My review of Letter to a Christian Nation

My grandfather recently sent me a copy of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. For whatever reason, before I even started reading it, I decided that I would review it here on my web log. It's a short book about a topic that I like thinking about, so I think it's a good candidate for my first-ever book review. So here goes.

The book is addressed specifically to an American Christian reader. That's the "You" in the book's first sentence:

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.

In Letter, Harris is trying to convince this reader that these beliefs, and others associated with them, are both baseless and harmful. He does this in a rather free-flowing manner, moving naturally from point to point, sometimes at the expense of thoroughness. For this review, I'll break his letter down into the separate points I think he was trying to make.

We are all atheists, with regards to most religions
Harris' first line of attack is to point out that Christians are completely unconvinced by the Qur'an's and Muslims' claims about the truth of Islam's tenets; since they approach these claims with skepticism, Christians won't believe them until someone proves them to be true (which is impossible). This is a valiant attempt at getting Christians to try to think outside of their own beliefs, to point out that they are able to rationally reject the claims of Islam as ridiculous, yet they accept the claims of their own religion.

The Bible is not a good basis for morality
Harris begins his next argument by claiming that, "questions about morality are questions about happiness and suffering." While I agree with this, I imagine many in his target audience might instead claim that questions about morality are really questions about what God wants people to do. Harris goes on to argue that the Bible is not a good basis for morality by citing many examples of the Bible explicitly endorsing some dreadful things, in both the Old and New Testaments. I think even if a skeptical reader doesn't buy Harris' initial framing of what morality is about, he would still find himself hard-pressed to be in agreement with the Bible when it sentences disobedient children, people promoting other religions, and those who work on Saturdays, among many others, to death ((Coincidentally, I was working Saturdays when I first read the book.)). Harris also points out the Bible's unequivocal support for slavery (again in both Testaments), treating this as an example of a moral question to which the Bible's answer is clearly in conflict with the views of practically everyone alive today. American abolitionists may have used the Bible as an inspiration in their cause, but so did their pro-slavery opponents.

I can almost hear the modern Christian's response now: "That was a distortion of true Christianity. Real Christians would never support slavery." One hears this sort of line most often today in the context of Muslims denouncing terrorism ((In David Rohde's interview on Fresh Air, he talks about this view)), but just as often from one Christian denouncing the past or present actions of other Christians ((Like the modern pope denouncing the Crusades)). Harris makes it painfully clear that any document that can be used to both justify and condemn something as morally clear-cut as slavery is not a useful basis for morality.

We can have morality without religion
Harris goes on to propose that a scientific inquiry into maximizing human happiness is a perfectly acceptable way of discovering morality without any reference to God or Scripture. He doesn't really go into the details of the specifics of his utilitarian moral theory, and he admits that science is a long way from providing all the answers, but he points out that using this method can lead one to some objectively verifiable statements about right and wrong. Like, killing and raping are wrong because they cause unnecessary suffering. It is tempting to criticize Harris for not fleshing out his proposed alternative morality, but he is not trying to fully expound upon an atheist moral system; to do so would have taken a much longer book. He merely tries to show that morality is possible without God or the Bible.

Christian beliefs cause unnecessary suffering
Harris goes through a short list of modern-day, controversial issues on which he thinks Christians are morally wrong. The common thread throughout is that Christians are concerned not with maximizing human happiness on Earth, but on following rules supposedly set by God. For example, if one compares the suffering felt by a three-day-old human embryo when it is used in stem-cell research, one one hand, to the potential suffering that its use might alleviate in others, on the other, stem-cell research stops being controversial at all. The embryos destroyed contain fewer cells than an insect's brain, and so could not possibly feel anything at all. Of course, Christians have reasons for opposing the destruction of three-day-old embryos, but Harris succinctly debunks them as having nothing to do with suffering, or objective reality for that matter.

By analyzing moral questions from a fact-based, utilitarian viewpoint, Harris arrives at conclusions that are impossible to reach when one starts with all the baseless assumptions which have been granted mainstream legitimacy under the banner of Christian morality. Harris points out that these assumptions lead Christians to be much more concerned with the things that "people do while naked" and dubious concepts such as the soul than with real problems.

Christianity is not the only or perfect motivation for doing good
Here, Harris has two main points:

  1. It is not necessary to be inspired by Christianity in order to do good things.

  2. Even among those Christians who are incredibly compassionate, some of their beliefs may diminish their effectiveness in helping others.

I would hope the first point stands as an obvious fact.

Regarding Christians being hindered by their beliefs, Harris focuses mainly on Christian attitudes towards contraception and abortion. Believing that they are doing right, Christians travel to remote villages in Africa as missionaries. Whatever good they may do there, Harris writes, convincing people in sub-Saharan Africa ((where in some countries 61% of all deaths are caused by HIV)) that condom use does terrible harm. Harris writes, "This kind of piety is genocidal".

An example from more immediate events: some Christians have decided to spend their time and money (not to mention air-cargo space) on sending audio Bibles to the earthquake victims in Haiti. Because of the finite resources available, everything is a trade-off. Spending time and money on sending Bibles necessarily means not spending that time and money on sending other things. Before the earthquake, 96% of Haitians were Christian and 80% lived in poverty. Anybody who looks at those numbers and decides to send Bibles is obviously more concerned with some other world than this one.

Atheists are not (necessarily) evil
I have heard Christians attack atheism by pointing to Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Stalin as examples of atheists' immorality ((In this video of Hannity & Colmes, at about 6:30, Sean Hannity does just that)) . Harris does not try to defend these men; rather, he lumps them in with religious people:
"The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths".

Harris tries to show how unreasonable these men really were. The point is that atheism does not necessarily lead to being a good, or even sane, person. What Harris is advocating is reason, and these men prove that it is perfectly capable to be an unreasonable atheist.

Harris misses an opportunity to use hard evidence to dismiss the notion that atheists are any less moral. Refuting the validity of the commonly-used dictators example is useful in its own way, but it bears pointing out that one doesn't have to discuss outliers or anecdotal examples to establish that atheism does not normally lead to anti-social behavior.

To continue analyzing Harris' book point-by-point would verge on copyright infringement, and would certainly make for too long a review. Harris makes a very strong case against Christianity, and I am in agreement with all of his major points. However, I think there is room for debating the relative good and harm done to the world by actions which are religiously inspired, and which would not happen otherwise. For example, there are secular charities that feed the hungry and clothe the poor, and there are also many churches and religious charities that do the same thing. Are secular societies less charitable? A quick glance at the willingness of the largely secular Danes and Swedes ((According to the Eurobarometer 2005 poll, about a fifth believe in neither a god, spirit, nor life force)) to tax themselves in order to fund social welfare programs suggests to me that a decrease in religiosity will not result in a decrease in altruistic behavior.

So what does this book mean for me? It has alerted me to some of the negative effects of religion, and Christianity in particular. I made my mind up years ago that I am not a Christian, but I am now convinced that the world is a better place for it.

This book was given to me by a man, whom I respect and admire greatly, who told me that after reading it, I might come around to his view that religious people are toxic and should be avoided. First of all, for any slightly social person in the United States of America, that is practically impossible. Secondly and more importantly, this book does not say that Christians are evil or stupid. It says that their beliefs are baseless, and that those beliefs have negative consequences in the world.