Letter to a Christian Nation

29 November 2006

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.




——————————————————————————————————————

  1. I have not read any of Harris’ books, but most of his arguments against Christianity I have read from magazine articles consist of “This is what Christians believe—I don’t like it, therefore Christianity is bad.” He is such an intellectual lightweight. I don’t know how anyone pays heed to what he has to say.


    Ingemar Pedron    Dec 23, 03:40 PM    #
  2. I personally have never heard of Sam Harris until I read the above book review for his “Letter To A Christian Nation.” He does seem pretty flawed in his analysis of us Christians as far as I can tell, but then again, I’m pretty flawed in my analysis of atheists and other non-Christians, so I’m not going to give myself the right to criticize Harris directly. However, I honestly did not know that more non-Christians than Christians oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research. How can that be, considering that all Christians are assumed to be very Pro-Life in reference to “thou shall not commit murder”?


    Joann Kelley    Jan 30, 12:07 AM    #
  3. I have to admit that I am surprised by the lack of a solid critique of Harris’s book in the post above. Harris provides a lot of different arguments against Christianity. Among other things, he attacks the Bible as an authority on morality and as the inspired work of “god”, he identifies the christian dogma as a root cause of nationwide health and welfare issues, global conflicts, and our stunted intellectual growth compared to other nations, he reveals the lack of intelligence in “intelligent design”, and exposes religious “faith” as an inordinate lack of common sense. Yet the critique above merely makes a narrow rejoinder about the meaning of the word “slavery” and quibbles over Harris’s definition of what an embryo is? To an honest thinker, it should be obvious that Harris does not consider a 150-cell blastocyst to be a person. You probably believe differently, and Harris addresses some of these beliefs starting on page 30, where he answers the argument that these blastocysts, as human beings, possess souls. The (unsigned) critique above doesn’t answer any of these arguments, and only serves to prove how marginal, weak, and indefensible our religious beliefs are when addressed by a true skeptic.


    Terry    Feb 5, 04:07 PM    #
  4. Terry,

    You criticize my book review for failing to refute several of the claims that Harris mentions in his book. However, it should be clear that this is only a book review, not a full critique. If I were to give a rebuttal to all the claims made by Harris then it would clearly be too lengthy to be a book review. My purpose of this review was to analyze Harris’s general approach to Christianity and to highlight some representative blunders.

    Next, you claim that I quibble over Harris’s definition of an embryo. Actually, I merely pointed out that Harris makes a number of critical thinking errors in the paragraph quoted, including the following:

    1.) He implies that the number of cells a human person has is relevant to that human’s worth.

    2.) He implies that it is morally permissible to kill a human person if that person cannot feel any pain as a result of the process.

    As you point out, Harris doesn’t think that the embryo IS a human person. This is indeed the issue, as you seem to recognize. But if this is the case, then why did he preface his discussion of the issue with references to the number of cells in a human blastocyst and the fact that the blastocyst cannot feel its own destruction? These issues are distraction from the real issue.

    In any case, as I said in the review, I did not even defend a particular view on the morality of embryonic stem cell research. I leave it an open question whether or not Harris is correct in his identification of the blastocyst as a non-person. Nevertheless, as I point out in the review, this whole issue is irrelevant to the truth of the Christian faith. Some Christians SUPPORT embryonic stem cell research. So even if Harris is correct that ‘fundamentalist’ Christians are hurting society by preventing this research, he has done nothing to undermine the truth of Christianity.

    Sincerely,

    Kyle.


    Kyle Deming    Feb 5, 08:36 PM    #
  5. Kyle, I would like to take issue with the first half of your second paragraph in the review of Sam Harris’s book. It appears you have missed the point. You’ve either ignored or misinterpreted the key word used by Mr. Harris, which was “reasons”. To restate Mr. Harris, he is expressing that the same reasons (i.e., basis, mode of verification, support of evidence) exist for why a Muslim and a Christian believe in their religions. Mr. Harris did not say the two religions believe the same content or material (Jesus vs. Mohammed), but share the same reason for how they arrived at what to believe. You seem to be caught up in the differences of the two religions and assume the content is the reason on how Christians came to believe what they do. No, the content is not the reason. The content is only the stories passed on after a decision has been made on what is to be believed.

    That decision – that reason – is Christians (and Muslims) have accepted the assumption that the contents of Christian stories (or Muslim stories) are true. That assumption is what Christians (and Muslims) call faith. The assumption is each faith’s holy book is divinely inspired or not to be faulted. Faith is that same reason Christians and Muslims (and all other flavors of religion) believe what they do, regardless of the differences between religions’ contents. The content is irrelevant to how they came to make a decision. What is relevant is having faith that their religious stories are true.

