Review: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (2006)  

Monday, May 28, 2007

I really enjoyed this book. It was short, only 91 pages, and yet the arguments in it were laid out clearly and organized well. It only took me a few days while waiting here or there to read and as slowly as I've been reading lately, even a small book is an accomplishment.

Harris lays out several arguments against faith, many which have been used before. But Harris takes the stance of writing specifically to American Christians, rather than to fellow atheists.

The best arguments were the cherry picking of the Bible in order to find laws and commandments that are acceptable in today's culture, the morality of religion, the morality of atheists compared to those who are religious, the goodness of God, prophecy, the clash between science and religion, and the effects of religion on society.

Some of the best quotes from the book are below and do a good job of summing up what the book is about.

"Many Christians believe that Jesus did away with all this barbarism in the clearest terms imaginable and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn't. In fact, at several points in the New Testament, Jesus can be read to endorse the entiret of the Old Testament law.
For truly, I saw to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass frmo the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (p 10)"

"One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not--that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. [...] And it explains why you can preach against condom use in sub-Sarharan African while millions die from AIDS there each year.

[...]

You believe that your religious concerns about sex, in all their tiresome immensity, have something to do with morality. And yet, your efforts to constrain the sexual behavior of consenting adults--and even to discourage your own sons and daughters from having premarital sex--are almost never geared toward the relief of human suffering. In fact, relieving suffering seems to rank rather low on your list of priorities. your principal concern appears to be that the creator of the universe will take offense at something people do while naked. This prudery of yours contributes daily to the surplus of human misery." (p 25-26)

"We decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God's teachings on morality: if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father's doorstep (Deuteronomy 23:13-21). If we are civilized, we will reject this as the vilest lunacy imaginable. Doing so requires that we exercise our own moral intuitions. The belief that the Bible is the word of God is of no help to us whatsoever." (p 49-50)

"But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as 'In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers--the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus--and this system shall be called the Internet.' The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you." (p 60)

"And yet, while the religious divisions in our world are self-evident, many people still imagine that religious conflict is always caused by a lack of education, by poverty, or by politics. Most nonbelievers, liberals, and moderates apparently think that no one ever really sacrifices his life, or the lives of others, on account of his religious beliefs. Such people simply do not know what it is like to be certain of Paradise. It is worth remembering that the September 11 hijackers were college-educated, middle-class people who had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosque talking about the depravity of the infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise. How many more architects and engineers must hit the wall at four hundred miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: they don't know what it is like to really believe in God." (p 82-83)

I am going to be "releasing" this book "into the wild" tomorrow using BookCrossing.com. If you're in the KC area and you'd like to read this book for free, visit the website for information where I'll be leaving it.

Update: You can listen to Sam Harris at the end of this presentation of Intelligent Design and the History of Science by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (via Red State Rabble).

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