I found Letter to a Christian Nation a difficult book to read. It is, after all, a book whose purpose is to criticize one of the things I hold most dear–the church of Jesus Christ. While certainly deliberate and measured as these things go, it is still something of a rant against religion in general, Christianity in particular, and, at its narrowest focus, those who call themselves by the name of Christ (and hence, the one they call themselves after).
With the publication of The End of Faith in 2004 Sam Harris became one of the more prominent American atheists and he is often grouped together with his British counterparts Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Though no less militant than these Brits, he has a measure of American charm that makes him appear a little less hostile and perhaps a little more credible. Not too many people, having seen Hitchens or Dawkins in action, would like to sit down and converse with them. Harris, though, is more affable; more personable. He is also a capable writer and a clear communicator. And where the latest volumes from the other men have been criticized for long-windedness, Harris’ book is a mere 91 pages. The book is original and interesting more for its format than for its arguments. In terms of content, it offers little that is new in the genre. It is the same arguments Christians have faced and refuted time and time again.
The book is really a letter. This letter is a response to arguments Christians use to defend their beliefs and an attempt to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” It’s a letter to a Christian nation calling it to secularize, to wake up and understand the danger posted by Christianity and other religions.. Religion, it seems, is the enemy of reason. Reason is, of course, the hope of humanity. But Harris’ disgust towards Christianity seems not to allow him to maintain his focus. This letter to a nation is really a letter to religious people who may or may not be Christian; certainly the “Christian” as Harris uses it would apply to the majority of the U.S. population whether or not they show the marks of a Christian as defined by the Bible.
And so Harris moves quickly but deliberately from point to point, touching briefly on many of the common arguments used against Christianity and against religion. It is one of thousands of religions each of which claims to hold the truth; the Bible is a grossly immoral and imperfect book; the Bible is unnecessary as a foundation to our morality; that people of all stripes to good deeds and more good deeds than Christians; that God, if He is real, would be horrifically unjust and powerless were He to allow or inflict all the suffering we see in the world; that religion is an opponent to science rather than being able to coexist with science; and so on. These are all arguments we have heard before (as recently as last year’s release of The God Who Wasn’t There it seems to me.). As I said, there is nothing really new in this book’s content. Its appeal and success owes, in my view, primarily to the author and his style combined with the utter accessibility of the volume. And, of course, atheism is a hot topic these days, perhaps particularly among young people.
Because this is simply a review, I will not take the time to answer Harris’ charges. Truthfully, because there are so many, it would take a similarly-sized volume to answer them successfully. And, in fact, Douglas Wilson has done just this in his newly-released Letter from a Christian Citizen, a book that will be reviewed right here in the very near future. For now, suffice it to say that Letter to a Christian Nation is valuable in providing a concise summary of the common arguments against Christianity. They are all here and are explained well. As mentioned at the outset, I did not find it easy to read simply because it cuts deep to have someone attack something (and Someone) I love so much. Yet I’m glad I took the time to read it. It leaves no doubt where Harris stands and where the points of conflict are between Christian and the modern atheist.