James's Reviews > Letter to a Christian Nation

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
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Nov 05, 2011

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This is the follow book to End of Faith, the New York Times Bestseller by New Atheist Eye Candy author, Samuel Harris. Harris wrote this book after having one too many angry letters from intolerant Christians. He penned this letter in the form of a letter to a Christian, in hopes of answering some of the questions posed to him. He intends this as a book for people of all faiths, but states that his purpose is to arm secularists against the Christain right.

Harris aims this book more particularly at Christian fundamentalists. He wants to wipe out Christianity in its most committed form, so what he says does not necessarily address moderates and liberals. Although even on this point he conflates a lot of different versions of conservative Christianity. He lambasts Catholic conservatives for their position on birth control,embryonic stem cell research and abortion; yet when he starts attacking a literal creationism, most of the same conservative Catholics would find themselves in substantial agreement. Personally I found some of what he says applies to me as someone who believes the Bible presents a fair and accurate picture of Jesus, his divinity and the salvation he brings. But when he started nitpicking on particular texts, or making his case for evolution, I didn't think I fit his picture of his chief opponent.

What this book does reasonable well is pose many of the questions and problems that atheists and secularists have with the Christian faith. Harris sees Christianity as problematic and challeges it from two different fronts. These are:

1. Problems with the Bible.Is it unique and superior to other scriptures? Is it the best source for morality? Why is prophecy so vague? what if anything does biblical prophecy tell us? If this is a book of divine origin, why is it so scientifically and mathematically impercise? What about factual errors?

2. The Clash Between Science and Faith. What accounts for the origin of a universe better: creation or evolution? If there is an intelligent designer, why does so much of what we find in nature seem so unintelligent? Why would a loving creator, create so many species of beetles and viruses? How is faith even tenable given what we know about the age of the world or evolutionary processes?

In addition to this, Harris handles rather deftly the assertions that Christians are more loving and forgiving than others, especially atheists. While Christians may lay blame the atheists for some of the greatest violence of the 20th Century (i.e. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao), the fact is the holocaust stands as the culmination of centuries of Christian anti-semitism and Pol Pot was just a crazy man. This is a fair point, and Christians do need to own where they have been complicit in injustice against their neighbors.Harris is pretty good at smelling Christian hypocrisy and pointing it out. Also, he articulates the view that science can form a basis for morality.

However this book is much better at raising questions than pronouncing the final word on the matter. Are there texts in the Bible that seem overly severe and unnecessarily violent for a God of love? Yes, and Christians were aware of these texts and have wrestled with them long before new atheists came along? In most cases there are good answers to textual questions. As someone with some training in Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, I don't find his questions particularly disturbing. They seem like good places to begin in engaging the Biblical text, not reasons to close the book.

In describing the clash between science and faith, there is little new information here. Dawkins articulation of Atheistic evolution is far more compelling than Harris's, and his critique on Intelligent design more incisive. For example, Harris makes no mention in this book about the 'God of the gaps,' a tenant of Intelligent Design which posits that gaps in our scientific knowledge represent units of irreducible complexity which prove the existence of a creator. This is a fatal flaw in their apologetic, because as scientific knowledge increases, the God of Intelligent Design gets smaller. Dawkins and Hitchens make much of this, because it is a good argument against the way Christians sometimes construe their belief in a creator while appropriating some scientific knowledge. Harris doesn't mention it. Perhaps his focus on fundamentalism dictates that he restrict his attack to vague creationism.

It is also curious to me that Harris writes this letter to a 'Christian Nation' and never really gets at the heart of the Christian gospel. He mentions that the people he is writing to think that Jesus died, rose again and will only save those who trust in him, but he doesn't get around to attacking that belief in his letter (at least directly). If you are bothered by Christian fundamentalism at least get around to addressing their central beliefs about God, the Trinity, Salvation. This is the central issue for Christians and Harris shouldn't think that because he points out that the book of Kings is too vague in its estimation of pi, that he is somehow proven that it is not a reliable witness to who Jesus was and is.

Ultimately Harris fails to make his case for why Christians should give up their faith and be atheist. What he succeeds at, is demolishing Christian trite answers to tough questions. The so called 'new atheists' are a rather minuscule portion of society, but their influence in academia and culture is huge. If they can get Christians to re-engage their own scriptures and give a serious look at science, this is a good thing.

I would also say, this is well written and an engaging read. Totally and utterly wrongheaded, but you can't win them all Mr. Harris.
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