Sam Harris recently published a very tiny (96 pages) book entitled Letter to a Christian Nation. In this letter, Harris takes some of the more general criticisms of religious faith found in his first book (The End of Faith) and applies them to so-called fundamentalist Christians.
Unfortunately, Harris never deals with any of the evidence for Christianity provided by the very type of people he is criticizing. Indeed, Harris shows himself to be quite ignorant of such evidence when he states, “Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.” (6) Really? That seems surprising, given the fact that Christians believe that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead, and Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammed received a special revelation from God. How could both groups possibly have the same reasons for believing? In actual fact, whether Harris is aware of it or not, Christians have advanced arguments for Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and a large chunk of dedicated Christians are at least somewhat aware of a few of the arguments. Harris probably thinks these arguments are bad, but that is a separate issue. By failing to even acknowledge the arguments given for Christ’s resurrection and equating our reasons for believing with that of Muslims, Harris reveals himself to be one of the most unsophisticated critics of Christianity writing today (a difficult challenge by any measure).
Harris’s critique of the Bible also lacks sophistication; in most places, he is content merely to quote a Bible verse and stand back appalled at the moral implications. There is no attempt, of course, to analyze these verses with respect to the context or background of the society. For example, Harris complains about the practice of slavery found in the Bible, but fails to realize that slavery in this culture was actually a form of indentured servitude usually entered willingly.
On the point of politics and ethics, Harris blames Christians for opposing embryonic stem cell research and abortion, even though not all Christians oppose it, and many non-Christians do. Despite this, Harris reveals himself as an uncritical ethical thinker-
“Let us look at the details. A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all.” (29)
For some reason, Harris seems to believe that size or number of cells is relevant to a human beings worth. This is clearly nonsensical, and his comparison to a fly brain adds no additional relevance. A careful moral thinker recognizes that the real issue at hand is whether or not the three-day-old embryo is a human being.
Additionally, Harris seems to believe that the fact that human embryos cannot suffer thier own destruction is relevant to their worth. But since when has it become permissible to kill someone because they can’t experience suffering? By this logic, it would be more morally acceptable to kill someone instantly while they sleep. What is the relevant difference? Harris is simply morally confused- he has not identified the main issue (is the embryo a human being or not) and has instead constructed several bad arguments for allowing their destruction. Notice that I have not, in this review, explicitly given my position on the embryonic stem cell research debate. One can (and should) recognize Harris’s simplistic and irrelevant moral thinking even if they agree with his overall position.
Not that any of this has any relevance whatsoever to the truth of Christianity. In fact, most of this book is so irrelevant to whether or not Christianity is true that, despite its brevity, its not worth the read. Letter to a Christian Nation may be useful for atheists who want a pep talk, but it is not useful for the intelligent Christian who is interested in scholarship rather than soundbites, and who wants to engage cultural issues with reasoned thinking rather than emotion.