Is atheism “in”? Multi-page expositions in national news weeklies and two books advocating an atheist viewpoint on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for a month. If atheism is in, it is thanks in no small part to Sam Harris, the author of one of those bestselling books, Letter to a Christian Nation.
If you aren’t familiar with his prior bestseller, The End of Faith, his latest book leaves you no question where he stands. In the opening note to Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris is explicit in the purpose of the slim volume: “I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” Evidently due to his high profile, Harris was asked by Newsweek to write a “dissent” for the magazine’s cover story this week titled “The Politics of Jesus.”
Just as The End of Faith was Harris’ response to the role of religion in 9/11, his latest is his response to the reaction of Christians to that book. Harris received thousands of hate-filled e-mails from supposedly devout Christians. Their reaction demonstrated to him that many Christians who invoke and claim to be inspired by the love of Jesus “are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.” Letter to a Christian Nation is his response to them. At the risk of sharing in the hate mail he receives, let me not only praise this work but suggest it needs as widespread distribution and reading as possible.
Despite what the introduction might lead one to believe, Letter to a Christian Nation is not simply an ad hominem attack on Christianity. It is a thoughtful précis of some of the bases, impacts and ramifications of Christian thought and the concept of atheism. First things first, though. Harris acknowledges that his epistle does not necessarily apply to each and every Christian. He narrowly defines the term Christian for this book. It means “a person who believes, at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death.” That doesn’t mean others of Christian persuasion may not be equally subject to some, if not most, of the points Harris makes.
Even Harris would admit that the Christians to whom his work is nominally addressed are probably the least likely to read it. As such, it serves more as an invitation to moderates and what he calls “secularists” to examine religion, in particular Christianity, and its impact on this country. Harris, however, is not necessarily directing his book to “atheists.” The reason? Harris says that
“atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence — and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.
The bulk of the book is devoted to why Harris views these beliefs as unjustified and how they adversely affect the U.S. and the world. As for justification, for example, Harris points out that millions of devout Muslims, just like millions of devout Christians, believe theirs is the true religion and that failure to convert means eternal damnation. Yet both cannot be right and Christians who would demand “proof” from Muslims refuse to demand the same of their own religion.
Harris also points out that Christianity is not necessary for morality to exist. He notes that the first four of the Ten Commandments the religious right wants to post in schools and public buildings have nothing to do with morality. He also points out that Christians who view the Bible as the literal word of God must be ready to accept the death penalty as punishment for violation of those commandments as well as for adultery and working on the Sabbath.
But where Harris excels is in looking at how we blithely accept religious beliefs and let them influence, if not determine, public policy.
Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in.
One of his examples the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most commonly transmitted diseases in the U.S. It causes nearly 5,000 women to die each year from cervical cancer and more than 200,000 deaths worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the vaccine is almost 100% effective in preventing diseases caused by the four HPV types covered by the vaccine, including precancers of the cervix, vulva and vagina. Yet, Harris notes, “Christian conservatives in our government have resisted a vaccination program on the grounds that HPV is a valuable impediment to premarital sex. These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year.”
As such, Harris gives as a concise and highly readable critique of the impact of elevating unproved religious doctrine over science and reality. And while far from a scientific or systematic analysis of Christian faith and beliefs, in so doing Letter to a Christian Nation urges people to examine why Christianity and religion are exempt from the rules that we otherwise apply to everyday life. Equally important, Harris asks why, despite that exemption, religion not only can be used to dictate public policy, any effort to even ask why Christianity is exempt from rational standards is condemned as intolerance.
To put all of this in the space of less than 100 pages is one why this book may be considered a must read book of the year.
Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us unwilling to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and patently ridiculous.
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation