Posted by: Tim | May 25, 2009

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Sam Harris is an atheist who doesn’t think much of Christianity. He wrote a book called Letter to a Christian Nation that has become a best seller. As the title suggests, it is written as a letter to Christians (in America in particular), to try to show them the error of their ways.

I had heard of Sam Harris (and this book) as one of three well known ‘new atheists’ – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whose writings are selling briskly. In preparing for a new Christian apologetics preaching series in the fall, I thought it would be good to read what these new atheists are saying, to get a firsthand understanding of their complaints against Christianity. The book I had read previous was William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, a 400+ page, strong intellectual defense of the Christian faith. So I picked up Letter to a Christian Nation, which is a much shorter book at just over 100 pages, thinking that I needed something lighter for a change.

However, I didn’t imagine how light it would be. I somehow thought that it would be a small but tightly written, poignant attack on the Christian faith, which would cause me to think and challenge me on why I believe what I believe.  Instead what I found was a poorly written rant against Christianity, thoroughly lacking in both rhetorical power and actual substance. Harris meanders almost aimlessly from topic to topic, with many moments that I guess are supposed to be ‘gotcha’s’, but that anyone with a basic knowledge of Christian apologetics could brush aside without much effort. I don’t just say this as a Christian pastor, I say it as a human being – this is a weak book. I do a fair bit of reading, and even if I disagree with something, I can give credit to a well written argument. But Letter to a Christian Nation is just not a worthy book and if I were an atheist I would be embarrassed by it. “Is that the best ya’ got?” is the question that comes to mind. Christianity isn’t in much danger if this is the best the new atheists have to offer.

The first thing that struck me about Letter to a Christian Nation was the amount of white space on the page. I think there is more white space in the margins than actual type. While this does not speak directly to the substance of the book, it does underline how little Harris actually has to say. I also noticed a lack of footnotes or endnotes (but later discovered endnotes at the end of the book – they are not noted in the actual text so you just have to guess that this would be a good place for a note and then flip to the back to see if Harris includes an endnote or not). But these formatting choices are mainly just nuisances. Let’s get into the text itself, looking at a sampling of the arguments he uses against Christianity.

He starts off by cherry-picking passages from the Bible, some dealing with OT laws that involve seemingly  harsh penalties, and some dealing with NT passages talking about God’s judgment (and note that later Harris accuses Christians of cherry-picking Scripture, just as he has done. Afterword, p105). Harris points out that God not only talks about love, but also about punishment. Any person who has read the Bible knows that God is a judge who punishes sin, but Harris treats it like he has found some secret that Christians have been desperately trying to hide, until our brave new atheist discovered these terrible, dark secrets and revealed them for all to see (Isn’t that kind of like the plot of The Da Vinci Code?). Yes, Sam, God punishes sin, and no, it isn’t pretty. That’s why we Christians run around the world telling people of God’s love and warning them of His judgment. We want people to trust in Jesus, love God and avoid hell. We also build schools, hospitals, wells, micro-businesses, and other nice things along the way.

A little further on in his book, Harris describes how a pro-lifer scratching skin their nose should be seen (by the pro-lifer) as an equivalent “Holocaust” to the destruction of a three day old human embryo (pp29-30). No, I’m not making this up. He really says this. Atheists are always bragging about how scientific they are, but on this one Harris seems a little weak in the science department, being unable to distinguish the difference between nose skin and a three day old human embryo. Maybe that is where atheism takes you!?

In one section he describes several countries as being ‘among the least religious societies on earth.’ (p43) He includes my own dear country of Canada on this list. According to a recent Ipsos-Reid survey (in the past five years or so), about 84% (if memory serves me correct) of Canadians believe in God. Canada has thousands of churches and millions of Christians, not to mention hundreds of thousands (millions?) practicing other religions. We have Christian radio, Christian TV, Christian schools (including government funded Catholic schools), Christian politicians saying “God bless Canada”, etc, etc, etc… Oh we irreligious Canadians! What more can we do to show how irreligious we are?….If Canada is supposed to be an example of one of the least religious societies on earth, then it seems Harris must be scraping the bottom of the barrel for examples. I point all of this out to say that Harris needs to be watched on his facts.

