Thursday, December 11, 2014

Demolishing the Intellectual and Moral Pretensions of Christianity?: My Review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation

If you are an intellectual Christian or aspiring to such, at some point you will need to engage the so-called "Four Horsemen of the New Atheism"--Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennent, and Sam Harris. These four men (Hitchens lost a battle with cancer in 2011) are not so much atheists as anti-theists. Their books are popular and influential. As such, I believe that we, as Christians, need to be informed and able to articulate a response. So when I spotted Sam Harris' little book, Letter To a Christian Nation, on the discount rack at the bookstore, I snatched it up and bumped it to the top of my reading list.

 Weighing in at 91 pages, I thought it would be a quick read. I was wrong. I was wrong because I was compelled to dialogue with the book, rather than passively read it. I filled the margins and spaces between sentences with questions and retorts of my own. I would go back through an argument and find the holes and fuzzy logic. It was mentally stimulating to read someone with whom I disagreed at nearly every turn. I rather enjoyed it and just might make it a habit.

This "letter" was written in response to so-called Christians who had "written to tell [him] that [he was] wrong not to believe in God" after the publication of his first book, The End of Faith (vii). He states that "the truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse" (vii).

First of all, it saddens me that so many "Christians" resort to anger and bad-mouthing people for whom Christ died--even if those people refuse to accept it. This adolescent reaction stems from the inability to give thoughtful and learned answers for the hope they have. It is a sign of fear or a clear indicator that other idols occupy the place of Christ in their hearts. While such snarling is unbecoming of a disciple, it does not diminish the reality of the Christian gospel. 

Harris fails to cite any of these "murderously, intolerant" rantings. Later in the book he does lampoon certain passages, leaving me to suppose that these could be the verses that Christians threw at him. He deems these verses morally wanting, but in engaging these passages he smuggles in his own premise that these Old Testament laws are "timeless wisdom." He fails to read them in their context and commits the same intellectual fallacies as the Christians he is berating.

Interestingly enough, Harris is of the opinion that "there is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer" (75). By this point in the letter he has used a snide and snarky tone for seventy-five plus pages, made sweeping assumptions, groundless claims, and moral judgments of his own. He blames religions, in general, for most of the world's conflicts. His basic thought seems to run that:

 Religions give people different opinions about the way the world should be run. Different opinions lead to conflict and war. The world needs to talk its problems out, but religions stand in the way of discourse. However, my atheistic scientific naturalism holds no presuppositions and is therefore neutral and the only way forward.

In other words, "if you don't hold to my worldview, then you are a narrow-minded idiot." I can only imagine Mr. Harris flailing a baseball bat while he spews his disgust over the moral judgments of Christian and Islamic worldviews (and, oh yes, he conflates these two every chance he can get). As Alister McGrath points out in his book Why God Won't Go Away, "Any worldview based on an exclusivist metanarrative (a controlling story) has the potential to provoke hostility...Get rid of religion, and conflict and violence will simply find other occasions for their emergence and other grounds for their justification" (71, 79). The anger than emerges out of the "new atheism" in books like this, as well as on atheist websites and forum demonstrates this clearly enough.

In the end, I found this letter to be pure rhetorical tripe that relied on false inferences, unsubstantiated claims, non sequitur arguments, straw men, and gross double standards. He fails to show how atheism provides a moral framework for a world filled with love and self-sacrifice. 

On the one hand, he spins religion as a by-product of evolution, but then claims that it causes the greatest evils. He claims to believe in objective truth, believes that certain behaviors are moral reprehensible and should be punished, makes a case for abortion as a lesser of two evils, and yet sits in judgment on a god that would ever dare to kill anyone. 

His ethics are utilitarian when they suit his needs, but he moves to emotionally based appeals when they don't. In brief, it falls far short of "demolish[ing] the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms" (Harris, ix).


  1. Nick,

    Thank you for your review. I read Sam's first book and came to similar conclusions.



  2. Thanks, for reading and joining the conversation, Billy.