July 7, 2012
Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris
Sam Harris is not one to shy away from a fight. In "Letter to a Christian Nation", Harris addresses the substanial proportion of the American population who believe that their version of Christianity is the sole path to eternal bliss, and those who seek meaning elsewhere will spend eternity in Hell. His goal is simple: to illustrate why religious dogma is ridiculous, and in this none-too-challenging task, he succeeds. By arguing in the form of a letter, Harris recognizes that such an argument need not even be book-length. Harris does not address most of his more controversial views on moderate or liberal theology, but some of his arguments are still worth examining furthur.
Harris does mention his distaste for religious tolerance, which liberal society takes too far. But he also argues that Islamic dogma is particularly dangerous. This argument falls flat. Claims that all religions are equally prone to extremism or moderation are result of wishful thinking induced by attempts to be overly tolerant, so it is not immediately obvious that Harris is not onto something. However, we see in the history of Christianity that the interpretation of the Bible has evolved through the centuries, and interpretation of the Koran has done the same. In fact, one could argue that Christianity and Islam owe their longevity and popularity to the flexibility of interpretation afforded by their confusing and self-contradictory tomes. It seems that currently there is more violent Islamic extremism than similar Christian extremism, but the cause of this is likely not that the Koran must be interpreted in more extreme ways, but rather that political and socioeconomic forces are causing such interpretations. This possibility Harris explicitly rejects, and here he errs, unfortunately providing much ammunition for the critics of what he gets right.
A question that Harris does not ask is how we might reduce religious dogma's role in society. Or perhaps he has asked this question, and his answer is this letter. But this type of polemic will not change the minds of people who have been indoctrinated into religious traditions. Religious dogmatists take pride in spiting reason. In the same way that atheists cannot be convinced of God's existence by faith alone, dogmatists cannot be convinced of anything by reason alone. Attacking the dogma to which they subscribe is easy but ineffectual. What must be changed is their attitude towards reason, and this can only be changed internally, though we can encourage it by providing better education and by exposing them to diverse ideas and experiences. While Harris sparks a national conversation we need to have, his explanation of why people cling to religious dogma lacks complexity, and his approach to freeing them of it lacks empathy. In a country in which two thirds of the population are creationists, something must be done. But the solution, unfortunately, is not as simple as rehashing the same line of reasoning yet again, true though it may be.