- ’Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. 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.'
- So begins Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris's hard-hitting rebuttal of religious fundamentalism and blind belief. With deceptively simple arguments, he demolishes the myths on which Christianity was built, challenges believers to open their eyes to the contradictions of their faith and warns us of the dangers of America's ever-increasing unification of Church and State.
- ’If you believe in a religion, even the mildest form of Christianity, please read this book. It won’t take you long, but it might change your mind.'
… Matt Ridley
- ‘Sam Harris is a brave, intelligent, clear-sighted author whose brilliant essay should be read by every adult who has ever believed that a religious faith can solve the world's problems.'
… Desmond Morris
- ‘Sam Harris's elegant little book is the most refreshing and wonderful source of ammunition for those who, like me, hold to no religious doctrine. Yet I have some sympathy also with those who might be worried by his uncompromising stance. Read it and form your own view, but do not ignore its message.'
… Roger Penrose
- Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestseller1 The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and winner of the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Non-fiction. He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience. He lives in New York.
Amazon Customer Review
- Reading Harris' latest contribution leaves me in a difficult state. Harris follows through with his attack on religion started in The End of Faith. He ridicules belief in the supernatural, and reviews some well-travelled territory such as ‘the argument from evil'. In doing this he advances some interesting thought-experiments2: if Salamanders can re-grow lost limbs, why wouldn't God, just once, allow an injured child to do so?
- However, supernatural beliefs, on their own, do little harm. Most people have little superstitious oddities: my friend who must sit in the same seat playing Bridge, people who spend good money on homeopathy, not having important meetings on Friday the 13th. Harris' real beef is where such beliefs promote social ills and violence.
- He lays quite a lot of misery at the door of religion, most of it on target, some of it overstated. When travelling in the Caribbean, I enquired why AIDS was such a difficult issue on the small island of St Lucia - surely it must be easy to contain within a tiny population? No, the island is very Catholic and many of the hospitals and educational institutions are under the sway of that ideology - no condoms for them. Clearly this causes much suffering and death, and the Church's position in Africa is implicated in the four million deaths per year on that continent. The Church not only advocates this, but defends it in the face of criticism. I hold those cardinals personally responsible for the policies that exacerbate this suffering. Harris' ninety-some pages are replete with this and many stronger examples.
- I found myself agreeing with almost every word he writes. I completely endorse his intention - to bring back rationality into the spheres where it will make the biggest difference to our human condition. It has long been my belief that religion and religious morality allowed the formation of groups and ordered societies hundreds of years ago, but has outlived its usefulness. It is now a source of social harm and inter-group conflict.
- But I am not sure books like this get the job done. In my circle of friends are, surprisingly, a large number of very religious people. (My beliefs are as strong as Harris'.) One of them even doubts evolution! They are happy, delightful to be with, and make sustained efforts to help the disadvantaged in their communities. Better neighbours one could not wish for. They are smart (Oxford or Cambridge), and while they hold all the fanciful beliefs Harris criticises, they do not proselytise, and are political moderates (even left of centre).
- What Harris' has done (here and in The End..., which I saluted at the time), is to take the fight to the moderates. It is easy to attack Abu Hamza or Pat Buchanan - few would dissent. His argument is essentially that religious moderates provide social and political capital to the fundamentalists.
- I'm with Harris - tolerance has gone too far. No other beliefs are cordoned off from critique in the way that the religious demand. Cartoonists and polemicists can savage politicians, scientists and business people for their beliefs and actions. But put on a robe and special protection is claimed. The special tax and political status that religions, churches and religious schools attract need to be put to the sword.
- One could argue that religion needs to be returned to the sphere of private belief where it does no harm, but this seems far-fetched. All groups organise politically to assert their rights - indeed this is part of what our secular, liberal society should fight for. While we should not privilege religion, neither can we discriminate against it.
- Harris and I both want change, but the moderates are the people we need to influence. Influence does not come from mocking or belittling, even though it is more fun. It does not come from taking cheap shots - and Harris takes many of them. By influencing the moderates, they can over time effect change within their religious institutions. Harris and I won't effect change to these institutions from the outside much as we'd like to. The inter-faith dialogue that Harris criticises needs to happen less between Muslims and Christians and more between secularists and religionists. To do this, we are going to have to stop talking about them and to them as if they were fools.
- Perhaps Harris has done a good thing bringing the moderates into the discussion. After all, not everyone who voted for Bush is a foaming-at-the-mouth radical Christian (much as we'd like to think so). He attracted political support from moderate Christians too - thinking people who want a better, safer, more humane world. It is those guys we need to go after. We need to win their hearts and minds - and that conversation won't start with ‘you are a moron, and this is why....'.
- So keep it up Sam, but keep the end in mind. You, a fellow philosopher, know the road - either from the teachings of the Buddha or Sextus Empiricus - take your pick. We want a coalition of rational people who want change and this includes people who have some funny beliefs. Let them keep those. But let’s not tolerate the consequences of those beliefs and let’s not tolerate the intolerable. Let’s get the moderates talking to us and not hating us. We need to lighten up our attack on their beliefs and get talking shared intentions and shared solutions. Both sides will have to give up self-righteousness and dogmatism - and this is where the political journey meets the psychological and the spiritual.
In-Page Footnotes ("Harris (Sam) - Letter To A Christian Nation")
Footnote 1: See "Harris (Sam) - The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason".
