Home / Book Review — The Atheist Manifestos I: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Book Review — The Atheist Manifestos I: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

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Is atheism "in"? There are multi-page expositions in national news weeklies and two books advocating an atheist viewpoint have been 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 Harris 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."

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. After it was published, 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." 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 failure to convert to it 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 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 deals with 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."

Harris provides a concise and highly readable critique of the impact of elevating religious doctrine over science and fact. And while far from a scientific or systematic analysis of Christian faith and beliefs, 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 religion not only can be used to dictate public policy, any effort to 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 reason why this book may be considered a must-read book of the year.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • Leslie Bohn

    I have little to add to this nice review but my support for Mr. Harris and his viewpoints. Thank you, Tim Gebhart, for pointing out the value of this book and its wonderful, thought-provoking predecessor.

  • I suspect that the reason atheism seems to be “in” right now is largely the promotional campaign for Dawkins’ book. In one sense, atheism has been “in” in American since the 1800s (see Feldman’s Divided By God for a decent overview of atheism in American history), or much farther back than that.

    Capturing media outlets and attention is one thing. I know several devout Christians who have read Dawkins’ book, and I suspect some of them have read Harris’ as well.

  • Leslie Bohn

    I think the media campaign around “End of Faith” two years ago was much bigger, Mr. Winn.
    I think that people are responding to reason more and more every day because of the incredibly negative news regarding every established religion in the world, whose representatives have made a particularly obvious mess of things lately, from Muslim beheadings to Catholic child-raping.

    Still, let’s not overreach. “Atheists” are among the most hated minorities in the nation. There has never been an openly atheist member of congress or other major national office. And remember, “atheists” are among the least trusted groups in American society, as noted here.

    I think Harris is a much more engaging, skilled writer than Dawkins, although Dawkins is quite cheeky, too. I’m glad to hear some Christians are reading Dawkins. He’s difficult to argue against.

  • Those who agree with Dawkins may find him “difficult to argue against,” but most Christian readers find his arguments very simplistic and not at all convincing on any level.

    It is difficult for someone on either side of the theistic divide to truly understand where the other is coming from. The gap is vast, and so the arguments that each side thinks should compel the other usually don’t.

    I haven’t read Harris yet, but I don’t expect he’ll be any more challenging to faith in general or Christian faith specifically than Dawkins, which is to say not at all.

    You raise an excellent point about the timeliness of organized religion’s embarrassments. It seems to be much easier to inveigh against organized religion in favor of humanism right now than it was, say, when the most atrocious mass-murderes around were secular humanists.

    One *might* think that the widespread suffering on both sides of the theistic divide would cause more of us to be more humble about our views, but it seems not.

  • Leslie Bohn

    Mr. Winn: Why would someone who agrees with Dawkins argue with him?

    And I disagree with the notion that it’s hard for me, as a man of reason, to understand “where the other is coming from.” Like almost everyone, I know hundreds and hundreds of religious people, including my own friends and family. The religious point of view is absolutely pervasive in American culture, and
    I understand it very well. I just find that it’s an awful, completely untrue, inherently ruinous path.

    Also, I notice you don’t actually counter (or even mention) any of Dawkins’ arguments, although you do assert that refutation would be easy.

  • I have viewed Harris’ book and am a Christian. The majority of his arguments are centred around the same core of most atheist arguments, that is, what man has done in the name of Christianity and holding this up as “proof” that Christianity is bad.

    The other weapon of choice is ignoring key teachings such as the grace/law dichotomy and using selected out of context scripture to support his argument.

    I agree with the earlier poster, the divide is great. It is two opposing world views. If you hold to the Christian world view, then, there is more than just evolution, chance, etc. and life was created for a reason and continues beyond this world. If you hold to the atheist view, then we are the result of evolution, we live 80 or so years and die with nothing more.

    If you take the atheist view, then human life ultimately is of no value and any “absolute” morals are nothing more than a transitional phase representative of the given day and age.

    No philosopher has ever or will ever resolve this dillema about the value of human life and the why we are here, what is the purpose without a Personal God.

