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Letter to a Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
(91 pages, $16.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Laura Echevarria
Everyone believes in something because, my professor taught us, he has faith in the person or means by which he was taught it. Tear down the credibility of that source, and do so with respect, and you can persuade your audience to accept your view.
Sam Harris could have learned much from my professor. A graduate in philosophy from Stanford currently completing a doctorate in neuroscience, he has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions. His first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, was a New York Times bestseller.
In his second book, Letter to a Christian Nation, he attempts to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” Other atheists may cheer him on, but his persuasive powers dwindle as, page after page, he challenges the Bible less and the intestinal fortitude of the reader more—perhaps inevitably, since he is trying to discount several thousand years’ worth of beliefs in only 91 pages (followed by only 29 endnotes).
“Liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the ‘Christian’ I address,” Harris states in the introduction. Although they “do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew” (emphasis mine).
Similarly, writing of the Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ, he declares:
Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.
Harris apparently tries to cover every argument he’s ever wanted to make against Christianity: Because 99 percent of the species that have roamed the earth are now extinct, “this fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design.” If the Bible is a book of moral guidance, then why does it not condemn slavery? A compassionate God would have stopped catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. The Ten Commandments are inferior to the ascetic religion of Jainism, which commands followers, “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” And so on.
He is deeply disappointed in the Bible. If it was written by an omniscient being, why does it not make “perfectly accurate predictions about human events,” such as the invention of computers and the Internet?
But his attempts to discredit the Bible fall short. One example: He offers as an argument against its value that it “contains no formal discussion of mathematics.” He then argues that the Bible misidentifies the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference, while “the Egyptians and Babylonians both approximated p to a few decimal places. . . . The Bible offers us an approximation that is terrible even by the standards of the ancient world.”
The verses he cites, describing the Temple’s furnishings (1 Kings 7:23–26 and 2 Chron. 4:2–5), give measurements in cubits that equal a ratio of 3:1. But in the first, the Bible only describes the bath as being “circular” in shape, and in the second, the Bible gives only the measurements of the bath.
A Pauline Harris?
Harris writes as if he is trying to reason with an adult who insanely persists in believing in a fairy tale whose foolishness and danger are obvious. “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs,” he insists.
But are his noises reasonable? Not on the evidence of this book. Harris’s antipathy to all things Christian reminded me of the account of the Apostle
Paul before his conversion. As Saul of Tarsus, he was vehemently opposed to Christianity and saw it as his mission to wipe out anything connected to it.
We can pray that Harris has a similar experience, and that the violence of his reaction to Christianity comes from a sense that it might be true.
Laura Echevarria is the former director of media relations for National Right to Life (www.nrlc.org) and is now a freelance writer working on her first book about the Democratic party and moral values. She lives in Virginia with her husband and three children and attends Faith Baptist Church in Fredericksburg.