Review by Brice Tennant, 2009
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. Vintage Books, 2006, 2008. 120 pages. $11.00.
Sam Harris, like a forest ranger stationed in a fire tower, spies a conflagration that is threatening to consume civilization. Fueled by an humanitarian impulse and a sense of moral responsibility, Harris pens Letter to a Christian Nation in order to warn civilization of the impending danger. The conflagration Harris spies is religious conservatism in America, specifically, the “Christian Right” (viii). Harris directs his warning toward an American audience consisting of secularists and people of diverse faiths. His delivery is similar, again, to a forest ranger that has been trained to handle emergency situations. He speaks in an urgent, grave tone that is absent of panic. Unlike the forest ranger, Harris knows that his audience may view his warning skeptically. In order to disarm this skepticism, he nimbly acknowledges nuance when his argument allows. When Harris departs from the tone of measured urgency, his can become vitriolic or incendiary. The vitriol manifests when Harris discusses the irrationality of faith; and the incendiary tone surfaces when he describes the Catholic Church as “the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters” (66).
Letter to a Christian Nation is addressed to Christian conservatives, which is a literary device that enables Harris to address three audiences and achieve three tasks simultaneously. First, it enables him to critique the religious claims of conservatives. Second, it enables him to inform secularists and religious moderates and liberals about the baneful beliefs of conservatives. And third, it enables him to critique religious moderates and liberals for negligently fostering an environment conducive to the growth of religious conservatism. Christian conservatives are identified as those who “at a minimum,” believe “that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death” (viii). The religious moderate or liberal is differentiated from the conservative by three marks. Moderates and liberals are receptive to scientific findings, they approach the Bible figuratively, and they recognize the “dubious” nature of many biblical claims (105).
Harris’ principle thesis is straightforward—since a significant percentage of the population is conservative, their social, economic, and political power threatens American civilization; therefore, to prevent this potential destruction, the conservative movement must be stopped. How is it to be stopped? Harris does not offer a comprehensive strategy for eliminating the force of Christian conservatism, but his tactics aim at demolishing the intellectual foundation of conservatism and raising the awareness of others thereby stimulating further action. As the text progresses, Harris broadens this thesis to include worldwide religious conservatism, especially Islamic conservatism, that threatens the future of human civilization as a whole. Given the gravity of the crisis, those concerned with the future of humanity must mobilize.
The foundation of Christian conservatism is the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God. This God created the world and selected human beings to govern its inhabitants. This God inspired the Old and New Testament scriptures that provide the basis for morality and record the life and teaching of God’s son, Jesus. The Bible also informs human beings about the future through prophecies that describe the turbulent destruction of the planet and the final judgment of every human being. At the time of judgment, those who believed in Jesus receive eternal life and those who did not receive eternal suffering. Harris puts his explosive wit to work against this foundation by arguing that the scriptures are not inspired, morality is not grounded in the scriptures, God did not create the world, and, finally, God does not exist.
By surveying the morality promulgated by the Old and New Testaments, Harris seeks to show that scriptures possess an equivocal moral voice, and therefore, cannot be the source and ground for morality. By means of examples chosen to offend modern sensibilities, Harris illustrates that God requires the capital punishment of those who do not follow the state religion, that God sanctions the buying and selling of human beings, and that God decrees perpetual, eternal punishment for those who have not believed in God. Harris acknowledges that “Jesus said some profound things about love and charity and forgiveness,” but he notes that these are not unique in the history of ideas (10). Other sages preceding Jesus pronounced similar statements of “self-transcending love” (11). Furthermore, other religious texts and traditions, e.g., Jainism, speak of love and compassion with greater lucidity and less ambiguity than the Biblical tradition. With this being the historical reality, how can one accurately assert that the Bible is the “perfect guide to morality” since, if it were the perfect guide, one would expect it to surpass the moral quality of other religious texts. In a similar vein, Harris finds that the Ten Commandments are far from being the original legislative declarations that they are purported to be. A brief historical survey quickly reveals the widespread development of similar codes of laws. Through the repeated comparison between the scriptures and other religious traditions, Harris directly confronts the claim about the uniqueness of the Biblical revelation. In respect to prophecy, Harris invokes the findings of modern biblical scholarship that show the authors of scripture wrote their prophecies and fulfillment records post-event so there is little surprise when alignment is found within the text. Even with this authorial practice, the biblical text still exhibits numerous internal contradictions, mathematical inaccuracies, and a failure to address pressing issues faced by human beings after the first century. Harris observes that one would expect more from divine revelation.
