Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

Of the books by atheists that I've read so far, I'm probably most likely to recommend this one to believers. Rather than preaching to a choir of atheists, Sam Harris actually considers the Christian audience and what is most likely to reach them and resonate with them. The book is fairly brief, and he doesn't unnecessarily delve into redundant examples, which is my biggest critique of Richard Dawkins.

Throughout the book, Sam Harris speaks mainly to religious fundamentalists, those who denounce evolution and who interpret the Bible literally. He identifies problems with the beliefs of religious moderates and religious liberals right off the bat, because, as he puts it, "Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't." From this point on, he assumes his reader is a fundamentalist. At first I thought this was not the best choice, as so many Americans really are religious moderates-but now I think it was a shrewd decision. As a non-fundamentalist, I always felt like I was exempt from most of the criticism against those who took the Bible literally. The religious moderate reading this book, however, has not been given an out. He or she, as well as the fundamentalist, will need to come to terms with many arguments throughout the book, as well as the fact that the writer finds the moderate perhaps even more incorrect than the fundamentalist. 

Harris tackles numerous arguments against the existence of a divine, good-hearted God, from the evils of the Old Testament, to the origin of morality, to the "clash" between science and religion and the bloody conflicts religion has caused on Earth. Harris focuses primarily on the issues that affect Christians on a day to day basis, touching only briefly on evolution and science which, I think, he knows many Christians can easily gloss over. He is brief and factual, explaining scientific theory in terms the reader will understand, and remembering that his reader probably doesn't care for a scientific lecture.

He also questions the existence of many worldwide religions, asking the Christian, "You know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves?" We must ask ourselves, how, then, is Christianity different?

My only major critique of the book is the anti-Muslim section at the end. Harris maintains that the Islam is growing quickly and dangerously, and that most Muslims demand tolerance for extreme beliefs and actions. Harris goes so far as to say that "most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith."  In my opinion, this section takes a rational, well written text to an extreme, alarmist position. That is what Harris intends; he wants to scare the reader into acting and realizing the negative aspects of religion. But by targeting Muslims, he gives the extreme fundamentalist Christian reader an out.  Many Christians are already so anti-Islam that they may be encouraged to ignore the rest of Harris' very good, rational points, in favor of an "It's us against the Muslims" takeaway. Irrational? Yes, but I don't think it's improbable. He does end with the thought provoking question, "How can we ever hope to reason with the Muslim world if we are not reasonable ourselves?" but I still think it's possible that many may choose to miss the point.

Overall though, I recommend this text to atheist and Christian readers alike. It's a quick, easy read that, though it may not change minds right off the bat, will certainly give readers something accessible to think about and debate.

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