in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.” An even harder task is an epistemological one of sorts: for people—both those with and without faith—to really listen to those who know the world in very different ways than they do.
Jean E. Barker is a Bay Area writer.
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©2006 San Francisco Chronicle