on 2 June 2008
It is sometimes said that the pen is the sharpest of weapons when used correctly. In no book I have read has this been more true. This book is a mere 90 very small pages, even slow readers will make it through in a couple of hours, and the arguments are completely devastating all the way through, I was an out-an-out atheist before reading it, and I've always been so, but this book makes the points so well that I almost felt sorry for any true believers reading it, they must be crying when they finish this, but if so, it should be tears of joy and understanding.
Challenge every believer you know to read this book.
on 7 September 2008
This book is really suited to someone who wants to get the key arguments against Christianity without having to spend a long time reading something like 'The God Delusion' or 'The End of Faith'. It's very short and could be read in a day or even in a single reading.
Most head-in-the-sand Christians won't read anything that would challenge their faith but I would hope that a simple, short book like this would make that simple task more feasable. By reading this book, a Christians would certainly have some questions and be forced into a bit of thinking. But if their faith is genuine, honest and real why fear this?
Surely they'd come out the other side with a deeper, stronger faith.
I'd certainly applaud Harris for going out of his way for making it as easy as possible for a Christian to challenge their beliefs - a crucial part of any objective thinking.
Harris makes some excellent points. Among them:
1. Four of the most revered Theologians Augustine, Aquainus, Calvin and Luther were mad men who advocated torture and all sorts of hardship.
Does this mean that the Joe average Christian, who one would assume would abhor such perniciousness, can understand scripture better than the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity?
2. Objections to stem cell research from hardline Christians is preventing research into the most promising science that offers hope to so many cruel and life debilitating ailments.
3. The problem of evil - how could a loving God preside over such a cruel world. Theodicy cannot answer this.
4. The number of world conflicts emanating from regions with disparate religious groups:
- Palestine (Jews V Muslims)
- Balkans (Orthodox Serbians V Catholic Croatians V Bosian Muslims)
- Northern Ireland (Protestants V Catholics)
- Kashmir (Muslim V Hindus)
- Sudan (Muslims V Christians and animists)
- Nigeria (Muslims V Christians)
- Ethiopia (Muslims V Christians)
- Ivory Coast (Muslims V Christians)
- Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists V Tamil Hindus)
- Philippines (Muslims V Christians)
- Iran and Iraq (Shiite V Sunni Muslims)
- Caucasus (Orthodox Russians V Chechen Muslins, Muslims Azerbaijanis V Catholic and Orthodix Armenians).
It can't all be a coincidence. Surely there's something dangerous about religion that any rational person should be able to observe.
Is the Bible a fail safe guide to morality? It certainly has some extremely disturbing passages such as stoning your bride to death if she is not a virgin.
Is Christianity the number one religion for love and compassion? Even a cursory examination of Jainism would show that not to be the case.
But why are so many Christians adamant they have the moral highground, the truth and pretty much everything you need unless you are one of them?
It really is a great little book.
on 16 April 2007
Letter to a Christian Nation - Review
Reading Harris' latest contribution leaves me in a difficult state. Harris follows through with his attack on religion started in The End of Faith. He ridicules belief in the supernatural, and reviews some well travelled territory such as `the argument from evil'. In doing this he advances some interesting thought-experiments: if Salamanders can re-grow lost limbs, why wouldn't God, just once, allow an injured child to do so?
However, supernatural beliefs, on their own, do little harm. Most people have little superstitious oddities: my friend who must sit in the same seat playing Bridge, people who spend good money on homeopathy, not having important meetings on Friday the 13th. Harris' real beef is where such beliefs promote social ills and violence.
He lays quite a lot of misery at the door of religion, most of it on target, some of it overstated. When travelling in the Caribbean, I enquired why AIDS was such a difficult issue on the small island of St Lucia - surely it must be easy to contain within a tiny population? No, the island is very Catholic and many of the hospitals and educational institutions are under the sway of that ideology - no condoms for them. Clearly this causes much suffering and death, and the Church's position in Africa is implicated in the four million deaths per year on that continent. The Church not only advocates this, but defends it in the face of criticism. I hold those cardinals personally responsible for the policies that exacerbate this suffering. Harris' ninety-some pages are replete with this and many stronger examples.
I found myself agreeing with almost every word he writes. I completely endorse his intention - to bring back rationality into the spheres where it will make the biggest difference to our human condition. It has long been my belief that religion and religious morality allowed the formation of groups and ordered societies hundreds of years ago, but has outlived its usefulness. It is now a source of social harm and inter-group conflict.
