Oct. 8, 2006
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ May End Up Being a Case of Preaching to the Choir
By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic
Hinton, WV (HNN) – Sam Harris intends his controversial – and best-selling -- little book “Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 112 pages, $16.95) to be read by believing Christians. My guess is it will be bought and read by agnostics, rationalists and atheists. As a person who has attended Unitarian-Universalist services – and was joined in what passes among the U-U’s for holy matrimony by a Unitarian minister nearly 42 years ago – I’m even guessing that the U-U folks will devour this book.
The old joke about Unitarians that they’d rather go to a lecture about Heaven than go to Heaven is no joke. I think they are really rationalists or even atheists who want to have the presumed comfortable garb of religion around them. I noticed this particularly when Liz and I attended a U-U church in Studio City, California in the 1980s. Unitarians have probably helped give this book its 11th ranking – it was No. 1 for a time -- at Amazon.com.
In addition to Unitarian services, I’ve attended Jewish ones and Episcopal ones, Roman Catholic ones and fundamentalist Black Baptist services at Hinton’s Camon Baptist Church. All these have been part of my observations as a journalist, rather than as a religious believer. Journalists tend to be very European in their belief in religion – meaning, as Harris points out, that non-church-goers vastly outnumber church goers in Europe. It’s a different story with mosque-goers in the increasingly Islamic continent, he points out in his discussion (Page 83 on) on the threat of Muslim extremism to Western civilization – a subject which got much more attention in his earlier debut book (see below).
Believing Christians – and the Jew or Muslim or Sikh or Hindu or Buddhist who reads this book – will refuse to accept Harris’ arguments against religious faith simply because they counter his arguments by saying some things have to be accepted on faith, that you can’t prove everything. Harris says (Page 67) “It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.”
I’ve heard it put another way: that insanity consists of doing something demonstrably wrong over and over, expected a different result. This isn’t in Harris’ book, but it could have been.
Harris, who had a best-seller in 2004 (in paperback October 2005) with “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” (Norton) begins his new book provocatively and expands his provocation by citing chapter and verse and contradictions himself: “Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.”
Even before I sat down and read “Letter to a Christian Nation,” I saw a story about the marketing of the book in the Sept. 28, 2006 Wall Street Journal. Reporter Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg notes in his story, headlined: “Contentious Book Tries to Rile Opposition to Lift Sales”, that the marketing campaign for the book – now in its sixth printing since it hit the bookstores Sept. 19, 2006 – is “partly hyped by a marketing campaign aimed at stirring up controversy among the religious right.”
He’s certainly accomplished that in the book itself, with attacks on creationism and “Intelligent Design” and a strong defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Pages 68-69 and following), where he says that “Christians who doubt the truth of evolution are apt to say things like ‘Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.’ Such statements betray a serious misunderstanding of the way the term ‘theory’ is used in scientific discourse.”
Harris doesn’t come out and say only uneducated knuckle-draggers believe in creationism and ID, but the implication is there. The view throughout the book – which will infuriate believers of all faiths – is that the more educated a person is, the less likely he or she is going to be a believer. Even liberal Christians, those who don’t say every word of the Bible is literally true, are subjected to a pounding by Harris. Take the view – common among religious liberals (if such a concept isn’t really a contradiction in terms) that we all worship the same God. Harris (Page 86): “We do not all worship the same God, and nothing attests to this fact more eloquently than our history of religious bloodshed. Within Islam, the Shi’a and the Sunni can’t even agree to worship the same God in the same way and over this they have been killing one another for centuries.”
Harris acknowledges that perhaps religion once upon a time “may have served an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere.” That was then and this is now, he says: “That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”
“Letter to a Christian Nation” is a book that should be read by religious believers and nonbelievers alike.
Author’s web site: www.samharris.org
Publisher’s web site: www.aaknopf.com