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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion


Letter to a Christian Nation

Sam Harris

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Letter to a Christian Nation

Title: Letter to a Christian Nation
Author: Sam Harris
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 95 pages
Availability: Letter to a Christian Nation - US
Letter to a Christian Nation - UK
Letter to a Christian Nation - Canada
Letter to A Christian Nation - India
Brief an ein christliches Land - Deutschland
Lettera a una nazione cristiana - Italia
Carta a una nación cristiana - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : to the point, fairly well argued

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 12/11/2006 Robert Lee Hotz
The New Republic . 18/12/2006 James Wood
New Statesman . 11/12/2006 Robert Stein
The NY Observer . 16/10/2006 Emily Bobrow
The NY Sun . 27/9/2006 Adam Kirsch
San Francisco Chronicle A- 1/10/2006 Jean E. Barker
Sunday Telegraph . 11/3/2007 Kenan Malik

  From the Reviews:
  • "A religious upbringing of any sort is a "ludicrous obscenity," but (also as in Dawkins' book) the excesses of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs play hardly any part in his critique of belief." - Robert Lee Hotz, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The End of Faith starts well and then becomes a bit predictable, because it begins to follow the rules of its rather thin genre. Letter to a Christian Nation, which is an open letter to the many Christians who wrote to Harris in complaint, is even thinner. I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheistic texts, but there is a limit to how many times one can stub one's toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "Harris's book is also oddly free of dialogue. Surely the many emails included a few well-argued ripostes. In failing to address the most challenging arguments, he is in danger of provoking more trenchant missives." - Robert Stein, New Statesman

  • "(T)he book seems like a slick way to cash in on his earlier success. Mr. Harris has consolidated his disdain for religion into a withering attack on Christianity, delivered in the form of an open letter. (...) His new book may be smug in spots, but Mr. Harris makes a good case for a new and intellectually honest conversation about morality and human suffering." - Emily Bobrow, The New York Observer

  • "(T)he mental era to which Mr. Harris belongs is not the 21st century, but the 17th. Everything about Letter to a Christian Nation, with the exception of its atheism, would seem quite at home in a bookstall in Milton's London. Like a Puritan pamphleteer, Mr. Harris is contemptuous, self-righteous, and insultingly personal. (...) Clearly this kind of writing is not designed to persuade any actual Christian to abandon his beliefs. " - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "This combination of ruthless argument with polemic designed to provoke (...) will further delight Harris' supporters and infuriate his critics. (...) Its strengths are the clarity of Harris' writing, his critique of religion's current entanglement in public policy and his continuing willingness to speak up about some very controversial ideas, even if they're difficult for others to hear. That said, Harris' dismissal of the religious middle ground may backfire by leading moderate Christians to side with conservatives against Harris' attack rather than acknowledge his points that they agree with." - Jean E. Barker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This is all good knockabout stuff, though believers will have heard such arguments before. The trouble is that Harris appears to take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves. Rather than burrow beneath the surface of faith and ask why it is that people increasingly take on religious identities, Harris takes both religious texts and the pronouncements of believers at face value. (...) Perhaps the biggest problem with Harris's argument, however, is that his own morality often seems little more advanced than that of the religious bigots he criticises." - Kenan Malik, Sunday Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Letter to a Christian Nation is addressed to the true believer, Harris beginning his 'letter':

