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.
19 thoughts on “Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris”
I suggest that that book was not written for a Christian audience. I also suspect that few Christians have read it. I think it was written for a secular audience … to sell books and establish credibility in a certain intellectual realm. I have written a number of screeds with intemperate language on this topic. The emotion associated with those were to take a stand and to fight back against wrongs felt done (in my case mostly to others), they were not written with the thought of converting or convincing people away from their beliefs. Basically, we all preach to our (separate) choirs.
I suggest that books written to convince both believers and unbelievers otherwise are foolish. Most of these books are written to establish street cred in their separate audiences, much as apologists get credit in Christian communities for carrying the fight (and the Good News!) to the doomed atheists. Occasionally, someone in the wrong community gets hold of a book written for the other and a conversion or two happens, but no solely because of the book(s), usually because people start thinking for themselves.
Well even if the book was written for a christian audience
The majority of readers will end up being the secular audience
Very thoughtful and well written review. I, like you, read the book shortly after my deconversion; it was the first time I’d read anything like it, so I ate it up. But I was looking for something like that. Had it been three years earlier, I wouldn’t have finished the first chapter. It won’t ever convince a believer who isn’t already wanting to be convinced… Your second to last paragraph is terrific. It’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do with my family.
Muhammad didn’t see the internet either. As ambiguous scripture can be found to hint at many things if you look hard enough, somehow they missed the avenue that will usher in their collapse.
I have not read the book. But your description fit most of what I have read from Sam Harris.
I do like your last two paragraphs. They seem about right to me.
“…we should be building better relationships and greater understanding…”
I agree. Thank you for these words, CA. It is sentences like this that make me proud to follow your blog.
In the interest of transparency:
Days ago, CA, you came up in a conversation I was having with a fellow blogger. To quote the relevant words:
“The reason I told you that I am not interested in ‘bringing her back into the fold’ is: She has never left the fold.
“Does the CA want to ‘test everything’? (i.e., Test the validity of all beliefs?) I would say: Yes. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Does the CA seek truth wherever truth might be found? I would say: Yes. (Matthew 7:7)
Does the CA want people to be treated with love, regardless of their gender, sexuality, beliefs, etc.? I would say: Yes. (1 John 4:8, Matthew 9:11)
Does the CA want to surround herself with all that is deserving of her time and energy? I would say: Yes. (Philippians 4:8)
Does the CA want to make the most of her talents and passions? I would say: Yes. (Genesis 2:15, 1 Corinthians 12:7)
“My point being: The Closet Atheist strikes me as quite Christian.”
Good post! I would like to comment on for your last but one paragraph.
—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.—
With #preconceived notions#.you hit the nail on the head. They are indeed the result of indoctrination. When I was 8, 10 years young, with Sunday School and the undeniably attractive text and illustrations of my Biblical Tales for Children, why should I doubt my parents’ (indirect) teachings?
In my case, those concepts did not disappear because of examples of ethical behaviors without god. When I was 15, I started to question Christian beliefs, probably after becoming aware of the absurdity of prayers. Further insatisfactorily anwered questions on the creation, sin, immaculate birth, resurrection, an afterlife, heaven, hell did the rest.
I also agree with Steve Ruis that Harris’ and Dawkins’ books do not seem to have been written for a Christian audience, Deconversion comes from within a person. As long as one does not admit the inevitable circular reasoning of belief systems, one will be happy belonging to them, and be proud on it. And from both their and our point of view, why would they not? The trouble begins when they want everybody to act like them.
…to act and think like them… Sorry.
All I can add to this is: Live your own life. believe what you believe, and maybe that stellar example will cause a few people of Other Persuasions to take another look at themselves.
There is also Aesop’s fable, about and old man and the wind.
which seems to cover it nicely.
