December 15, 2006

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

You may have noticed that I've been reading Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. After reading the diminutive 91-page book twice and taking some time to reflect on its contents, I'm ready to offer my review.

To get your most likely question out of the way first, readers of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason will find little in the way of new material here. For the freethinking reader, End of Faith is easier to recommend. While far from perfect, it offers a broader scope and more detailed arguments. Of course, it was also written with a different purpose and a different audience in mind. Nevertheless, Letter has merit as a concise summary of portions of End of Faith. It was an enjoyable read, even if it did little beyond reinforcing my views of Christianity.

To evaluate Letter to a Christian Nation and grasp what I believe is the book's central flaw, one must identify the target audience. Harris says that he wrote this book for a subgroup of Christians we could characterize as fundamentalist, socially conservative Christians who read their bibles literally. Writing a book for this audience guarantees Harris of two things. First, members of this target audience are the least likely persons to actually read the book, insuring that Harris' expressed intent of reaching them is doomed to fail. In the brief introduction, Harris informs the reader that his intent in this book is to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity." Can you imagine a fundamentalist Christian reading beyond that sentence?

Second, and far more problematic in my opinion, is that most of those who do actually read the book will see little relevance for them. Freethinkers will enjoy it, as it reinforces our views on Christian extremism. However, the large group of potential readers characterized by Harris as liberal or moderate Christians will simply conclude that he is right about extremist Christians but fail to acknowledge their responsibility for the maintenance of extremism (End of Faith was much more effective in this regard). I believe the book would be far more effective if it was directed toward moderate Christians, a group which contains many relatively open-minded individuals who might actually consider the information presented to them. As good as it was in parts, End of Faith was too unfocused, deviating on many irrelevant tangents. I sincerely hope that Harris will follow Letter with a similar book aimed at moderate Christians.

Letter is organized effectively in such a way that it permits Harris to attack (and the tone is quite attacking throughout the book) Christian extremism wherever it is vulnerable. Harris starts with the veracity of the Christian bible, moves onto morality, takes on the "evil atheist" myth, skillfully addresses the problem of evil, dismisses prophecy, tackles science and religion, and concludes with religious violence. In the slim volume, Harris provides freethinkers with powerful but concise arguments for opposing Christian extremists. This is where Harris really shines. In what has to be my favorite sentence of the whole book, he responds to the issue of religious tolerance by writing:
"Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments."
I will remember that the next time a Christian argues that religion has been misused by bad people but does not actually lead to conflict itself.

Despite its flaws, I do recommend Letter to freethinkers, especially those who do not already have End of Faith on their bookshelves. In addition, I recommend this book to Christians who are not completely closed to the possibility that their religious beliefs are maladaptive. I actually bought a few extra copies of this book to give as Christmas gifts this year. Even if the book isn't ideally suited to moderate Christians, I imagine it will provoke some thought and discussion.

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