Matt's Reviews > Letter to a Christian Nation

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
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Dec 05, 10

bookshelves: religion
Read from December 02 to 09, 2010

Sam Harris sets out to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms" in only 91 pages. Mr. Harris repeatedly refers to Christians as arrogant narcissists, yet he regards his own intellect so highly he only requires 91 page to snuff out 2,000 years of religious tradition and intellectual questioning of billions of people who have concluded there was something about Jesus that compelled belief. These 91 pages could have been put to far more productive use had Mr. Harris actually taken seriously the faith he set out to demolish. He largely attacks a caricature of Christian faith, one I certainly don't believe and wouldn't.
One of my other complaints about this book is that I feel Harris does a disservice to utilitarian moral reasoning. He blames Christian belief for causing suffering without really establishing causality or defining suffering or weighing the resulting happiness against purported suffering. Suffering was whatever he said it was whenever it was convenient to his argument and it was caused by whomever he said it was.
Harris closes this book by expressing his hope that "human beings learn to speak about their deepest personal ways that are not flagrantly irrational." A noble goal, and one I support. If Harris could have tempered his anger just a little I might have found this goal a little more believable; what I think he really, really wants is to to win an argument and he's quite emotionally invested. That's fine, let's just not pretend that's a purely rational motive.
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message 1: by Mark (new)

Mark Sisson Interesting review, Matt. I'd heard something about this book. How many times this type of approach has been taken in centuries gone by, and on into today, with folks like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others, yet the faith survives, as we know it will.

Steve It shouldn't take 91 pages to demolish Christianity. A few pages ought to do it. There is no need to take a faith seriously, or to treat it with respect, just because a faith is old, or because large numbers of people believe it.

The age of a religion, or its number of adherents, says nothing about its validity. Consider that Hinduism is much older than Christianity, and has roughly a billion believers. Suffice it to say, that huge group of religious believers does not find Jesus "compelling", but Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva? Now, that's another matter.

I'm teasing, of course, but it's only honest to admit that the primary factor that determines whether an individual finds Jesus compelling is whether that person was born into a Christian family. It's not the power of his example or of his message that wins or holds adherents, for the most part. It's the vulnerability of the person at the time of his or her introduction to the system of belief, and the social pressures that prevent questioning the belief into which one is born.

Across the vastness of geography, the reason that broad swaths of the world are Christian is not that each person there has weighed the evidence for the various faiths, and found Christianity the most persuasive of them. Rather, it's a consequence of history, especially military conquest. Events such as Emperor Constantine adopting Christianity, or the success of Christian Europe in colonizing large pieces of real estate, like the Americas, is the reason that the new world is largely Christian. Had Islamic armies been the conquerors of the Americas, there would be very few people here who find Jesus compelling. However, there would be many who believed that Muhammad was the final prophet of the one, true God.

As to your charge that Harris attacks a "caricature" of a Christian, the author is straight-forward in telling the reader at the outset: "In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Chrisianity in its most committed form. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the 'Christian' that I address. They should, however,recognize one hundred and fifty million of their neighbors."

Harris quite deliberately chooses the most extreme and literal minded Christians as the person to whom he addresses his book. He does so for good reason, and he explains why he sees religious moderates as lending fundamentalists legitimacy by the very fact that they advocate "respect" for religion in general. Further, he criticizes moderates for failing to admit that religious moderation finds no support in the holy texts. Rather, religious moderation involves ignoring inconvenient religious verses in favor of more modern thought.

I quoted him on these themes in my review, but it bears repeating:

"The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among non-fundamentalists is not some sign that faith, itself, has evolved. It is, rather, the product of many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence, and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it."

"Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge, and scriptural ignorance-and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts, themselves, are unequivocal. They are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God's law. By failing to live by the letter of the text, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question (that is, that we know that there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us), religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness."

message 3: by Ted (new)

Ted Steve wrote: "Had Islamic armies been the conquerors of the Americas, there would be very few people here who find Jesus compelling. However, ..."

For an alternative-history story about how things could have turned out vis-a-vis the relative prevalence of major religions in the world, see The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.