But I am not sure books like this get the job done. In my circle of friends are, surprisingly, a large number of very religious people. (My beliefs are as strong as Harris'.) One of them even doubts evolution! They are a happy, delightful to be with, and make sustained efforts to help the disadvantaged in their communities. Better neighbours one could not wish for. They are smart (Oxford or Cambridge), and while they hold all the fanciful beliefs Harris criticises, they do not proselytise, and are political moderates (even left of centre).
What Harris' has done (here and in `The End...', which I saluted at the time), is to take the fight to the moderates. It is easy to attack Abu Hamza or Pat Buchanan - few would dissent. His argument is essentially that religious moderates provide social and political capital to the fundamentalists.
I'm with Harris - tolerance has gone too far. No other beliefs are cordoned off from critique in the way that the religious demand. Cartoonists and polemicists can savage politicians, scientists and business people for their beliefs and actions. But put on a robe and special protection is claimed. The special tax and political status that religions, churches and religious schools attract need to be put to the sword.
One could argue that religion needs to be returned to the sphere of private belief where it does no harm, but this seems far-fetched. All groups organise politically to assert their rights - indeed this is part of what our secular, liberal society should fight for. While we should not privilege religion, neither can we discriminate against it.
Harris and I both want change, but the moderates are the people we need to influence. Influence does not come from mocking or belittling, even thought it is more fun. It does not come from taking cheap shots - and Harris takes many of them. By influencing the moderates, they can over time effect change within their religious institutions. Harris and I won't effect change to these institutions from the outside much as we'd like to. The inter-faith dialogue that Harris criticises needs to happen less between Muslims and Christians and more between secularists and religionists. To do this, we are going to have to stop talking about them and to them as if they were fools.
Perhaps Harris has done a good thing bringing the moderates into the discussion. After all, not everyone who voted for Bush is a foaming-at-the-mouth radical Christian (much as we'd like to think so). He attracted political support from moderate Christians too - thinking people who want a better, safer, more humane world. It is those guys we need to go after. We need to win their hearts and minds - and that conversation won't start with `you are a moron, and this is why....'.
So keep it up Sam, but keep the end in mind. You, a fellow philosopher, know the road - either from the teachings of the Buddha or Sextus Empiricus - take your pick. We want a coalition of rational people who want change and this includes people who have some funny beliefs. Let them keep those. But lets not tolerate the consequences of those beliefs and lets not tolerate the intolerable. Lets get the moderates talking to us and not hating us. We need to lighten up our attack on their beliefs and get talking shared intentions and shared solutions. Both sides will have to give up self-righteousness and dogmatism - and this is where the political journey meets the psychological and the spiritual.
Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris
* Hardcover: 112 pages
* Publisher: Bantam Press (12 Feb 2007)
* Language English
* ISBN-10: 0593058976
* ISBN-13: 978-0593058978
on 8 October 2006
Sam Harris says what a lot of us have been thinking, but have been afraid to say in public. In this concise book, Harris directly attacks the very foundation of religious faith.
One might expect such a book to be either mean-spirited or intentionally provacative. Christian Nation is neither, although some will exerience it that way. Harris sticks to the facts. He does not believe that religious faith, including but certainly not limited to Christianity, is good for people.
Harris is concerned with reducing human suffering and increasing human happiness. He agrees that many of the things that Jesus about love and kindness are indeed valuable and wise. He points out, however, that the bible contains much, much more than love and kindness. It contains cruelty, such as slavery, and pointless rules, such as the ban on graven images.
In the end, Harris argues, religious faith, or any belief that is not based on evidence and reason, does not make sense and will ultimately lead to unnecessary suffering.
No doubt, many good and loving people would be offended or hurt if they read this book. But that simply proves Harris' point. These people have been so blinded by faith that they cannot even consider the possibility they have been led astray. Hopefully, a good number of religious people will muster the courage to read the book anyway.
I have to say, I love Sam Harris' approach. Whereas Richard Dawkins (who I will admit is a hero of mine) might be compared to a traditional fire and brimstone preacher (some find his way of writing overly confrontational... as an Atheist I love it), Sam Harris sets out to persuade rather than confront.
And he does an admirable job. He picks up on and illustrates the errors and contradictions present in both the Bible and in the vast majority of Christians, as well as the inherent violence (sometimes gut churningly horrific) of the Biblical accounts.
My only critcism is that it left me wanting more!
