Monday, May 19, 2014

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris is a very short, somewhat acerbic treatise in support of atheism.  The author’s reason for writing the book is because of the response he received from a previous book he’d published.  According to the “Note to the Reader,” Harris received hostile communications, the most vicious coming from Christians.  This was the impetus for his writing this book, a response to the many warnings and arguments these “well-meaning” readers sent to him after reading his book The End of Faith.

I can’t say I found the book to be a strong argument against Christianity or religion in general.  Instead, I found the author’s arrogance and condescension off-putting.  If I were a Christian, none of his arguments would have been especially convincing.  He makes sweeping generalizations and even manages to come off sounding as fundamentally self-righteous as any Tea Party conservative, praising God while denouncing the homosexual agenda.  Christians are manipulative, ignorant, or more interested in perpetuating a lie than in seeing the obvious truth. 

If I were unsure of what I believed or why I believed as I did, this book would not encourage me to consider atheism as a viable option.  Instead, I think I would have found myself annoyed by Harris’ tone.  This is the first New Atheist book I’ve read although not the first I tried to read.  Previously, I left Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion unread because he used the term “Jewish agenda” and have no patience for anyone who tacks “agenda” onto anything in their rhetoric in anything but an ironic context.  (Yes, I used it in this post specifically to be ironic.)  Harris managed not to be so immediately offensive.  It does not surprise me that many Christians wrote to him; what surprises me is that he bothered to write this book at all.  He clearly didn’t think it would be a tool for conversion.  One can only assume he meant it to be amusing to other atheists, and few others.

More interesting to me is his contention that he received thousands of communications telling him he is wrong and that the most vociferous came from Christians.  He assumes they were conservative Christians and that any reasonable liberal-minded Christian reading his book will recognize how they are as guilty of heinous choices as the religious zealot who is willing to die for a belief.  Raising a child to believe in God—whether one calls him Jehovah, YHWH, Allah, or by any other name—is tantamount to brainwashing and turning a blind eye to the neo-conservative political movement, rooted as it is in fundamental Christianity, is on par with Germans becoming allow Hitler’s regime.

The irony is that Harris himself comes across as fundamental as any Christian I’ve ever heard. He knows what he knows and thinks anyone who disagrees with him and his ilk are fools.  Perhaps he’s right.  However, because of his tone, there’s little to no hope that anyone who disagrees with him will care enough to actually consider what he has to say. However, I think that there is an obvious audience for this book—the new atheist who is angry with the faith of his/her fathers, whatever form it may take, who is facing conflict from his/her former community of believers.  So often those who have to defend something in which they are not quite assured, they come off as defensive and angry.  Maybe that is the real problem.  For all his certainty, Harris sounds strident and unconvinced, even unconvincing, as a result. 

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