     You believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death.
       As he notes in his introductory note, that covers a lot of people: "Dozens of scientific surveys suggest that well over half of the American population subscribes to these beliefs." The question is, of course, whether this letter will reach these Christians.
       In fact, Harris' ambition doesn't appear to be to win them over. Oh, he goes through the motions and he makes the arguments, but he knows as well as anyone that the die-hard believers will hold onto their delusion at all cost. No, the real goal of this book clearly is to reach the wishy-washy middle ground, the folk who perhaps profess some faith in a god and go through some of the motions of belonging to a religion, but, when push comes to shove, won't follow the Bible to the letter. Harris wants to convince them that there is no middle ground, that the choice is between complete religious faith or none -- and that that choice is an obvious one. And, daringly, Letter to a Christian Nation is not just a book condemning religion, it is a book condemning religious tolerance.
       This either/or approach is the great strength of the book, but also its biggest weakness: Harris frames the whole debate as either/or:
the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. (...) So let us be honest, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.
       This absolutism is appealing, and makes it easier to argue (both for and against) -- but it ignores the fact that many (and possibly most) Christians aren't so literalist, happy to cling to parts of the story while cheerfully ignoring the rest. This is bothersome: a non-believer like Harris can't understand how someone can base their beliefs on the parts of the Bible that appeal to them, yet ignore the inconvenient parts. Believers have their explanations, but none are really convincing, and Harris does have a point: ultimately, either you buy the Bible story (and everything that goes with it) or you don't.
       Once he's set his sights on those who believe the Bible is the be-all and end-all and the word of their deity, Harris of course has easy pickings. As he points out, there are all sorts of problems with the Bible, from inconsistencies to some very dubious morality (including the death penalty, preferably by stoning, for all sorts of activity that is nowadays very widespread). Especially regarding morality, Harris points out that a lot of other religions get much closer to what are considered the contemporary ideals (of not causing suffering, of being what is generally considered 'good').
       Harris has his fun with the evolution-'debate', Bible-based opposition to stem-cell research and condom use, and the general society-retarding and -harming effects of religion. He acknowledges some good comes of faith as well -- but argues that faith isn't a necessary ingredient of that good, and often brings harm with it (so with the good deeds some missionaries do).
       Of course, there's also the whole problem with the fact that the Christian (and Muslim) deity is ... well, let's face it: a real shit. If any person had the power ascribed to this god, s/he would be almost universally reviled for abusing it like this and causing so much pain and waste and suffering (especially when a snap of the fingers would be all it takes to make everyone happy ...). Believers' excuses -- God tests man, or it's the price we pay for that big posthumous reward -- would seem to be of little comfort but are apparently enough to satisfy the believers.
       Unfortunately, this argument isn't very helpful: God doesn't have to be nice, after all (and who are we to question his/her/its ways, etc. etc.). But Harris is correct in pointing out that consequences arise from the fact that this God and his/her/its holy book (as well as the Muslim ones, among others) deny certain values necessary for a functioning and stable global society -- including acceptance of other beliefs. Christianity (and Islam, and other religions) accept only one truth, and that is very problematic. (The fact that these 'truths' are obviously false just makes it even more frustrating.)
       Here's where Harris also makes it interesting again: he doesn't state it explicitly, but in essence he is arguing that when his Christian reader (and true believer) looks at the Islamic fundamentalists terrorising the world right now he is looking in the mirror. The Islamic terrorist is the great bogyman of our times (in the 'West') -- and for many Americans any Muslim is suspect. To make his point, Harris preys on those fears:
     The idea that Islam is a "peaceful religion hijacked by extremists" is a fantasy, and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. (...) (M)ost Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith.
       It's a clever argument -- these are pages of the book which many a Christian fundamentalist or 'right-wing' politician will wholeheartedly agree with and endorse: Muslims are deluded by the nonsense of their beliefs, and it has horrible consequences for all of us. Something must be done ! But Harris' point, of course, is that Christian faith is exactly the same thing. Christian faith seems, at this time, not to be manifesting itself in the same violent way -- but even that's just a matter of perspective (Arabs might well argue that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq -- and American foreign policy in the region in general -- have brought more death, destruction, and instability than any Islamists ...). Harris cleverly and correctly also points out that the hijackers responsible for the September 2001 attacks were: "college-educated, middle-class people who had no discernible experience of political oppression". Religion trumps all, apparently -- and if it could make these misguided souls undertake such horrific actions, there's no reason not to believe Christians won't do the same in support of their beliefs. (Indeed, Christians often have committed atrocities on far larger scales -- and arguably (again, it's a matter of perspective) are still doing so..)
       So that's ultimately what Harris is preaching: down with religious tolerance. Religion -- especially Christianity and Islam -- do not deserve respect; they are simply too dangerous for us to tolerate. And his warning of the 'obvious' dangers of Islam must be taken as a challenge to Christians: if you agree that Islam poses an unacceptable threat, then how can you not see that your own delusion is no better ?
       There, also, lies Harris' appeal to those who aren't 'fundamentalist', who sort of believe, or are more likely to trust a politician because he is 'god-fearing': wake up, he's telling them. Pick a side. It's either or, and there's really no good reason for picking the rather silly and downright dangerous religious-faith side.

       It's a tough battle Harris has chosen, and it goes against a deeply ingrained tradition of respect, tolerance, and acceptance -- for the prevailing religion(s), if not always some or all others. Harris suggests that we can no longer afford such an attitude: god-belief is not benign, and at this stage in history has become irreconcilable with human advancement (and, possibly, with the preservation of humanity). True believers likely won't be swayed, but the audience Harris surely wants to reach is those readers who have tolerated religion, without believing in it with any absolute conviction. If he can convince them to pick a side -- embrace the Bible, along with all that true belief demands, or dismiss it entirely -- then he might have accomplished something with this small book. (A major hurdle -- as it was also in Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell -- is that religion is rarely a matter of choice, and by the time people are hooked (usually in earliest childhood) it's tough to talk any sense into them.)
       The book is well-argued for the most part, though occasionally Harris takes the easy way out (most notably in the blastocyst debate, where he says: "The argument from a cell's potential gets you absolutely nowhere", which isn't entirely true (at the very least the argument is more complex than he makes it out to be)). Some 'facts' he cites are also questionable -- or at least more complex (such as: "the fifty nations now ranked lowest in terms of United Nations' human development index are unwaveringly religious" -- where examples such as North Korea and Myanmar/Burma suggest low rankings might also have other reasons).
       Overall, it's a solid and thought-provoking effort, and it should at least serve as the basis for much debate.

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Letter to a Christian Nation: Reviews: Sam Harris: Other books by Sam Harris under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Sam Harris is a neuroscience student.

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© 2006-2012 the complete review

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