This comment (message 2) is a very nice summary of the issues it mentions; if anyone wants a book that, at considerably greater length, fills in the blanks, see The God Delusion by Dawkins, especially chapter 9.

message 4: by Jeff (new) - added it

Jeff Youngblood Steve, your argument is lame. Most people believe in math because they were raised by a family that believes in it. Does that make math not viable? Regardless, I don't fit your mold-the main reason I believe is the same reason Peter believed (who wasn't "vulnerable" by your defintion.) I believe because I encountered the living God by the spirit. And there are many accounts of Muslims encountering him in dreams, then following him, and being abandoned and persecuted by their own family and friends, even killed. Again, your thesis doesn't hold. Why don't you address the fact that Jesus was a real man, who lived, and performed miracles, died and rose again. Judge the man who founded the religion, and who is at it's center, not the strawman versions of it, of whom their are many. Not all who claim to follow him actually do. By the way, hinduism is not older, since from the Beginning Jesus was prophesied and even appeared throughout the entire old testament. It's always been about him.

message 5: by Steve (last edited Jul 21, 2012 09:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve I'm sorry that you find my argument lame. I actually find the argument from ethnocentrism to be the most powerful of all of the arguments against religion. You do not even address my main point. That is, most people adopt the religion of their families. To name some exceptions (such as Muslims who saw Jesus in a dream) does not invalidate the general principal. If a person is born in Saudi Arabia, what are the chances that he or she will be Muslim? Close to 100%, wouldn't you say? People mostly follow the religion of their birth. Can you agree to that mild, inoffensive statement?

Your arguments from personal enlightenment mean something to you, but I hope that you would acknowledge that they mean nothing to the skeptical outsider. It's not really an argument, at all. "I believe it because I feel it." Well, bully for you. My point is that other people believe in Muhammad or the Buddha with as just as much passionate conviction as you feel for Jesus, and the thing that most determines which faith you believe in is what you are born into. It's not the only thing, and yes, there are exceptions, but the point stands brilliantly. It's not lame, at all.

By the way, not everyone believes that Jesus was a real person, and certainly many do not believe that he rose from the dead, and performed miracles. Besides, the whole notion of miracles is ridiculous to someone like me. Magic tricks fool the gullible. It's a silly basis for a system of belief. Once again, the fact is that other religions have their own accounts of miracles. Why don’t you credit them in the same way that you credit those of your own sect?

Finally, Hinduism predates the old testament. Not that antiquity is any indication of validity. I brought it up only because the reviewer that I responded to implied that that was so. Hinduism is ancient nonsense, as far as this outsider is concerned. That's just it. You have no problem denying the feelings of devout Muslims or Hindus, who know with all their hearts that their religion is true, but your faith in Jesus cannot be questioned. Such a view is ethnocentrism, defined.

Remember, one man's sacred truth is another man's laughable dogma.

message 6: by Jeff (new) - added it

Jeff Youngblood The evidence that he was a real person is overwhelming. You wont find a single historical expert, secular or otherwise that would deny it. It's consensus is unquestioned because of the overwhelming evidence. Again, there are compelling reasons that he actually performed miracles, and many have been documented since then being performed by followers of Jesus.

Also, I never denied the feelings of anyone. And yes, the religion people are born into is the most major contributor of what they believe, something I also never denied. What I denied was your implication that it was invalid because of this reason. And yes, I am aware that my convictions mean nothing to the skeptical outsider, just as your convictions that God is nonsense mean very little to the person who believes. But I will tell you this, I would believe what I believe if I was the last person on earth who did. I was a skeptic like yourself. I even hated Christians, and there are many of them I still cannot stand, but I encountered JEsus. The last thing on earth I wanted to be was one of his followers. I am an exception to your bias.

And I don't base my belief in miracles as you define them; I don't follow Jesus because of what he does, but because of who he is.

And please explain to me how you are not being ethnocentric in your skepticism.

message 7: by Crs (new)

Crs I don't think that was ethnocentric, because I believe that is the case, then it must be truth. I do require any more evidence than that.

"Most people believe in math because they were raised by a family that believes in it. Does that make math not viable? "

Only if there is a process by which the math has been established as a fact and has the process has become recognized and accepted as such; whether and to what extent the equation and theoretic explanation can be considered truly inseparable from one another; and if the math and its conclusions are not influenced by history and consensus, rather than a strictly systematic methodology. Then, after extensive review and repeated scrunity would it be considered sound- like gravity, germ theory and evoultion. Simply saying the area of a circle is 2 X radius is not something that should be taken on faith just because my ansectors couldn't grasp Pi. even then, should the math be disproved, I'd change my opinion of it.

message 8: by Steve (last edited Jul 23, 2012 03:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Again, the notion of Jesus is far from a "consensus":

However, we stray from our topic. The historical existence or worthiness of Jesus as an object of admiration and worship is irrelevant to my original comment, and I regret being drawn into a distracting, infinitely complicated sidebar.