Bantam Press (12 Feb 2007)
"Harris (Sam) - Letter To A Christian Nation"
Source: Harris (Sam) - Letter To A Christian Nation
Foreward – Richard Dawkins
- Sam Harris doesn't mess about. He writes directly to his Christian reader as "you", and he pays "you" the compliment of taking your beliefs seriously: "... if one of us is right, the other is wrong. . . in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other is really going to lose." But you don't (as I can personally understate) have to fit the "you" profile in order to enjoy this marvellous little book. Every word zings like an elegantly fletched arrow from a taut bowstring and flies in a gracefully swift arc to the target, where it thuds satisfyingly into the bullseye.
- If you are part of the target, I dare you to read this book. It will be a salutary test of your faith. Survive Sam Harris's barrage, and you can take on the world with equanimity. But forgive my scepticism: Harris never misses, not with a single sentence, which is why his short book is so disproportionately devastating. If you already share Harris's and my doubts about religious faith and are not part of his target, this book will powerfully arm you to argue against those who are. Or you may be Christian and still not part of the target. This book freely admits that there are Christians who take, as they would see it, a more nuanced view:
liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the "Christian" I address. They should, however, recognize many of their neighbors — and more than one hundred and fifty million Americans.
- And that's the point. It was the menace of those hundred and fifty millions that provoked this book. If your religious beliefs are so vague and nebulous that even well aimed arrows bounce off unnoticed, Harris is not writing for you directly. But you should still care about the emergency that concerns him — and me. Where I, as a scientific educator, am dismayed by the 50 percent of the American population who believe the world is six thousand years old (an error equivalent to believing that the distance from New York to San Francisco is shorter than a cricket pitch), Sam Harris is at least as urgently concerned with other beliefs held by roughly the same 50 percent:
It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if London, Sydney, or New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help humanity create a durable future for itself — socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.
- The "Christian Nation" for whom the book was originally written is, of course, the United States. But it would be complacent folly for us to dismiss it as a purely American problem. The USA, at least, is protected by Jefferson's enlightened wall of separation between church and state. Religion is part of Britain's historic establishment, while at this moment our most pious political leadership since Gladstone is hell bent on supporting "faith schools". And not just the traditional Christian schools, be it noticed, for our government, egged on by an heir to the throne who wishes to be known as "Defender of Faith', is actively sympathetic towards the "us-too" bleatings of other "faith communities'; eager for state-subsidized indoctrination of their children. Would it be possible to design a more divisive educational formula? More importantly, the world's only superpower is close to domination by electors who believe the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog, and believe that they will be personally "raptured" up to heaven within their own lifetime, followed by an Armageddon welcomed as harbinger of the Second Coming. Even from this side of the Atlantic, Sam Harris's phrase, "moral and intellectual emergency" begins to look like an understatement.
- I began by saying that Sam Harris doesn't mess about. One of his points is that none of us can afford to. Letter to a Christian Nation will stir you. Whether it stirs you to defensive or offensive action, it will not leave you unchanged. Read it if it is the last thing you do. And hope that it won't be.
Note to the Reader – Sam Harris
- Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. 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.
- While this book is intended for people of all faiths, it has been written in the form of a letter to Christians in the United States. In it, I respond to many of the arguments that conservative Christians put forward in defense of their religious beliefs. Consequently, the "Christian" I address throughout is a Christian in a narrow sense of the term. Such a person believes, at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity1 of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death. Dozens of scientific surveys suggest that well over half of the American population subscribes to these beliefs. Of course, such metaphysical commitments do not imply any particular nationality or denomination of Christianity. Conservative Christians in every country and of every sect — Catholics, mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on — are equally implicated in my argument.
- While no other developed nation can match America for her piety, all nations must now live with the consequences of what my fellow Americans believe. As is well known, the beliefs of conservative Christians now exert an extraordinary influence over public discourse in the United States—in our courts, in our schools, and in every branch of government.
- While the larger purpose of my work is to arm secularists in every society against their increasingly zealous opponents, in Letter to a Christian Nation I have specifically set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the "Christian" I address. They should, however, recognize many of their neighbors — and more than one hundred and fifty million Americans.
- I have little doubt that most Christians living outside the United States will find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they accord religious belief in general gives shelter to extremists of all faiths. Although most believers do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, few question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. Thus, even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world. In Letter to a Christian Nation, however, I engage Christianity at its most divisive, injurious, and retrograde. In this, liberals, moderates, and nonbelievers can recognize a common cause.
- According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been "guided by God." If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of "intelligent design" would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design. But the current controversy over "intelligent design" should not blind us to the true scope of American religious bewilderment at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of the American population believes that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect presidents and congressmen — and many who themselves get elected — believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah's ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.
- Among developed nations, America stands alone in these convictions. Indeed, I am painfully aware that my country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant. Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying, even to one's friends.
- The truth, however, is that many of my countrymen may not care about the fate of civilization. Forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if London, Sydney, or New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help humanity create a durable future for itself — socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency. The book you are about to read is my response to this emergency. It is my sincere hope that you will find it useful.
… Sam Harris November 1, 2006 New York
Ten Books I Recommend – Sam Harris
- "Dawkins (Richard) - The God Delusion",
- "Dennett (Daniel) - Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon",
- "Ehrman (Bart D.) - Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why",
- Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg,
- The End of Days, by Gershom Gorenberg,
- Freethinkers, by Susan Jacoby,
- "MacKay (Charles), Stone (Norman) - Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds",
- "Russell (Bertrand), Edwards (Paul) - Why I am not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects",
- "Shanks (Niall), Dawkins (Richard) - God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory",
- Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith
In-Page Footnotes ("Harris (Sam) - Letter To A Christian Nation")
Footnote 1: This isn’t the only “essential” doctrinal commitment, and isn’t shared by all that Harris takes aim at (eg. the Jehovah's Witnesses).
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)