Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation — Sam Harris

I just finished reading Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and I really enjoyed it. It’s an extremely short book at only 91 pages (and they’re small pages, at that), but he plows through a lot of ground in it.

True to the title, Harris writes this book as a letter. It’s actually addressed to Christians, using “you” throughout it. As it turns out, this is sort of a sequel for Harris. In 2005, he published his first book, The End of Faith, which I haven’t yet read. But after that book was published, Harris began receiving lots of mail, as you could imagine. He says this about it:

The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironc, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.

And that kicks off the introduction to Letter to a Christian Nation, which is his response to all the correspondence he’s received. Harris doesn’t hold anything back, but I wouldn’t call his tone offensive. I think he’s just direct. What’s really interesting about the book is that he doesn’t have a lot of patience for liberal or moderate Christianity. You don’t always see that with non-believers. For instance, Christianity itself doesn’t really bother me, I just don’t believe it’s true. I also hate that it’s caused so much division in my family. But other than that, I think there are some good things that can come from it. Harris, on the other hand, feels that liberal theology is simply intellectually dishonest and only perpetrates the problems that come from more fundamentalist believers.

In one particularly powerful section, he elaborates a bit on his view of liberal theology:

In talking about the good consequences that your beliefs have on human morality, you are following the example of religious liberals and religious moderates. Rather than say that they believe in God because certain biblical prophecies have come true, or because the miracles recounted in the gospels are convincing, liberals and moderates tend to talk in terms of the good consequences of believing as they do. Such believers often say that they believe in God because this “gives their lives meaning.” When a tsunami killed a few hundred thousand people on the day after Christmas, 2004, many conservative Christians viewed the cataclysm as evidence of God’s wrath. God was apparently sending another coded message about the evils of abortion, idolatry, and homosexuality. While I consider this interpretation of events to be utterly repellent, it at least has the virtue of being reasonable, given a certain set of assumptions. Liberals and moderates, on the other hand, refuse to draw any conclusions whatsoever about God from his works. God remains an absolute mystery, a mere source of consolation that is compatible with the most desolating evil. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, liberals and moderates admonished one another to look for God “not in the power that moved the wave, but in the human response to the wave.” I think we can probably agree that it is human benevolence on display — not God’s — whenever the bloated bodies of the dead are dragged from the sea. On a day when over one hundred thousand children were simultaneously torn from their mothers’ arms and casually drowned, liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is: the sheerest of mortal pretenses. The theology of wrath has far more intellectual merit. If God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings, his will is not inscrutable. The only thing inscrutable here is that so many otherwise rational men and women can deny the unmitigated horror of these events and think this is the height of moral wisdom.
[p. 47-48]

Harris simply doesn’t waste time in this book. He’s a gifted writer that manages to make his points succinctly, without spending much time hunting for the appropriate words. As he goes through the book, he covers a wide range of topics: morality in the Bible, the wisdom of the Bible, prophecy in the Bible, science and evolution, etc. He also spends some time talking about the dangers religion can have on society. The terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists is the first example that probably comes to mind, but we can also see it in the rising religious fervor entering the politics of our country.

In all, this was a very comprehensive book, despite its brevity. It’s well written and gets right to the point — I definitely recommend it. And I’ll write more about it soon.

4 comments

  1. I agree, some of the most hatefull and down right nasty individuals I’ve known in my life wore the hat ‘Christian’. It reminds me of the guy that recently poisoned the trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn. He sure claims to be an Alabama fan, right? He’s got all the shirts and hats, even named his kids some ridiculous names that have tie ins to Alabama Football. But, in reality we all know this guy is a NUT! Nobody in their right mind thinks that “Al in Dadeville” represents true University of Alabama fans.

    I think this correlates with “Christians” and what I’ll call true Christ followers. A pastor was once quoted: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips; and then walk out the doors and deny Him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world, simply finds unbelievable.” Christ told his disciples that their love for others is what would set them apart, this fact is lost by so many that claim Christ’s name.

    A little intellectual honestly screams bs at the second quote concerning natural disasters and Christians claiming it to be the wrath of God. Sure a few wing nuts (remember Hank Ewrin and Katrina?) make outrageous (and scripturally unsound) statements like that. However the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians view such travesties for what they are. Just look at the outpour of relief aid in Katrina and post tsunami, evangelical Christian organizations were the leaders in giving.

    I look forward to hearing more on this book and what the author has to say, but so far I have to admit I’m not that impressed. Thanks for continuing to share with us, I can’t wait to spend some time reading and responding to some of your other posts.

  2. I think you’ll really enjoy this book. Let me know how the Hitchens book is — I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, though I’ve always kind of wanted to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s