Book Review: Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (NY: Knopf 2006).

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Reason is to morality what design is to construction, and monotheism is a collective intellectual disaster that necessarily implies an international moral emergency.  In a predictably candid, derisive and hyper-focused Letter to a Christian Nation, best-selling author Sam Harris lectures an audience of agitated religionists who protested similar and, in some instances, identical scolds dispensed through his first book, The End of Faith.

Faith, of course, is conviction to truth despite facts and reason.  Many persons of faith believe notwithstanding fashionable ideology or religion, or, metaphorically stated, without a license to do so.  In some cases, unlicensed faith results in moral crises; in others, it does not.  One might design and build a chair, for example, based on nothing more reliable than the desire to construct or possess one.  An irrationally created chair, however, would entail no moral predicament unless the negligent builder either encouraged another person to sit in it or failed to warn potential sitters of its less than apparent danger.  In order to deter and punish unlicensed faith and to compensate victims for the damage it commonly wreaks, Americans have long maintained a vast corpus of negligence law.

Licensed faith, on the other hand, is drastically more problematic, regardless of the particular ideology or religion involved.  When overwhelming majorities accept lesser standards of intellectual integrity, faith becomes institutionalized and contagious.  When the masses commend and promote diminished standards, faith emerges as reason’s officially empowered and subsidized challenger.  Imagine, if you can, an army of publicly sponsored yet incompetent carpenters descending into a no longer free market against highly skilled and responsible craftsmen who, despite an untarnished reputation, have suddenly been denied a competitive opportunity simply because of the majority’s faith in inferior work.  Ideologies and religions, in other words, are naturally belligerent.

Faith in omnipotence only exacerbates the problem.  Monotheism can be distinguished from its unlicensed cousins because it is not merely negligent and from its licensed siblings because it is not simply confrontational.  Convinced that the lone creator of the universe loves her, that it will reward her with eternal bliss on account of her belief, and that it will damn all others to everlasting torment for no reason other than their disbelief, the monotheist displays an arrogance of historically if not conceptually unrivaled proportions.  Thus, dangerous chairs become objects of passionate worship; their builders and owners become zealous enforcers of defective furniture orthodoxy.  Envision ninety percent of all chair owners happily and haughtily sitting, collapsing, and wounding themselves and their neighbors, over and over again, each time returning their defective furniture to the same negligent carpenter for costly and ineffectual repairs.

The analogy is absurd, of course, but no more so than the bizarre phenomenon it describes.  Christianity and Islam, especially, because they define in- and out-groups in terms of perpetual rewards and punishments, are inherently dangerous and immoral traditions.  Monotheists define morality according to no objective and readily communicable standard.  Instead, religious affiliation necessarily depends upon the violent foundational texts that attempt in vain to identify both ethical and non-ethical behavior.  Hence, for the faithful, any conceivable act may be defined as moral so long as the relevant god’s text can be interpreted to support it.  Humans may piously slaughter other humans in any number, in any imaginable way, simply because their faith allows them to trust in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent creator who desires or all too regularly demands that they do so.

The Christian faithful, Harris contends, have inherited some of the most unethical standards imaginable.  Consistent with Proverbs, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Mark and Matthew, pious parents are obliged to thrash or kill their disobedient children.  The Abrahamic texts insist that followers stone not only the adulterer, but also those who labor on the Sabbath.  Although some Christians will argue that New Testament morals have superseded those of the Old, Harris counters that, according to the former, Jesus instructed his followers to remain true to the ancient laws.  The Church incinerated heretics for more than five hundred years as it cited allegedly validating chapter and verse.  Augustine supposed that dissenters should be tortured; Aquinas directed that they be murdered.  Both Luther and Calvin encouraged the slaughter of innocent apostates and Jews.  In no Christian text was Jesus said to have objected to slavery; in many was the practice condoned.

The first four of the Ten Commandments, Harris observes, had nothing to do with morality.  The rest clearly did, but were hardly original.  Virtually every culture edified similar principles in its annals, laws, and myths.  Regardless, morality predates recorded history and, perhaps, humanity itself.  Our closest primate relatives demonstrate some degree of kin altruism and broader social concern.  The point, of course, is that religious ethics represent only one phase of our moral evolution, a phase that humanity can and must transcend.

Hopelessly antiquated religions have grown increasingly counterproductive as sources of moral guidance.  Christians delight in imagining themselves supremely ethical in their opposition to embryonic stem cell research and abortion.  But neither stem cell use nor legal abortions harm anything capable of either experiencing loss or inspiring a reasonable sense of loss in others.  Insisting that human “souls” can inhabit the microscopic recesses of a Petri dish is not a moral argument.  Rather, it is the imposition of both intellectual and moral primitivism.

Indeed, religious ethics often seem impervious to empathy.  Thus, charitable organizations and missionaries frequently appear apathetic to the suffering of others.  Many Christian conservatives oppose vaccination for the human papillomavirus, now the most common sexually transmitted disease in America, largely because they consider HPV an obstacle to premarital sex.  The Vatican contests condom use even to thwart the spread of HIV.  Christopher Hitchens summarized the crisis well when he pointed out that Mother Teresa “was not a friend of the poor.  She was a friend of poverty.  She said that suffering was a gift from God.”  Teresa might have performed admirable deeds for humanity as an individual, but it should be clear that she brought such goodness despite, rather than because of, her religion.  That so much suffering can be directly attributed to religion, Harris concludes, should inform us that honest and thorough criticism of religious faith is both our intellectual and our moral responsibility.

To religious moderates, Harris offers neither sanctuary nor convenient alliance.  Temperance and tolerance are not solutions to this deadly predicament.  To the contrary, religious liberalism’s demand for respect only lends ostensible though certainly not actual credibility to religious dogma and fanaticism.  Moderates simply cannot continue to have it both ways, the author demands.  Either human beings created the Bible, or they did not.  Either Christ was a man, or he was not.  If so, the fundamental and necessary tenets of Christianity are and have always been false.  At some point, Harris persists, one side will win and the other will lose.

Speaking truth to both religious and secular power, however redundantly, has become Sam Harris’s claim to fame, perhaps even his raison d’etre.  Although the underlying problem is a bit more complex than the author appears to recognize, his assessment of faith’s threat to human survival is sound.  Arguably, much of the developed world seems well on its way to begetting the end of faith, or, more precisely, faith of the licensed, monotheistic variety.  In America, of course, the crisis is more severe; a mere letter to a Christian nation will never suffice.  But if such letters are read and rejoined by the right Christians, perhaps history might prove them to have been a very good start indeed.

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