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.


  1. A response from a Christian: I completely agree some points made. I feel a great deal of frustration with the disregard for science, evolution in particular, that come from certain Christian camps. It should be noted that many respected Christian scholars see no contradiction between the claims of the bible and those of evolution. Many Christian friends of mine also have no problem with evolution, as do many well known Christian scientists, Francis Collins being the most famous.

    A few more comments:

    1) I'm interpreting your use of the word dogmatic as representing a view that I've encountered elsewhere (let me know If I'm wrong). The view seems to be: Christians just get their ethics and morals from a book. They are instructed how to behave, so they never stop to think about it. Atheists, on the other hand, have to figure out what they believe for themselves, so they take more responsibility for their actions and think harder about their moral systems. I disagree completely. Firstly, being a Christian does not make decisions easy. I do think that it provides you with a unique starting place, and certain resources to live life, but the history of Christianity is full of theologians and ordinary Christians wrestling with difficult questions and engaging in complex and passionate debates. Some of the hardest, most fascinating, and most practical questions I encounter come from my faith.

    It is true that Christian ethics are informed by their faith, and by the culture and community they grow up in, and further that most Christians haven't formed their own theologies and world views by carefully considering lists of pressing ethical questions and reading historic philosophers and theologians. However, I fail to see how this separates them from atheists. I know plenty of atheists and few of them (though certainly not none) read Kant and Hegel before forming their own ethical conclusions. Further, I've never met an atheist whose views and approach to life weren't shaped by their childhood and community in much the same way as a Christian.

    2) I appreciate your mention of changing Christian interpretation of the bible, and I agree that it is part of what has allowed Christianity to stay relevant over the centuries. After all, any holy text that couldn't be brought to bear on the pressing questions of whatever situation it found itself in would quickly lose its value.

    3) You claim that Christianity is responsible for historic violence. While I certainly don't wish to absolve Christianity of blame for the violence that has been committed in its name, I think that it is often more difficult than than it seems to tease out religiously motivated violence from economically and politically motivated violence. Further, it certainly is not the case that religious persons are the only ones responsible for violence. For much of history this was largely true for the simple reason that most of the world was religious, but the modern examples provided by North Korea, China, etc. must serve to disabuse us of the notion that religion is necessarily correlated with violence. I must admit that I find Harris's claim that such dictatorships should be identified with religion because they involve absolutes to be a sad attempt to shore up a flimsy argument. It is easy to say that "religion poisons everything," to quote Christopher Hitchens, if one is allowed to identify everything poisonous as religion.

    4) I appreciate your concluding sentiment. It seems to me that far too much dialogue between Christians and atheists turns out to be merely preaching to the choir (if I may use the phrase) and I am hopeful that that can change.

    1. (Throughout these thoughts I refer to Christians specifically rather than religious adherents of all faiths only because I'm thinking about these matters in the context of this book.)

      At the beginning of 'Letter to a Christian Nation', Harris states that the Christians he aims to address in the letter are those who believe that the Bible in the infallible Word of God. This obviously does not include all Christians, and the argument might be made that perhaps it addresses a very small percentage of Christians indeed. But when 46% of Americans believe that God created humans in our present form, I think the argument that Harris' intended audience is too small doesn't hold water.

      In particular, I don't think his intended audience includes the likes of Francis Collins, though I'm sure he would (as would I) object to things like Collins' theistic evolution on other grounds. But when you say that many Christian scholars see no contradiction between the claims of the Bible and those of evolution, I have to ask... do you mean the literal claims of the Bible? Because I would expect it to be quite a stretch to match a literal interpretation of the Bible to evolution, and I would be interested in seeing such an argument.

      Some more thoughts:

      1) I agree that Christians don't get their ethics solely from the Bible. I would posit a guess, though of course I could be wrong, that being a Christian makes moral decisions more difficult, as one would have to consider all that a non-believer would, in addition to religious ideas. The question should be whether this extra source is justified, particularly in questions of morals that extend to the public sphere.
      You're right, of course, that we are all influenced heavily by our upbringing. While we may examine some of our assumptions later in life, no one successfully reexamines all of them, and many people of all faiths and of no faith do not seem to significantly reexamine many of them at all. It seems to me that many Christians (though by no means all) consider even the reexamination of certain assumptions with respect to their religion as out-of-bounds. This is not specific to religion of course, it is the bread and butter of dogma of all stripes, and as such atheists are certainly susceptible to it.

      3) I think you're right about the complex causes of historic violence. But I would still argue that dogmatism is often a primary cause. I don't think Harris was trying to say that those dictatorships are essentially religious. I think his point was that both are examples of dogmatism. His argument is really against dogmatism, he simply sees religion as the most egregious and defended example.

      4) Agreed. If I might quote Thomas Paine: "I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it." Paine is talking about free speech, but the danger he recognizes is a danger even if we all think what we like, but exchange ideas only with those who think what we like. Exchanging ideas does nothing if the ideas exchanged are identical.