    Man starting from himself as the “centre of the universe” can not resolve it. To resolve the why we are here and how we fit in requires a personal God.

    Further, instead of taking what Man has done in the name of Christianity (same could be said for when Christians attack Atheists holding up Hitler, etc), each person has a responsibility to seek the truth themselves and evaluate the positions presented. Basically, ask themselves the big questions, honestly and seek honest answers.

    The Bible does stand up to scrutiny, it has for over 2000 years and will continue to do so. So does Jesus and the comprehensiveness of the Good News.

    Unfortunately we (me included) are a “bandwagon” society and lazy to boot so instead of doing the hard work we rely on that of others and take it as factually correct just because it is written or published with little critical thought.

    I will be criticised for not reading his book in full, but then couldn’t the same be said about Harris, his arguments (that I viewed) clearly show he has not taken the time to even try and understand the Gospel.

  • V.M.R.

    Admittedly, I have not read Mr. Harris’ books, though I will if they are available in my public library. I take issue with the statement in this review, “Yet both cannot be right and Christians who would demand “proof” from Muslims refuse to demand the same of their own religion.” First, not all persons who purport to be “Christian” or to speak for Chrisitianity are Christian in the way that Jesus Himself would have wanted us to use the word. Second, since we know that objective “proof” of one’s spiritual beliefs is impossible, we would never ask for proof of Muslim beliefs and never have. Christians might debate with Muslims at logical, moral, and spiritual levels, but the idea of requesting or submitting scientific “proof” is absurd. Third, there is overwhelming archaeological and academic evidence to support the Bible as history and to support everything stated about Jesus Christ. Note that “evidence” is not the same as “proof.” For example, we have infinitely more and better evidence for what Jesus said and did than for what Aristotle said and did, but we have no “proof” of either one. Last, and least satisfying to atheists, is that Christian faith is confirmed as valid by the spiritual changes and events in a person’s life after they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The proof, in other words, is 100% subjective. We Christians can say, “Jesus changed me and my life, so I KNOW He lives.” Each person must make a decision on what to do with scientific evidence combined with the subjective statements of witnesses to Jesus’ power and love. I wonder if Mr. Harris even knows what the scientific and academic evidence says about Jesus? Guess I’ll read the book and find out.

  • Leslie Bohn

    The two posters above prove that it is much easier to debunk a book if you haven’t actually read it. Thanks for your views on the book, Nigel and VMR.

  • Leslie (#5), this is my last comment — you can have the last word.

    1. I didn’t say that one who agrees with Dawkins would attempt to argue with him. I said that only someone who agrees with Dawkins would consider him difficult for anyone to argue with. Most people consider their own views to be the only possible rational explanation for anything, and the inability to consider otherwise is what most people identify as arrogance — and foolishness.

    2. Your earlier statement that Dawkins was difficult to argue with has already revealed that you don’t really understand the viewpoints of theists, and your continued empty denouncements only underscore the point. It remains — your assertions to the contrary notwithstanding — difficult for either side to truly understand the other, and as long as people ignorantly believe otherwise, the impasse remains.

    3. This is a (well-written) review of a book by Harris which I’ve not yet read, not an open forum to debate the merits of Dawkins’ views. Those who have spent a couple of comments addressing the issues that divide theists and atheists have earned only scorn from you for not having read the book. Since I have not read the book either, how can I respond?

    For that matter, you’ve made some pretty remarkable assumptions about me.

    Lest one thing I’m an ogre for picking and choosing what to respond to, note that you haven’t addressed Nigel nor V.M.R, or for that matter my additional comments about theism and humanism as related to cultural trends. I don’t expect you to; I only note it for consistency’s sake.

    A bit of unasked-for advice for you: One of the things I find so off-putting about many Christians is their firm certainty that their ideas (no matter how irrelevant or obscure) are so blindingly obviously true that only a determined fool could persist in unbelief. So far your statements have been just as shrill, just as unappealing, and just as fruitless for atheism.

    That’s all. Thanks.