A similarity comes to mind when trying to ‘convince’ someone that their beliefs are wrong. Conservatives vs progressives these days. There have been studies showing that the harder you argue and push your beliefs the other side will cling desperately and stronger to their side of the story to the point of kicking a customer out of her restaurant simply because she doesn’t believe what she believes. It doesn’t matter how many facts and deep philosophical letters you write or if you prove beyond a shadow of doubt the truth of your beliefs, the other side will fight you tooth and nail to the bitter end. I think it’s called confirmation bias or cognitive bias. Soooooo…ya…Sam Harris can write a million books, but they’re probably only being read by those who agree with him.
The main thing like the post talks about, is the manner of approach, it normal that most people (if not everyone) take a defensive stance when the disagreeing party approach the issue confrontation-ally
None of your arguments or facts or evidence will matter if you have first made the other party shut their ears
Speaking as a spiritual atheist who believes, due to my experience and reasoning power, in reincarnation and unending life (as far as we on earth can understand it), it is with great pleasure I read your last few paragraphs. I remember when I first read a post of yours, and was alarmed by its anti-theist themes. But I put it down, as I do most anti-theistic writing, to the pain of having been a theist, and the rage for what theism did to you. Let’s call that atheistic immaturity.
Today, I see your atheistic maturity. Live and let live. Be a role-model. Speak with respect. Accept that everyone has their own ideas of how the world works, though to say “their own” ideas is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think anyone is born with the idea of a god in them, but that it must be taught by someone outside of them.
Truly, CA, I am very proud of you.
But your post is more about how we, as atheists, interact with those who still believe in deities, in super-beings who have to be in control of the world, for our sakes, if not for their own sakes. When talking to theists, I do not even tell anymore them how my transition came about, though I do discuss that with audiences I see as mainly atheist, or at least humans with open minds. Rather, I try, if allowed, to discuss our similarities, and there are lots of those. My aim is not to anger, or even to teach, but to find each other’s humanity, our spirituality, if you and your readers will allow me that word. After all, I am a spiritual atheist.
Spirituality can be many things. Any team or group can have team spirit, or group spirit. I just widen the playing field a bit. At first I talk human spirit, that which combines one human to every other human, and all humans to each individual human. I do not know if other atheists experience this spirit, but I presume they do, because I do. I am just an average human being, so it makes sense other human beings are like me at least in having this connection. I could be wrong.
Once I get an audience to more or less accept this communal feeling, then I advance it even further. I used to take baby steps, from humans, to primates, to other animals, to insects and spiders, those beings that could move on their own power. Then I would add in plants, because plants are living things too. Finally I would jump to one-celled plant/animal beings like plankton. If I could get an audience there, it was a short step to all one-celled lifeforms, especially bacteria. Viruses were always problematic, but that is unimportant.
The important thing is to at least grant spirit to all living beings. We are all alive, why should we not be connected? Life is special, and probably rare, if you try to envision the entirety of the cosmos. Sure, we probably have about 100 septillion living beings on earth at any given time, but that number is miniscule in comparison to the size of the known universe, let alone the as-yet unknown cosmos.
But yet, whoever you are willing to grant spirit to, even if just to yourself, you have spirit. You are a spiritual being. But there is no need for deities or super-beings in this model of the cosmos. The only necessity is life. And we know we are alive…
As for anti-theists, they will probably with us as long as there are religions. I just wish they could all mature. Life does not need more things to divide people one from the other. We need less. Not conformity, but strength in being your own person. Power in being your own person. And responsibility in being who you are.
I personally really liked the book. I own the paperback and the audio version read by Sam Harris. I did not walk away with the same feelings you had and maybe thats because I heard Sam read it. I think there are some things that need to be put in perspective.
Sam says this book was written as a response letter to all the email and letters he was receiving. In that context I think the use of “You believe that…” is appropriate.
I also feel there needs to be some perspective on the role Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris play in moving atheism forward. Almost everything in our lives is open to discussion and criticism but religion was always the exception to that rule. The aggressive and sometime insulting approach these men took served to push our way into a conversation Atheist have always been excluded from taking part. In my opinion it worked.