You are correct in saying that you never denied the feelings of anyone. I could have said that better. More to the point, do you accept position that every religion is equally true? If so, then I apologize, but that would seem to leave you in a very squishy position, theologically. If, on the other hand, you do not subscribe to the position that all religions are valid, then my point stands. Anyone who holds that his own religion is true, while other religions are false, labors under the just presumption that they have no thorough reasons for doing so. As a matter of practicality, people do not typically examine faiths other than their own in any depth, certainly not with an eye to trying to determine if they have accidentally fallen into the "wrong" religion.

There is an enormous emotional barrier to doing so, and the intellectual task seems, frankly, insurmountable. The sheer number of faiths to examine, the great complexity of each one, the lack of clear criteria on which one might measure one faith against another with any clarity, and the difficulty of being objective in your judgment each seems to make such a comparison impossible. Yet, logically, if you do not make such a diligent comparison, how could one ever feel confident that one has adopted the "right" religion? My sense is that most religious people simply ignore the question, which is understandable. It seems the only practical strategy. However, doing so ignores a fundamental weakness in the whole question of how one arrives at their particular faith. Again, for most people, it is simply a matter of historical, geographic, and familial accident.

It's not clear to me that you know what "ethnocentrism" is. I can only say that I was once a fervent Christian, so one could not level the charge of ethnocentrism at me regarding Christianity. I did not reject it because it was foreign and strange to me, which is the heart of the definition of ethnocentrism. Furthermore, since I criticize all religions equally, using the same criteria for the rejection of each of them, one could not say that I am biased in favor of one, over all of the others. Allowing for the intellectual admission that no human is ever truly "objective" about anything, I would point out that for me, this is an intellectual exercise. I do not have a faith to which I am emotionally loyal, and which I need to defend against all others. If one considers the entire universe of all religious faiths that have ever existed, one would see that most believers accept one faith, and reject all others, doing so without good justification, or even any honest consideration. An atheist differs from a believer only in that he rejects one more faith.

message 9: by Matt (new) - rated it 1 star

Matt Steve, et al., Thanks for your comments. In all, an interesting and respectful discussion.

Steve - I wanted to take a moment to respond to some of the points you raised in your original comment. First, my point about the irony of Harris calling Christian narcissists yet setting out to demolish their beliefs in only 91 had less to do with the number of adherents over the ages and the years of tradition than with the intellects represented by those numbers, such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Plantinga, Aquinas, N.T. Wright, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lewis, Chesterton, Francis Collins, etc. In reality, LETTER read like Harris was desperate to fulfill a two book publishing deal and had already spent his intellectual wad on his first. Harris might disagree with their beliefs, but 91 pages seems insufficient to even adequately introduce their ideas, much less demolish them.

Ethnocentrism isn't really a logical argument against the particulars of any faith as much as it is a rhetorical flourish to make an individual squeamish about his own beliefs, or at least how he came to believe. Sure it's probably easier to stumble into belief or to merely parrot belief to fit into your society if faith is the norm. It does nothing to explain the large number of converts to Christianity in China and Africa over the last decade (I'm basing that comment on an article in the Economist a few years back), much less the very first believers whose belief cost them dearly. Yes, I was born into a Christian family, but I remain a Christian because I have not been able to explain away Jesus and the unusual events surrounding his death.

I disagree with your and Harris's points about religious moderates because I think you both make a presumption that commitment is equivalent to fundamentalism and that only the most literal reading of scripture is acceptable in order to be truly committed. Karen Armstrong makes a good argument in The Battle For God that fundamentalism has traditionally been a distortion of more orthodox forms of a religion, not the other way around.

Obviously this kind of discussion could go on and on, but I wanted to let you know that I appreciated your thoughtful comments and felt like I owed them some sort of a response.


message 10: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara Not sure if I could have summed this up better than Steve. When you challenge unfounded beliefs that people really like despite having no evidence they get offended. They think this magic is different from the thousands if other religions.
By the way math isn't a belief system, it is tested and real requiring no faith.

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