    Perhaps the greatest factor (i.e., reason) to cause people to believe in a religion is the randomness of when and where they were born. Their “decision” ultimately reflects the same decision made by their parents, which was also decided by the fate of how they were born. I’ll posit a low percentage of people actually decide on a religion, but only decide on whether or not to defend the religious ideas they’ve been told since childhood.

    It seems most religious people believe only the stories their own parents learned as children. It’s a passing-on of childhood stories and fables; not in just Christianity, but in all faiths. Do you doubt my statements about your religion? Yes? Now, do you doubt this about those religions that are notably different from your own? Christianity has no more reasons (i.e., evidence) to believe that holy events occurred than does Islam. You each have only faith and assumptions of truth. That is Mr. Harris’s point. The only evidence is a string of fables and stories passed on through time. You’ve come to accept Christianity by the same means as a Muslim has come to believe his religion – acceptance of an assumption that the stories are true. That is the “reason” to which Mr. Harris is referring.


    Jack    Apr 2, 08:54 PM    #
  6. Jack,

    I agree with you that Harris is saying that Muslims and Christians both just believe on faith, but I disagree with his claim. I think that there is good evidence for Christianity and poor evidence for Islam. But, since Harris never really deals with any of the evidence for Christianity provided by Christians, it is ludicrous for him to make the claim that Christians and Muslims believe for ‘the same reason.’

    Sincerely,

    Kyle.


    Kyle Deming    Apr 3, 09:04 AM    #
  7. It does not really matter as to the details of the belief encompassed by any religion. All religious belief entails a concept of God etc. And since no believer can ever produce even a skerrick of evidence (that would even stand up in court (hearsay is not admissable)) It is blindingly obvious that there is not god!! Wether it be jehovah, allah, buddha, wotan, baal, mithras, zues, or the tooth fairy.


    Tony    Jul 22, 04:10 PM    #
  8. We need to wear glasses that give us clarity to this issue. Letter to a Christian Nation is a black and white critique of religious dogma that permeates every level of culture. It seems only natural that secularism is a growing trend in our society as people realize that wasting energy and resources on some unknown entity is not fiscally nor socially responsible any longer. When we spend time and money in Africa, for example, is not not better to spend every moment and cent preventing aids and digging wells instead of preaching that Jesus was born of a virgin? What possible good would this do? I read that Catholics, in one region of Africa, had built twice as many churces as had dug wells. Now that’s telling…


    Brent    Apr 30, 04:03 AM    #
  9. Brent, you refuse to see the issue from a Christian standpoint. To a Christian, evangelism and spreading the word of God and the story of our Lord Jesus Christ is 100% responsible. While I do not dispute that providing resources for the less fortunate is important, most any true Christian you talk to would argue that teaching the word is just as important. With reference to religions being neither “fiscally” nor “socially responsible”, I point out that there are many religious people (outside of televangelists, etc.) just like you and me in this world who get along just fine financially. In addition, the entire message of the Gospel preaches that faith and servitude to Jesus and God will not always be “socially acceptable” but perseverance will be rewarded. Please consider both sides of the argument next time.


    Mike    Apr 22, 11:19 PM    #
  10. Well, as usual the critics of the critic, when it comes to Christianity are ignorant. Sad really. Thank you author of this critique for your time. Its funny, not haha funny, that people that critique “christians” are ignorant of what they critique. I remember a few conversations where I showed black and white some critics some things and they were so blinded by what they wanted to be true or whatever else it was, that that failed to see what was right in front of them. Whats the saying, if you want to hide something from someone hide it in plain sight. Stumbling stones.. gotta love them.


    Ife    Sep 24, 09:55 AM    #
  11. It’s pretty absurd people so blindly find what the Bible says to be reasonable. Welfare and toleration are two things that are vital to connecting with our brethren, yet they are vastly absent in the Christian Bible. If we can’t see eye-to-eye as human beings, based on what the Bible says; what is reasonable about Christianity?


    — Cory    Nov 30, 07:51 PM    #
  12. My question is why Harris would write such intellectual dishonesty? He must have missed the studies that stated many Americans change their religious views throughout their lifetime. Many people do NOT have a rigid, culturally forced religious belief, especially not in America or the western nations.

