Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian nation

Tom Shipka

In his first book, The End of Faith, published in 2004, Sam Harris - philosopher-neuroscientist-and religious skeptic wrote about religion. In his second book, Letter to a Christian Nation, published a few months ago, Harris writes to the religious, especially American Christians. Both books are New York Times bestsellers. In the Letter, which runs for a mere ninety-five pages, Harris outlines the alleged defects of religion and entreats believers to take a fresh look at their worldview so that, in his words, there can follow a "public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty." (87)

His critique of religion includes these points.

First, religions contradict one another, so they cannot all be true. (5-7)

Second, sizeable segments of the religious community defy the exhaustively confirmed findings of modern science on evolution. (x)

Third, the Bible is a bad place to look for a moral code. For instance, the Bible condones slavery, beating children and even killing them in certain cases, and stoning people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, and other deeds. A morally praiseworthy part of the Bible, the Golden Rule, was taught long before Jesus by Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, and Epictetus (8-11) and it amounts to nothing more than intelligent self-interest. (23-24)

Fourth, the stance of many believers on embryonic stem cell research, abortion, contraception, and vaccinations to prevent HPV (human papillomavirus) needlessly perpetuates suffering. (23-32)

Fifth, doing good does not require belief in God. For instance, many doctors "are moved simply to alleviate suffering, without any thought of God." (33) And surely the members of the National Academy of Science, ninety-three percent of whom reject belief in God, are "at least as well behaved as the general population." (39)

Sixth, secular societies in the world have a higher level of development and a lower level of crime than religious societies. (39-44)

Seventh, in the United States, the red states, which are populated by large numbers on the religious right who vote Republican, have higher crime rates than the blue states. (45)

Eighth, "Countries with high levels of atheism are also the most charitable both in terms of the percentage of their wealth (which) they devote to social welfare programs and the percentage (which) they give in aid to the developing world." (46)

Ninth, there is no satisfactory solution to the classic problem of evil. The enormity of human and animal suffering in the world is incompatible with the notion of an all-good, all-powerful God. (52-57)

Tenth, beliefs should be based on sufficient evidence, not faith. "(F)aith (believing without evidence) is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail." (66-67)

Eleventh, the traditional arguments for the existence of God are all fatally flawed. (66-79)

Twelfth, Our "competing religious certainties" are killing us, literally. Religious differences exacerbate conflict and impede the creation of stable governments and viable economies in at least thirteen areas of the world. (79-82)

Thirteenth, Islam is the greatest single threat to humanity's long-term survival and happiness. "The idea that Islam is 'a peaceful religion hijacked by extremists' is a fantasy" (85)

Obviously, Harris has given us a highly provocative polemic against religion. It remains to be seen whether believers in great numbers will read it, whether they will carefully evaluate his claims and arguments, and whether they will engage in the public discourse on religion that he recommends.

Copyright © 2006 by Tom Shipka