Atheists are often represented by those of us who are famous for their unbelief, namely Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. When atheists began to speak up against religion and this was classified and demonized as “new atheism”, these four men emerged at the forefront of the movement. For years now, it has been common for atheists to be generalized as belonging to the same ilk as these four men. As someone young in her atheistic studies, I’ve looked up to them for being so steadfast in their unbelief, so sure, and so well-versed. At this point, though, I’ve read books by three of the four of them, and I don’t know that they’re all they’ve been built up to be.
In Letter to a Christian Nation, I found Harris’s tone to be similar to Dawkins’ in The God Delusion. It was straightforward, and the men’s disdain for religious beliefs was not sugarcoated. Obviously, given the new movement of atheists fighting back and using their voices, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many aspects of technology, science, and culture, we live in the future, except for the religious ideas that are keeping us much further back than we could be. That being said, I agree with the overall points and arguments, or at least conclusions, that Harris makes in this letter. But the problem wasn’t what he said, it was how he said it.
Like The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation is addressed primarily to the Christian believer. Harris’s goal is to show Christians how harmful and incorrect their beliefs are; he has “set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” When reading and reviewing the book, I judged it by the standard of whether it achieved this goal. Can Letter to a Christian Nation change a Christian’s mind?
Letter to a Christian Nation is broken up into the following sections:
Wisdom in the Bible
Doing Good for God
Are Atheists Evil?
Who Puts the Good in the “Good Book”?
The Goodness of God
The Power of Prophecy
The Clash of Science and Religion
The Fact of Life
Religion, Violence, and the Future of Civilization
These were all covered within the 87-page book, but 87 pages doesn’t give you a lot of room to cover each topic. The arguments are those that are most common among atheists: the bible doesn’t condemn slavery, the most secular countries are usually the healthiest and happiest, a loving God wouldn’t allow for children to get kidnapped, etc. In addition to these pejorative and ubiquitous arguments against religion, Harris adds a few of his own, including the fact that the bible didn’t prophesy the existence of the Internet as well as the fact that childbirth pains and complications prove that our bodies couldn’t have been intelligently designed.
Overall, I didn’t think that Letter to a Christian Nation did us atheists any favors. The language itself was accusatory, with most sections targeted to the religious audience beginning with “You believe that…” before framing their beliefs in a way that makes the believer sound like an ignorant lunatic. And anyone whose beliefs have been insulted in this way isn’t more likely to abandon their beliefs; they are likely to become offended and infuriated. They would want to hold their illogical beliefs more tightly than ever before and have a newfound contempt for those who try to challenge them. Chances are, if I were to try to have a civil debate with a Christian whose only experience with atheists was when they read Letter to a Christian Nation, they wouldn’t be willing to listen to what I had to say. Despite what Harris says, this book is definitely written for atheists to read and feel morally and intellectually superior.
Ironically, what I’m about to say sounds like it came from a lesson on evangelism or apologetics. I know that logical arguments are important and that they cause many people to deconvert. But it’s not productive to bash someone’s beliefs so hard that rather than abandon their beliefs, the person sees you as hateful and vows to never question anything again. Instead, ask people why they believe what they do. If they claim to know something, ask how they know it. Even these questions can plant a seed of doubt, and the other person will, or won’t, come to a conclusion on their own. Especially apostates should know that you can’t just force someone to believe what you do.
To me, the most persuasive thing you can do is just be a good person and a good example. Show them that you can live an ethical life without god, and that in itself will shatter many people’s preconceived notions that the god of the bible is the backbone of morality. Present scientific facts and ideas in a way that is educational and not for the sake of proving someone wrong. If you are an atheist who was once religious, tell your story in a way that the listener can possibly see how you got out of it and how it’s influenced you.
Harris was adamant that in order for society to progress, religion needs to be abolished completely. Because of this, he is a proponent of calling out the religious on their BS, even if it is offensive. The problem is that, as I said, this won’t get the secular results that he’s looking for. Getting rid of religion completely is grossly unrealistic to begin with, and until then the solution is not to point fingers at the religious and tell them that they’re the reason the world went bad. Instead, we should be building better relationships and greater understanding in the hopes that eventually, this care for humankind will be a foremost priority with or without a god.