    “where you are born decides what you believe about religion” argument either must apply to everybody equally, or it must be tossed out as the horribly weak argument for atheists that it is. It is not an argument in favor of any belief system actually. You can take that argument and argue ANY position. That is an argument that anybody can use to dismiss any type of opinion as it regards to religion. Timothy Keller destroyed this argument much better than I can in one of the chapters of “The Reason for God”. I am only a layman. I will attempt to do it in a similar (albeit intellectually weaker) fashion.

    Here is the silly reasoning of Sam Harris:

    A Christian is from America. He is only a christian because is born in America and not in Saudi Arabia where it is almost 100% Muslim and against the law to publicly practice any other belief. If he were from Saudi Arabia, he most definitely would be a Muslim. Therefore the Christian is culturally conditioned to be a Christian. Therefore, the Christian is only a Christian because he is from one country and not another. Therefore his views are irrelevant because religious views are significantly based on the country you are from.

    Ok, now let’s take that EXACT same line of reasoning Harris just used to attack Christianity and use it against atheism. I will just change the word “Christian” with “Sam Harris the atheist” to see if the argument still holds:

    Sam Harris is an atheist and is from America. He is only an atheist because is born in America and not in Saudi Arabia where it is almost 100% Muslim and against the law to proclaim publicly any other belief. If he were from Saudi Arabia, he most definitely would be a Muslim. Therefore Sam Harris is culturally conditioned to be an atheist rather than a Muslim. Therefore, the atheist is only an atheist because he is from one country and not another. Therefore his views are irrelevant because religious views are significantly based on the country you are from.

    Using the (lack of) logic of Sam Harris, Sam Harris himself is only an outspoken atheist because he was born in America. He wouldn’t be caught dead being an outspoken atheist and writing these kinds of books in Saudi Arabia where nearly 100% of the country is Muslim.

    Therefore, using his very own argument, his views and actions regarding religion are as entirely situational and culturally based as any American born Christian. Therefore, we cannot rely on Sam Harris to give us an honest opinion because his outspoken views are as much a result of where he is born and hold no more truth than any religious person. It’s either that or he is so delusional that he thinks that atheists like him are the sole exception to the rest of the “culturally conditioned and confused” world in spite of no evidence. He would thus be making a claim to absolute objectivity. If only the religious types can be socially conditioned, and atheists can never be socially conditioned, then atheists are making a claim of absolute objectivity above the rest of the world where no outside cultural influences have influenced their thinking whatsoever. If this is the case, they should prove this as it would be groundbreaking news in the world of psychology to hear of an entire group of millions of people (atheists) around the world whose opinions can never be influenced by the outside world in any way. It is an absolute farce to think such a thing. If a Christian can be conditioned by his environment, then so can an atheist be conditioned by his environment. An American atheist instead being born in Saudi Arabia would have no less of a chance being a Muslim than an american Christian would.

    In spite of the painfully OBVIOUS objections to this “Christianity is influenced by environment but my beliefs are entirely objective” buffoonery, Harris proceeds with his intellectual dishonesty anyways.

    By using the argument against Christians, Sam Harris has inadvertently allowed for the argument to be made against him that he is only a staunch atheist because of his own environment. Therefore his opinions have now been declared irrelevant because they are “conditioned” and “relative” to his situation. That’s what his own premise has done to him. The whole line of reasoning hilariously backfires on Harris.

    Bad arguments from authors are still bad arguments even if they are someone who shares your mindset.

    That whole “you are only of a certain belief because of where you are born or who your parents are” either has to either apply to EVERYBODY, including atheists who live in religiously tolerant nations, or it must be considered a not terribly useful argument when deciding on such matters.

    If all beliefs about religion are socially conditioned, then the author’s beliefs are no exception. If the author’s beliefs ARE an exception (which he claims they are), then so can anyone else’s beliefs be an exception. How can we decide whose beliefs are conditioned and whose are of their own search? If there are no exceptions, and all views concerning religious matters are culturally conditioned and therefore irrelevant, then so is the atheist’s view therefore irrelevant. If there are a few exceptions, but most people’s views are conditioned, then there IS NO ARGUMENT to be made about beliefs being culturally conditioned because even a few people not being culturally conditioned would prove the premise false. If there are many exceptions, why use the stupid argument in the first place to argue about the few who are socially conditioned Christians/Atheists/Muslims when many are not?

    If he didn’t realize the irony of actually condemning his own position as culturally manufactured when he tried to do it to Christianity, then the joke is on him.

    This is the fatal flaw of one Sam Harris. It’s one of many.


    — The Truth    Dec 13, 12:13 AM    #
  Textile Help