Book Review – Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

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lettertoachristiannationYou know how much I love a good chat about religion, right?

Well, this book really hit the sweet spot for me. Although I’ve heard quite a bit about Sam Harris, I haven’t actually read many of his publications. But now I’m hooked.

This is a small book, written in the style of a letter from Harris to a Christian reader, which makes for an engaging style.

The thing I enjoyed most about Harris’ approach to this was his no-nonsense, reality-based challenge to all things religious. By this I mean that he didn’t sugar-coat his points – there was no accommodationist nonsense; no sparing the feelings of those who may be challenged by the discussion. It very much reads as if Harris has just come down from Mars, surveyed the landscape, and given a critique of human beings and their approach to life.

From the outset, he addresses the morality question, and here Christianity comes in for some ridicule on the basis of comparison to other religions. He uses as an example the Indian religion of Jainism, whose central message is “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being”. Harris says:

Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible…..How then can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?.

He also points out the circular reasoning employed by the religious, who use their own moral intuitions to ‘authenticate the wisdom of the Bible”, while then going on to claim that human beings “cannot possibly rely upon our own moral intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend on the prescriptions of the Bible“.

From morality in general, Harris then moves into specific examples – such as the Catholic stance on abortion and stem cell research. Harris’ approach to this and other issues is perhaps best illustrated by a selection of quotes, which nicely sum up his approach and position.

On abortion:

Of course, the Church’s position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50% of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a woman ever realising she was pregnant…There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgement: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.

On being an atheist:

In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No on ever needs to identify himself as  a ‘non-astrologer’, or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

On the Church’s project to review doctrine regarding the fate of un-baptised babies in limbo:

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this? Just imagine what these deliberations must be like. Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptised children after death? How can any educated person thing this anything but a hilarious, terrifying and unconscionable waste of time? When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered and elite army of child-molesters, the whole enterprise beings to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

On faith itself:

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possible be certain about.

And the arrogance implicit in that faith:

One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for the humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for the intellectual arrogance. There is in fact no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance that that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after my death..everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell.

On the stark contradictions presented by religious belief:

The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise.

On the authors of the Bible:

…where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food.

And finally, his exasperated closing remarks to the fictitious pen-pal:

Non-believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, but the suffering your create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement – and, perhaps, of a little hope.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for an honest, clear and easy to understand exposition of the major arguments against personal and institutional religion.

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