He addresses You, directly and personally, and although he doesn’t know your name he does know what you think. Written in response to a deluge of pro-biblical retortions to his previous book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation is very short and pointedly sharp – A Challenge to the Faith of America.
In a rather glowing introduction, Richard Dawkins underlines a point to come; that, while not only Americans and not only Christians might rise to face this challenge, and while many “moderate” or “liberal” Christians the world over may not recognise their personal faith in the system that concerns Harris so much, more than a hundred and fifty million Americans are fundamentalist Christians. People who believe in Creationism; who would rather ignore or attack any sources of reason which would factually opine to the contrary; and, bluntly, who would greet the news that a major world city had disappeared in a cloud of radioactive fire – even one of their own – with positive delight, because it could only mean the imminent return of their number one best friend, Jesus. And one of them may be your neighbour.
One of them may now be, certainly has been, and may be once again, your elected, nuclear powered leader.
Dawkins challenges all to read this book, either to test the metal of a faith, or gain the best arguments to defend an absence of one; but the very fact that His name and this challenge both make it to the cover may put off many from doing so. So, setting aside his 2% worth (like I said, it’s a short book), what does the actual author have to say?
Harris intends his thoughts to be clear and simple, and he achieves this admirably. The brevity of Letter… means that each point is right there to be faced in the moment, and as a whole it can be grasped in a couple of hours, cover to cover. Tackling a varied selection of core issues arising either in support of faith or in response to its effects in the world, Harris proceeds to examine and challenge each in such a way as to all but defy rational denial – purely because there is so little purchase against his arguments. Obvious biblical loopholes against Word Of God certainty, claims for theistically derived morality and accusations of atheistic immorality, the abortion debate and contraception, intelligent design and the whole gamut of anti-science sentiment… the list goes on. All simple challenges, all hard to dispute.
For example, and I laughed out loud at the straightforward ridiculousness of it all, he points out the well known “fact” that Creationists believe the whole universe was created by God 6000 years ago… about 1000 years after the Sumerians invented glue. How can such a bald-faced contradiction be rejected, except by closing eyes and singing loudly? And how can doing just that be considered the behaviour of intelligent beings?
As you can see, Harris also intends for his feelings on the arguments of the faithful to be clear, which range from justifiably dismissive through sarcastic and disgusted to openly contemptuous – and not always just for his equally extreme main target, the fundamentalist. Harris is also deeply worried by the moderate/liberal religious voice and its frequent role as an apologist for extremism. To say “it is only the lunatic fringe” bombing and killing overlooks too much, overlooks the inherent, potentially dangerous denial of reality that religious belief has seeded into our culture – and though I personally prefer to engage in debate rather than slanging matches, I find myself being won over to the side calling for genuine confrontation as opposed to the softly-softly, shoulder-patting polite chat that seems to be demanded only when discussing deeply held convictions… of faith.
Letter to a Christian Nation makes an excellent argument, and is sure to provoke more, more or less, of the same.