  • ne of the things I find so off-putting about many Christians is their firm certainty that their ideas (no matter how irrelevant or obscure) are so blindingly obviously true that only a determined fool could persist in unbelief.

    In other words, Christianity is a religion. Beliefs reached by pure faith tend to be absolute and overbearing, whether they be those of a religion or a political philosophy like socialism.

    Anyway, sounds like a good book. But do most of us really need a book to know all we need to know about the excesses of Christianity and other religions, or to understand that just as we should ‘hate the sinner, not the sin’ we should hate the christian bigot, not the basic tenets of the faith.


  • Leslie Bohn

    Mr. Winn:

    Your statement about “difficult to argue with” says, essentially, that to those who agree with Dawkins, his arguments are solid. That is really saying not much at all, was my point.
    Yes, I do understand the opposing viewpoint. As I mentioned, many of my family and friends are very religious. I’ve also read extensively on the subject, and studied theology in school. Read the Vedas, the big Buddhist philosophers, the Bible, the Koran.

    It’s easy to avoid supporting one’s arguments by stressing that one side just doesn’t understand the other. I do understand, and I reject. Like I understand the Greek system of gods and I understand scientology and I understand alchemy. I reject them as wrongheaded.

    And, finally, I surely have made and expressed no assumptions about you at all, as a simple reading of my comments will show. Here’s one assumption, which I base on your posts: You’re pretty hostile.

  • Sigh. I said I wouldn’t continue this, but you’ve managed to woo me. :-/

    See, it’s interesting to me that you say I’m hostile. In comment #4, in the paragraph that beings by saying that you “raise an excellent point,” I mentioned that organized religion and humanism both have lists of millions of dead people to answer for, and suggested that this simple fact seems like it ought to lead to greater humility. You responded by labeling the beliefs of billions as “awful, completely untrue, inherently ruinous” and contrasted yourself as “rational” with those who hold such views, implying then that they are all “irrational.” Is this not seen as hostile by you?

    I don’t think it’s just a rhetorical trick to say that most people are blindly loyal and don’t realize how completely and totally they’ve bought into their own views!

    I am quite surprised by your apparently inability to understand what is really a very simple and easy point I was trying to make back in comment #4. Yes, I think you’ve finally hit it — sort of — in that what I mean is that people who agree with Dawkins agree with Dawkins. People who don’t, don’t. People who agree with Dawkins find his statement compelling and people who don’t, don’t. Yes, indeed, this is all very basic and simple — except that you suggested that his arguments are “difficult to argue against” which seems to sugest that you weren’t thinking of this point we both agree is so very simple I wasted my time making it!

    You disagree with religion in general. I understand that. You’ve read books. I get that, too. You believe that you’re smart and rational. Again, I comprehend this. Here’s the thing: Many theists disagree with humanism. Many of them have also read books. Many of them are smart and rational. Your friends and family may or may not fall into this category, but many people surely do. These people reject atheism as wronghead, and possibly ruinious to society, as well as obviously catastrophic (from their perspective) on a personal level.

    I believe you understand all this, but you can’t seem to see how your statement practically reek of a sort of arrogance that implies you don’t *really* understand this. That you believe all theists are irrational animals who’ve never actually researched the subject or read Dawkins or Harris. Whether you really believe these things or not I’m not completely certain, but that is certainly the impression you’ve left with me, and I suspect with many others. At least many others who don’t disagree with you.

    Dawkins’ label of “brights” is one of those things which makes perfect sense to people on one side of the label and is both repugnant and silly at the same time to people on the other. Is anything served by making lists of smart people on both sides of the issues at hand? Um, no.

    Of course, for standing up for reason and rationality and consistent treatment of people regardless of their views, I’ve been branded as hostile, though you were first to negatively characterize others. Isn’t that interesting?

    I say it again — and this is true in politics, in religion, and in most areas of life — few of us are capable of objectively measuring ourselves according to the same rules we use for others.

    And now I really will resist any further urges to comment. Thanks for the conversation!

  • V.M.R.