Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (Book Review #107 of 2014)
Letter to a Christian Nation
I suppose this book has been so popular because its shorter than Hitchens or Dawkins' works. Harris brings no new arguments-- he doesn't bring any arguments, really. He claims at one point to be arguing on behalf of thousands of years of science and philosophy but does not cite any of it, particularly philosophy. There have always been philosophical debates about the existence of God, and plenty of philosopher apologists-- Harris is apparently unaware of all of them. As such, he does not argue with thousands of years of philosophers who held a Christian world view, he is only arguing with a caricature of a modern Christian. He apparently is also unfamiliar with logic as the book is filled with contradictions. Harris argues, as Hitchens and Dawkins do, that plenty of atheists are "moral people" who show "compassion" but Harris does not define what morality is. The reader can conclude that Harris himself determines what morality is, or perhaps the 51% majority do? In that sense, Harris makes same mistake as the others-- he has no objective basis on which to make his claims of morality. Christians, on the other hand, make moral claims on the belief that there are absolute truths that are known, one of which being that life is precious because man is created in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect.
Harris, however, opens the book by praising "Christians" who reject absolute truths, which is a major problem for him. Hitchens, for one, rejected liberals or moderates who did not believe in a resurrected Christ who literally lived, taught, died, and was resurrected because that is what the Bible teaches and is the bedrock of orthodox Christianity. Harris basically accepts anyone who marginally believed there may have been a Jesus as a "Christian," which again defies logic. Why hold up as enlightened liberals who reject thousands of years of scholarship and archaeology to reach their own conclusions on who Jesus was based upon their own subjective opinions? It's not clear.
Since Harris alone defines truth in his world view, he can reject as "ignorant" anyone who does not agree with him. He's horrified that the majority of Americans believe in a God, a judgment day, miracles, etc. He does not acklnowledge that thousands of PhD-holding biologists, astrophysicists, anthropologists, etc. are also in this majority and have been for centuries. His preferred method of setting laws and education would be a tyranny of an elect, enlightened few who share his identical ideas. Yet, he calls Christians "intolerant," not realizing that he is also.
Harris is also ignorant of biblical theology. He criticizes his Christian caricatures for taking verses out of context when he is guilty of the same. He is completely ignorant that orthodox Christians, protestant, Catholic, etc., believe that the Old Testament is interpreted through the New, that all of it points to Christ. Therefore, he's completely lost in arguing Christians should follow the laws in Deuteronomy. Like the other new atheists, Harris sees much of the Bible as a prohibition of sexual pleasure-- prudishness for prudishness sake. (He also does not acknowledge that polls repeatedly find married Christians more satisfied with their sexual lives than non-Christians). He does not understand the Gospel, which is tragic.
The book is Hitchens and Dawkins lite, nothing more. The reader should check out Francis Schaeffer's How Then Should We Live for a look at how Western thought, including the humanistic atheism that Harris claims is "truth," developed. It's much better written then this trope and spans centuries of scientific and philosophical thought. I would also recommend William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith, for starters.
It's worth noting that Harris shares a position with many evangelical Christians-- inter-faith dialogue is "useless." Harris writes that many on the Left in the West want to refuse to believe that religious wars happen, when most of the tensions we see around the world revolve around religion: Muslim vs. Buddhist, Christian vs. Muslim, Sunni vs. Shia, etc. Harris opines that it has more to do with religion than simply tribes or cultures. When a person's worldview leads him to conclude that he knows what absolute truth is, then everyone else must be wrong and part of the problem. Harris points to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks as examples of what happens when a group of even well-educated people demonstrate that they "truly believe in a God" and an afterlife. His comments about Islam have drawn criticism from many in America.
Still, Christians would do well to read these kinds of books to see what outsiders think of them and to examine certain statements they make that are problematic. These are the low-hanging fruit that the new atheists latch onto. Harris calls Christians to task-- if we really believe in a God and an afterlife, why don't we live with more conviction? If we believe in a God who is able to work miracles, why do we never pray for an amputee to regrow her limbs? I just wouldn't recommend this one as it's far inferior to Hitchens' God is Not Great. 1 star out of 5. Check out the one-star reviews from atheists.