Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation

"In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms."

This early sentence in the short book by Sam Harris effectively summarizes both the argument that the author seeks to make along with the tone that that argument takes on. It is a book that features a very detailed logical argument against the morals and reasoning of religion (with a focus on Christianity in particular) based on reason, science, and historical basis.

Strengths in Argument

One thing that immediately becomes clear from reading this book is that the author's argument is approached in a manner designed to be as clear and as reasonable as possible so that anyone with the barest knowledge of religion can pick it up and devour it. It is also well researched and completely devoted to this goal; the author even uses a significant amount of text from the Bible itself in order to expose contradictions and hypocrisies. I have not read the Bible myself, but I still found myself able to keep up and understand through the author's very readable explanations and references.

Another strength, I found, was the author's analysis of current events and how the Christian reaction to these can often be inherently harmful and capable of impeding progress. Examples are many; the author touches upon points such as abortion, wars, stem-cell research, responses to natural disasters, and more. On top of that, the author delves deeply into history, seeking to illustrate how damaging religious belief has been to societies.

Most of this I already knew/agreed with, but I still found it immensely interesting to read about. There were some points that had not occurred to me, such as his rational argument for even 'religious moderates/liberals' causing danger to themselves and others. He makes the point that, "Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously," and expands upon that in a way that was revealing to me and, I felt, should have been obvious. One thing that I additionally found interesting was that, whenever I questioned the author's argument, there is an afterword at the end where he responds to common reader criticisms that ended up answering and addressing each of my own thoughts. This speaks to how powerful and detailed the logical argument is.

Failures in Vitriol

However, while this book was astonishingly effective in detailed logical argument, I would argue that it fails in maintaining a reasonable tone. Sometimes it feels as if the author goes out of his way to be offensive and, while this might sell you books, it also weakens the chance of being taken seriously. To that point, the book almost seems designed to scare off the very people it is trying to enlighten; the book is told as if talking directly to a Christian, but does so in a manner that would totally piss one off. For those who regard the Bible as holy writ, the author utterly demolishes and pokes fun at it in a way that would probably leave them outraged or crying on the floor. Of course, his arguments are totally rational and hard to argue with, but that doesn't mean he can't try to be civil about it.

Another example of vitriol comes near the end of the book where he unexpectedly goes off on Muslims. His impression of them comes off almost as near to hatred, which shocked me. Certainly, his thoughts on them are accurate when it comes to extremists, but I felt that he failed to acknowledge the great majority of Muslims who are quite peaceable who live in places other than sections of war-torn Middle East, places such as Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and North Africa. After spending the majority of the book giving fair, if slightly harsh, criticisms of the Christian faith, I was taken by surprise by what seemed to be a very narrow-minded view of Muslims. Thankfully, this is only a small portion of the book and not truly central to his main argument/thesis.


In the end, I would suggest that anyone who is either religious or curious about religion read this book. It is short at about 115 pages; I was able to finish it in an evening. While certainly biased towards atheism, the author provides an argument touching on many levels that prompts you to think about what you believe and assess it in a sensible manner. I would also be infinitely curious to hear what a religious person thinks of this book. I, myself, am agnostic, so I was already predisposed to agree and nod along with much of it. The interesting part would be hearing a religious friend read it and try to make a counterargument.

My only criticism is that I wish the author had approached his argument in a kinder manner. He can be nastily blunt sometimes and, as I mentioned earlier, I think that this lessens the likelihood of any Christian actually reading, much less finishing, the book. Also, his view on Muslims seems to be based on far less research than what he did for Christians; this is only excusable because it is only tangentially related to his argument. But this definitely should be kept in mind for any Muslims who choose to read it. Overall, good stuff that makes you think. Just go into it expecting it to challenge your beliefs/perceptions of Christianity.


  1. I've read a few books that sound similar to this, and although I'm an atheist, I find that when you scratch below the surface most turn into one-sided arguments.

    I think we should all wait at home for Jesus or Masih or Moshiah (or like me, the reaper). What is it about turning away from Catholicism that makes people so vehemently opposed belief? From where does the impulse come to turn literature like this into ammo against John-Q-Christian?

  2. You should read this book and then come back to me. :) This book does do an excellent job of approaching things in a way that avoids one-sided arguments, hence its efficacy. So it might not be as bad as those other books that you've read.