Letter to a Christian Nation

by Sam Harris

Cover image

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright: September 30, 2006
Printing: October 2006
ISBN: 0-307-26577-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 91

Buy at Powell's Books

I normally don't buy or read this sort of book; I find politics depressing enough in regular news and editorials and don't need to look for rants and polemics to work myself up more. This one I picked up and read because it was lying around and was quite short. As political rants go, it's not bad and is reasonably well-defended (and mercifully to the point), but I think it suffers from the same serious audience problems as most books of this sort, on whatever side of the political spectrum.

Harris's target here is Christianity, specifically fundamentalist Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy, creationism, a young earth, Hell, and so forth. Against that fairly easy target, he levels the standard atheist arguments. If you've read the standard atheist debate before, it's unlikely that you'll get anything new from this book, although Harris is less strident than others and does a fairly good job of supporting his arguments. If you haven't read the standard atheist arguments against Christian fundamentalism, this may be a good introduction, although due to its political targetting it doesn't address more liberal religions (other than taking a few poorly-supported pot-shots at liberal Christianity in passing).

I have two serious problems with Harris's approach, one tactical and one strategic. The tactical problem is that in places he demonizes Islam as a rhetorical device to try to persuade fundamentalist Christians by showing them comparisons with the "terrorists" they're so afraid of. In so doing, he paints all of Islam with a rather broad (and undefended) brush and makes some serious errors of cause and effect. For example, he contends that Middle East terrorism is indeed because of religion and repeats the old propaganda about virgins in paradise, while completely ignoring class issues, imperialism, occupation and invasion, poverty, desperation, and political manipulation by Arab states for entirely secular reasons. The only evidence he offers in favor of his thesis is that the World Trade Center hijackers were middle-class and hadn't experienced political repression, a contention that he doesn't bother to defend and that also doesn't support generalization from al-Qaeda to all of Islam or even all of Islamic terrorism. He's way too eager to use a current political bogeyman to support a different argument and in so doing falls into the sloppy and simplistic reasoning that he's criticized through the rest of the book.

Along similar lines, when debunking the idea that religious belief reduces crime and creates a more law-abiding society, he oversimplifies the situation of Muslims in Europe. He throws out a statistic about the percentage of people in French prisons who are Muslim as a defense of the thesis that atheists in Europe are law-abiding while the religious cause much of the crime, while again completely ignoring class issues and the strong correlation (particularly in France) between being Muslim and being lower-class, unemployed, newly immigrated or disaffected for other reasons than religion. Both of these sections left a bad taste in my mouth. This attempted use of a popular scapegoat in this type of argument isn't going to be effective (Christians aren't going to see themselves in Muslims) and is divisive and reinforces some nasty stereotypes.

This is, thankfully, only a small portion of the book, and for the rest of his argument Harris does a good job pointing out the reasons why atheists find fundamentalist Christianity so absurd. The sections on Biblical inerrancy and on the Bible as a moral force are particularly good, although if one hasn't already realized that the Biblical text cannot support its supposed moral lessons without a great deal of strain and selective reading, I don't think Harris will convince. And that raises the strategic problem: Harris is preaching to the choir, will make those who already believe what he believes feel better about their beliefs, and is unlikely to make much impact with his supposed target audience. One reviewer, in a perhaps unintentional bit of perception, compared reading this book to rooting for a fighter, cheering each jab and punch. Cheering for your man in a boxing match has never convinced anyone to switch sides.

First, the basic argument over religion faces a communication gap before it ever reaches the level of argument and analysis. Fundamentalist Christians are, by and large, not going to read Harris's book in the first place. People don't tend to seek out polemics against their closely-held beliefs unless they're just looking for reasons to get angry or ways to undermine an argument. Harris says that he's writing this book to provide ammunition, but while that ammunition can turn away or argue down evangelicals who are trying to convert an atheist, I doubt it ever does much to convince them their belief is wrong. Harris's scriptural quotations will be written off as taken out of context or misinterpreted, his debunking of old anti-atheist propaganda will go the way of most debunking of urban legends, and the few places where he goes overboard and doesn't support his argument will be enough to write off the rest of the book for someone who doesn't want to listen to it. For example, while his section on abortion is generally well-constructed and makes some good points about relative priorities and the scientific absurdity of life beginning at conception, he goes overboard in singing the praises of stem cell research. It's a little early in the research process for stem cells to be praised as the cure-all medical technology of the future.

Second, I think Harris misses, or at least fails to address, the basic reasons why people believe. His target is religious faith, but he's attacking it in the way that one would attack a scientific theory. Religious faith is not, in my experience, a logical or scientific belief; it's a cultural belief and carries a different set of priorities. Harris is quite upset over polls that indicate the majority of Americans believe in creationism, but he's missing, I think, why polls show this: Most Americans do not care how the universe came into existence. Whether it was created 6,000 years ago or evolved over billions of years makes absolutely no difference in their day-to-day life. It's not a logical belief falling out of a weighing of the evidence because it's simply not important enough to warrant that much work. For someone who grew up in a Christian community, they hear about creationism regularly, all their friends believe in it (because their parents believed in it and so forth), and since it makes absolutely no difference to their day-to-day life, why rock the boat? This makes it particularly hard to argue places where such belief does impact policy, such as teaching Intelligent Design in school, but it's worth noting that the polls that Harris is so concerned with shift significantly when the question becomes more concrete and directly related to school cirriculum.

Christianity, and I daresay any other major religion, is a social and cultural phenomenon before it is a belief system. While there are exceptions, my feeling is that the belief system is a side effect for most people. They believe in creationism because they are Christian, not the other way around. An argument against the belief system, however well-constructed and however enjoyable to read by those who like a good rant or a good debunking, doesn't address the core of the issue. If Harris wishes to persuade, I think he has a much more difficult problem: either offer a cultural or social shift that provides people with the same community and mutual support as the Christian religion (a very difficult task that will almost certainly take many generations but which appears to be happening in at least parts of Europe), or find a way to work within the patterns of Christian belief to convince believers that Harris's scientific and political views are reachable without abandoning their religion. Since Harris apparently doesn't believe the latter is possible and doesn't mention the former at all, what he's left with is a well-written summary of an argument to which no one is truly listening.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-28

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