Friday, April 25, 2008

Letter to a Christian Nation

This was my first Sam Harris book. I'd read essays by him in Free Inquiry magazine, but this was my first extended exposure to his writings. And I'm impressed. If you don't know where to start in the genre of atheist books by the vaunted triumvirate of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation is a great start. It's a quick read, conversational in tone and armed with great arguments to start discussions with your Christian friends. It's not riddled with the overly scientific tone of Richard Dawkins' work, The God Delusion, nor with the sometimes elitist tone of most of Christopher Hitchens' works.

As the title would indicate, the book is written in the form of an imaginary letter to a Christian. Sam Harris is specifically addressing the subset of Christians who "believes ... that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death ...". Most polls indicate that's over half of America. So, it's not a trivial group.

This is one of my favorite passages from the book:

I am confident that I can give you a very clear sense of what it feels like to be an atheist. Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you now have for being a Christian. And yet, you know exactly what it is like not to find these reasons compelling. On virtually every page, the Qur'an declares that it is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe. Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible's account of itself. There is a vast literature describing the life of Muhammad that, from the Muslim point of view, proves his unique status as the Prophet of God. While Muhammad did not claim to be divine, he claimed to offer the most perfect revelation of God's will. He also assured his followers that Jesus was not divine (Qur'an 5:71-75; 19:30-38) and that anyone who believed otherwise would spend eternity in hell. Muslims are convinced that Muhammad's pronouncements on these subjects, as on all others, are infallible.

Why don't you find these claims convincing? Why don't you lose any sleep over whether or not you should convert to Islam? Please take a moment to reflect on this. You know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to Islam. Isn't it obvious that Muslims are not being honest in their evaluation of the evidence? Isn't it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe has not read the book very critically? Isn't it obvious that Muslims have developed a mode of discourse that seeks to preserve dogma, generation after generation, rather than question it? Yes, these things are obvious. Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way every Muslim views Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.

It reminds me of the famous quote:

"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." -- Stephen F. Roberts

Obviously, I have some problems with Christianity (or any religion) and the point of Harris' passage and Roberts' quote is one of the main reasons why. It's the belief by religious people that their God is the "one true God". It's belief borne not of reason, philosophical insight, or even extensive study of world religions. It's belief borne largely of locale and of family. People are Catholics because their parents were. Same with Jews or Muslims. You will be saved only because you were born in Iowa instead of Syria. I have a problem with that. But I don't have a problem with Sam Harris's book. Check it out.


wunelle said...

I love Sam Harris.

I especially love the foaming-at-the-mouth denunciations of him: he quietly shreds the literal truth of these silly mythological constructs with a logic that is clear to anyone, whereas they must invoke some spiritual mumbo-jumbo to make their case.

I don't know how anyone comes out of an honest, level comparative religion class with their faith intact. As in all things, education--that is, exposure to the world--just destroys one's ability to believe these things literally.

This is why fundamentalist religions can keep hold only by keeping people uneducated, and why they are often in the absurd position of opposing education.

Laura said...

Here's the problem with that argument though. He forgets that he's addressing true believers. True believers don't need facts. They'd just come back and argue that they have faith in the truth of the Bible (or Qur'an). His argument falls apart with people who place faith on a higher level than reason or fact.

I agree with the sentiment though.

wunelle said...

Unfortunately, I think you're exactly right.

I think this is why I'm so flummoxed by the disconnect between the rationality used and accepted in everyday life--in medicine and law and auto repair and electronics engineering, etc., etc.--and the militant unwillingness to allow this rationality into this one topic. And the result is this weird, anti-rational line of thinking where rationality must be eschewed and even ridiculed ("Doubting Thomas," blahblahblah).

dbackdad said...

"True believers don't need facts." -- Ah, the beauty of faith. It doesn't need proof. I get that. I can probably tolerate those type of people more because at least they are consistent. But there are a lot of people that try to prove God and talk about things like "irreducible complexity" and ride the line between science and faith. They are trying to use logic to justify something that is supremely illogical. You can't have it both ways. Intelligent design is ridiculous. People want it to be taught as science yet not be subject to the rigorous peer review of science.

CyberKitten said...

You really should check out his 'The End of Faith'. I really enjoyed it. 'Letter' is still on my Amazon Wish list so I guess I'll get around to it one day [laughs]

shrimplate said...

I've been through the recent wonderful batsh of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens, but with me thet're just preaching to a choir member.


I have no problem with subjecting religion to scientific enquiry. The question "why do these people believe?" fascinates me.

People, and other mammals like your pets for example, all occasionally yawn. I've read that this evolved as a signal we send to our cohorts to tell them that we're tired, and that others should maintain vigilance.

Religion also probably evolved to serve a basic survival mechanism which is now made absurd by modernity. Unfortunately, like yawning, religion is apparently contagious.

shrimplate said...


wunelle said...

Yeah, "The End of Faith" is also brilliant. It is the reactions to this book that caused the writing of "Letter."

I occasionally find myself entertaining Shrimplate's line of thinking--a kind of anthropologist's detached view of the phenomenon of religion--but it only lasts until I see another example of the damage religion does.

Then the despair returns and I wish there was a way to preempt it and try to abate the mass suffering it causes.

dbackdad said...

"End of Faith" is definitely on my list. Next I'm reading "The Portable Atheist", compiled by Hitchens, as it will be a good introduction to those authors I have not read yet, including Hitchens. Russell, Sagan, Shermer, Dennett, Grayling, etc. all have stuff in it.