Around the middle of the book, Harris defines atheism as follows:

“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious…Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs” (p51)

Where to start…’an admission of the obvious’…’reasonable people’…’unjustified religious beliefs’.  Now there are arrogant Christians, arrogant Muslims, etc…. but it’s not the main point of their religion. Humility is encouraged and celebrated in Christianity, for example. With Harris’ brand of new atheism, arrogance seems to be a virtue. His definition of atheism could be summarized by saying. “Smart people are atheists. Brainless people are religious.” Because of course it so obvious that atheism is true, as all reasonable people can see since religious beliefs are unjustified. To use Harris’ own statistic, 87% of Americans must be pretty dim-witted, including current and past presidents, since they must not be reasonable people who can see the obvious fact that atheism is the way to go, due to their unjustified religious beliefs.

Yes, I realize that drips with sarcasm. But c’mon Sam, would it have hurt you that much to respond to real arguments of real theists, who have shown themselves to be reasonable, and often brilliant people, who have written in favour of belief in God for centuries before you wrote your book? Do you really think that you, as an atheist, are the intellectual superior of all us simple folk who believe in God? Contrary to your assertion, it is in fact quite easy to argue that it is obvious to most people, not that atheism is true, but that there is a God. It actually takes a lot of work to turn people into atheists (and thus atheists have to keep writing books like yours to persuade the masses of how ‘obvious’ atheism is).

Harris goes on to discuss the conflict between science and religion, pointing out how foolish it is to use faith as a reason for justifying belief (pp66-67). He gives examples of things us crazy religious people take on faith such as the “origin of books like the Bible and the Koran,…the resurrection of Jesus” (p67).  Now you would think that Harris would address some of the readily available Christian arguments for the origin of the Bible or the resurrection of Jesus, and consider whether they pass historical tests or not. Try for example, the chapter on the resurrection in Craig’s Reasonable Faith, or Habermas’ & Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Both present strong arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, not from blind faith, but from historical data that is generally agreed upon by liberal and conservative scholars. Craig even delves into probability calculus, giving mathematical reasons for the probability of the resurrection. However, Harris does not even bother to address these or other worthwhile Christian arguments (which can be convincing to Christians and skeptics alike). He just makes assertions about how right he is and how terrible Christianity is, without even trying to respond to the strong arguments arrayed against atheism. Such blatant omission is intellectually weak on Harris’ part. He must know better. But I don’t think his book is meant to be balanced or thoughtful. He is every bit as dogmatic (and even more so) than those whom he seeks to attack. Many Christians are thoughtful and willing to hear opposing arguments. But Harris is an atheist on an ideological tirade – he is ‘religious’ in his passion against Christianity, and it skews his objectivity and makes him so narrow minded that he does bother to deal with legitimate arguments by those with whom he disagrees.

So generally speaking, I don’t recommend A Letter to a Christian Nation, not just because I disagree with it, but primarily because it is not a very good book. But if you are Christian, wondering if atheism has anything to offer, then you may want to check it out. It will strengthen your Christian faith when you see Harris’ weak and one-sided arguments.  If you do happen to find a question that he raises for which you need an answer, a good place to start would be Ravi Zacharias’ response to Harris, The End of Reason. I will be reviewing it in the near future on this blog and hopefully will remember to insert a link here.

Not Recommended (except as a negative example of the weakness of atheism!).

Harris, Sam, Letter to a Christian Nation, Vintage, Toronto, 2008, 120 pages.

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Responses

  1. […] Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.  You can read my review HERE. Don’t waste your time on this one unless you are reading it for research purposes like I […]

  2. LOL I love how you tear apart Harris, as terible as this sounds it made me laugh. I am glad to hear though of your review, it was well written and is a relief to hear as I hope more people see Atheism as it is “one of the biggest lies ever told.”

  3. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It really helpful & it helped me out much. I’m hoping to give something again and help others such as you helped me.


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