Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is a short, provocative pamphlet, written in response to vociferously critical letters and emails he received from Christians of all stripes after the publication of his The End of Faith (which I reviewed here). Aimed most directly at the most conservative of Christians, the book carefully spells out just how bizarre and irrational a "deep and abiding faith" can be.
It seems to me to be shooting fish in a barrel by trotting out all the truly sadistic, tribal, and primitive the Bible can be, but fundamentalists bring this upon themselves by quoting it constantly. I love this Richard Dawkins quote from his The God Delusion book:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:
jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty
ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal,
pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadamasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
So I suppose it is of some civic good to point out just how fallible a book the Bible is, and Sam Harris trots out a few more examples. He also tackles the canard brought up by the religious of how "atheists" like Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin remain some of the most brutal killers of the 20th century. As Harris says:
While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. ... The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.
Other weighty subjects Harris discusses in such a thin volume include discussing just how good the Ten Commandments are, whether morality needs a God, just how off track the religious right can be when it comes to doing "good", are the states that are more religious lower in crime (they are not), discussing how fallible this "God" is when it comes to showing any kind of mercy (and the "pirouettes" the devout go through to try and justify the overwhelming misery of so many), Biblical prophesies and their astounding bad track record (or, even better, how they accurately reflect a two thousand year old point of view) and other basic tenets of "faith". It is quite a short, sweet, distillation of all that is irrational when it comes to the Bible and the conservative Christians who live by it.
It ends with:
This letter is the product of failure - the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures - failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently.
Non believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well - by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. this letter has been an expression of that amazement - and, perhaps, of a little hope.
His list of recommended books is:
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
- Breaking the Spell by Danial C. Dennett
- Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman
- Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg
- The End of Days by Gershom Gorenberg
- Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby (my review is here)
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
- Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
- God, the Devil, and Darwin by Neil Shanks
- Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smit
To which one could, of course, add his own The End Of Faith. I am currently reading Breaking the Spell, which is a fascinating exploration of religion as a phenomenon, biological and psychological. Dennett is a professor at a local university (Tufts) and I am keeping my eye out for any local talks he might be giving. Here is a video of Richard Dawkins introducting Dennett as he receives an award at the Atheists Allegiance International '07 conference. Dan Dennett receives the "Richard Dawkins Award" at the AAI 07 conference in Washington, D.C. Julia Sweeney introduces Richard Dawkins, and Richard Dawkins introduces Dan Dennett.