After showing that the content of the Bible is woefully lagging behind the lofty claims made about it, Harris turns his attention to comparative ethics. He reasons thus: if the Bible is the paragon of morality, then those who profess to follow this guide should be more moral and more sensitive to suffering than those who do not. Turning to statistical data, Harris finds that when compared to secular European countries, Christian America is “uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and infant mortality” (44). In respect to the demographics within the United States, crime rates in the ‘red states’ that are traditionally more religious are markedly higher than the rates within the more liberal ‘blue’ states (44-45). On the issue of sensitivity to human and animal suffering, the conservatives also straggle behind. Harris asserts that conservatives are more concerned with fighting for religious claims about morality than they are about actually alleviating present suffering. Conservatives expend vast resources advocating sexual abstinence, yet fail to recognize that such policies enacted without correlative prophylactic measures significantly increase the spread of disease, and hence, increase present suffering. To bolster his assertion, Harris turns to an analysis of the conservative position on embryonic stem-cell research. Stem-cell research has the potential to unlock innumerable cures, but Christian conservatives aggressively resist such research because it utilizes “three-day-old human embryos” (29). These embryos that are incapable of suffering and feeling pain receive more concern than victims living with cancer, HIV, diabetes, etc. Flies, when killed, suffer more than sensationless embryos. Driving his point home, Harris declares, “Your resistance to embryonic research is, at best, uninformed. … anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics” (32). When the final tally is secured, Harris discerns that conservatives do not have the market share of morality that they claim.
Harris’ explicit confrontation with theodicy appears midway through the text and follows the traditional format. Christian conservatives broadcast the goodness and benevolence of God, but when one surveys the landscape of human existence one finds boundless and indiscriminate suffering. When faced with the evidence, Harris delineates two conclusions that conservatives face: one, God is impotent, or two, God is malevolent. For Harris, in light of the evidence, the solution is clear: God does not exist. But conservatives, it seems, are immune to concrete evidence.
How one deals with evidence, or reality, is the crux of Harris’ final prominent theme, the conflict between science and religion. According a formal statement issued by the National Academy of Sciences, conflict between religion and science is non-existent since each field engages a different body of knowledge. Harris calls for a complete rejection of this ostensible truce on the simple observation that science and religion are in conflict because both make claims, divergent claims, about reality. In order to illustrate his point, Harris expounds upon the “debate” between proponents of Intelligent Design and proponents of evolution. The issue of evidence versus dogma rises to prominence again in this exposition as Christian conservatives reject the voluminous physical evidence supporting evolution in favor of an unsubstantiated Intelligent Designer of the universe. Harris disintegrates the Intelligent Design position by highlighting a few examples of unintelligent “design,” e.g., the extinction of numerous species, the vitality of viruses, and the bizarre and ineffectual construction of the human body. Harris sends out a clarion call for vigorous confrontation between science and religion because survey statistics indicate that the United States ranks next to last in the worldwide percentage of adult populations that recognizes the validity of evolutionary theory. The warning is shrill for the situation is dire. “We are building a civilization of ignorance,” writes Harris, and this poses an extreme threat when combined with the political, social, and economic influence of the United States (70).
Letter to a Christian Nation achieves its aim of awakening and informing those readers who are unfamiliar with the social breadth, political power, and intellectual framework of the Christian conservative. Harris constructs a text that is accessible for a popular audience and that presents a network of quick hitting theses that can win the day when read too swiftly. For those desiring a formidable, tightly organized, and exhaustive critique of religion, their reading will have to extend beyond this text. But, no matter one’s original motivation for reading Sam Harris’ Letter, its energy will prove provocative.