Sometime you have to protest loudly to be heard. Especially when you are the unheard minority opposition. Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and many more opened the doors for this conversation to be had. They helped bring so many people out the atheist closet by making it ok to say….”i’m atheist and I there are many more like me in the word. My opinion matters just as much as yours.
I think you will find many Sam Harris’s new books are much more mild. That goes for Dawkins as well.
I personal liked his book. It came across to me as a conversation between two people. I don’t go around telling people they are wrong out of the blue. I respectfully give my point of view and listen to theirs. I don’t aim to offend but it never fails that when I tell someone religious I don’t believe what they do….they get offended and begin to insult me.
Anyway, Just my 2 cents.
While they could be lying, Dawkins and Harris talk frequently about those who contact them who have said their minds have been changed by their writing, by the questions they ask etc. Harris himself admits that maybe he’s not going about his mission the best way possible, but he notes that he does seem to be making a difference. Personally I think there is room for people like Harris and Dawkins in the discussion, because some people respond well to it. In fact I know somebody who said that it is evangelicals in their life who have sugarcoated things and they like the more direct approach. I think people respond to different styles of argumentation differently. While I tend to lean in your direction, I think the writings of people like Harris and Dawkins can have profound impacts on young adults between 16-20 who are asking a lot of similar questions and don’t have anywhere to turn for factual answers. They are starting to see the paradoxes and hypocrisy of Christians in their lives and their nation and need a more bold personality to inspire some boldness of their own.
Keep in mind that we’ve all been indoctrinated into a kind of world where beliefs are treated as sacred and questioning beliefs is considered rude at best, and taboo at worst. But why. Had Sam Harris been writing a book, “Letter to a Capitalist Nation” we might disagree with him, but many would hardly feel he was being offensive. There should be no reason why religious beliefs should be put in a separate category as beliefs about the best economic system, or the best political system, or any other idea for that matter.
This was my primary issue with the book as well. I bought the book (1) because I was interested and (2) I was hoping to have my religious family read it if I felt it would be appropriate. Unfortunately, I don’t think they would take too it very kindly.
I’m new to this blog, so you may have already written about it but have you read “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian? It is very different from other atheists books in that it tries to teach atheists how to have conversations with the religious people in their lives in a civil and constructive manor. Very interesting approach
I find this review intriguing because Sam Harris is currently the only one of the four so-called ‘Horsemen of New Atheism’ who remains unread by me. Part of the reason for that is because what little exposure I have had to him (from excerpts and occasionally perusing his titles at the bookstore) suggests a smug, boring hypocrite. Even as an atheist, I continue to resent people who criticize Catholicism, the religion of my upbringing and to which I maintain a strong philosophical attachment, without any apparent deep knowledge of the subject. I find this particularly prevalent in Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who both describe themselves as ‘Protestant atheists’ and seem content to bash Catholicism mainly on the basis of stereotypes and cliches, a longstanding Protestant habit. Which of course is a great way to preach to the choir, not such a good way to persuade anyone in the opposing camp to change their mind. The saddest part is that it strikes me as a manifestation of the same over-ideologization that atheists criticize (quite rightly) in religion.
“that childbirth pains and complications prove that our bodies couldn’t have been intelligently designed.”
This is a poor argument. Pain specifically is crucial to alerting you something is wrong with your body, birth pains helps women know when the baby is to be born and childbirth balances directly conflicting needs. Tightness of the vagina aids sexual pleasure crucial for impregnation and yet the vagina must be as wide as possible to allow babies be born. The argument here makes about as much sense as saying car malfunctions and breakdowns means they aren’t intelligently designed.
Wow, this is a pretty good article. Usually guys like Harris stress discussion with goodwill, but when it comes to the topic of religion, all pretenses of goodwill simply become an inconvenience — I’m happy to see goodwill lives on in the atheist community, somewhere. I do disagree with your atheism of course, Christianity does make people happier, more generous, etc. One of the most annoying things about Harris is how he manages to cloak his severe misunderstanding of biblical precepts with such a calm voice. Of course, he gets caught eventually on these things.