Sam Harris has created a great book for those who have begun to doubt the teachings of the church as well as a wake up call for "Pick and Choose" Christians (of which there are far too many!). The books persuasive tone may be better suited to Christian readers than Dawkins' more confrontational tone (though I do prefer the latter).
Read and be enlightened...
on 28 April 2007
Having been raised a Catholic, I have been trying to rid myself of the "Christian fairy story" once and for all for many years...and this book has helped immensely. Harris' arguments were insightful, straightforward and logical, and the comparison with Islam made me feel that he doesn't just have it in for Christians or something similar. It's a book written with a genuine desire to put the truth across, and if I was still a Christian, I'd certainly rethink my position on god and Jesus based on this book. Having read this and Dawkins' "The God Delusion", I'd say I'm now an atheist (beforehand I sat on the "agnostic" fence). Buy the book, you won't be disappointed .
on 19 June 2008
Speaking as a former Christian (and now an ardent secularist), I can say without hesitation that this book should be read by EVERY person who considers themself to be a Christian.
I have bought more copies of this book than any other as I regularly give copies to friends and family members, as I am that confident that their lives would be bettered by considering the issues it raises.
A copy of this book should reside in every hotel room across the Western world.
on 14 June 2008
Harris had written this book primarily for secularists so as to defend against the threats posed in the U.S. by the Christian Right. Unlike "The End of Faith", he says little about other religions, in particular Islam. This book was shorter and more about what I am familiar with.
Preaching to the choir? Undoubtedly to large extent but unlike "The End of Faith" I do not expect many secularists will feel he is unfairly extreme: this time he seems to be speaking well to address the concerns of many of us including those liberal and moderate Christians (and even conservative Christians) who do not feel well served by the political activities of the Christian Right.
Harris comments that "atheism" isn't any more necessary as a label than having to have "words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive...". Anti-Elvisians? But would it be rude to the memory of Elvis, who, despite reported problems, was indeed a great performer? I did see and enjoy his movies. Perhaps Elvisism deserves founding, perhaps it already has been. Perhaps I could become a Elvisian apologist. Just show one of the movies or concerts and I'd have no trouble finding believers? Would you join? Pledge? Agree with me that Elvis not only lived but that I could speak for him. And that Elvis did not want your children learning about evolution in public schools. Or maybe gravity.
Foolish? Harris writes toward the end of this book "Clearly, it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous". Harris expresses understanding: he writes that he does not "doubt that your acceptance of Christ may have coincided with positive changes in your life". He expresses no wish to discount those experiences but points out that many people now and before have had what seemed to him similar experiences in many ways, religious and otherwise. But he also believes that such experiences can be misinterpreted as one may do for those of other faiths. Claims that one's own religion is that different seems extraordinary and, as Carl Sagan popularized, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".
I, for one, can see no good reason why I would deny that Elvis lives if credible existence of that existed, especially if it promised me some life after death in Blue Hawaii, an opportunity to frolic with a youthful Ann-Margaret for eternity. I would gladly read the books of Elvisian apologists if I felt uncertain. It would all seem silly if there were not efforts underway at this moment in the U.S. to discredit evolution in public school science textbooks and even to establish a Christian nation with Old Testament laws.
Harris says it far better than I can, he's forceful but succinct (less than 100 pages). He concludes with a list of ten recommended book (I've only read five of them to date) that would make for good next reading steps. You may also consider registering with the Brights' Network (see their web site).
on 6 January 2008
For me, Sam Harris' direct writing style in addressing a specific `type' of Christian throughout the book helped make his arguments more real and more urgent. It helped to hit home the point that what was being discussed wasn't just an argument against loosely held theories but instead a powerful criticism of strongly held beliefs across modern day America. Both the brevity of the book together with the style make it a considerably easier read than the God Delusion whilst hitting on a great number of similar themes. Harris' criticisms are well developed and easy to follow whilst the numerous passages he cites from scriptures just add to the weight of his arguments. An existing Atheist will find little to disagree with here (and will probably enjoy the validation that the read provides) and the `undecideds' amongst us will certainly be given a whole lot to think about at the very least. As for the `believers' (I can't think of a better word) out there, be prepared for the book to attack the very core of your beliefs from the outset and it doesn't let up from there. A great read!
on 25 November 2006
The basic premise of the book is that there are many contradictions with Christianity especially with how it is practiced in the United States. The assertion is that nothing has to be "believed" on insufficient evidence. This book is a great source for a logical retort to many religious claims. Read this book and pass it along to your friends. It is worth it.