Book Reviews

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), 96pp.Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), 96pp.

           If you can't read Sam Harris's award-winning book The End of Faith, this slender volume is a worthy substitute; even though it adds nothing new to his previous book, it now sits at #6 on the NY Times best seller list. His polemical rhetoric makes for a good read, plus he makes some important points that Christians need to hear. Unfortunately, while many have praised Harris for his "fearless honesty," his strident tone, his self-congratulatory overstatements ("atheism is simply an admission of the obvious"), his misrepresentations of positions that he wants to refute, and gross generalizations will accomplish the exact opposite of his goals. I guess that preaching to the choir is hard to resist, especially when they paid handsomely to hear your first song.

           In this sequel to his longer book, Harris makes the same four points. First, he advances an epistemological claim to expose religion, any and all religion, as a "flagrant irrationality" and "ludicrous obscenity." According to Harris, in practice religion lacks any claim to intellectual credibility, but that really does not matter because he also argues that religion lacks such evidentiary support in principle. Support for religion, he believes, is, literally, inconceivable. Second, Harris makes the tried and true moral criticism that religion has fostered barbarism and cruelty, although he does not explain how this calculus disproves religion, or why similar atrocities propagated by the atheism of Stalin and Mao do not disprove that worldview, or how a person could empirically prove whether atheism or religion has been more misanthropic. Third, and this is the most important point of his book, Harris is outraged at how religion has poisoned public discourse and wielded an undue influence in politics, especially in right wing conservative Christianity and Islam. Finally, he accuses those who disagree with him of intellectual dishonesty. Leaving aside the ad hominem nature of his fourth argument, it's a shame that matters like slavery, stem cell research, abortion, or the problem of evil receive such smug treatment. He intends to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms," but instead of advancing a more civil discourse about important matters of faith and politics, he plays right into the hands of his detractors. In short, he has probably made matters worse, not better.