Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

I just finished reading the book, Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. In the Note to the Reader section, Harris is clear about the purpose of his book.

“While
this book is intended for people of all faiths, it has been written in
the form of a letter to a Christian. In it, I respond to many of the
arguments that Christians put forward in defense of their religious
beliefs. The primary purpose of this book is to arm secularists in our
society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy,
against their opponents on the Christian Right. Consequently, the
“Christian” I address throughout is a Christian in a narrow sense of
the term. Such a person 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.”

The
overall tone of the writing is confrontational. For Harris, it is a
“war of ideas” and he is “set out to demolish the intellectual and
moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed form.” Harris
is akin to an MMA fighter challenging people of all faiths to an
intellectual smackdown inside a ring where the rules are bound by
intellectual honesty. Now that’s ballsy. I applaud him for that.

Whenever Harris mentions God, he is not talking about the transcendent experience of God. He is not talking about the God that Father Thomas Keating talks about. He is not talking about Spirit or the Absolute nature of reality. He is referring to a mythic God
– a God that “is located not on this earth but in a heavenly paradise
not of this world, entrance to which is gained by living according to
the covenants and rules given by this God to his peoples.”

Since
I’m still technically a Christian (i.e. Catholic by virtue of birth), I
picked up the book and started reading the book with some expectation
that I would be offended with what Harris has to say. However, I soon
found out that I’m in agreement with most of his arguments
especially when it comes to the infallibility of the Bible, divinity of
Jesus, creation and evolution, intelligent design, moral intuitions and
even his stance on controversial topics like stem cell research.

“The naive idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally
indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most
promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the
human soul, are at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable
misery of tens of millions of human beings.”

The only
reservation I have with Harris’s approach, is that, in his passion to
wage intellectual war against the mythic membership, he fails to
address the stages of moral development
of people. Consequently, the stages of moral development applies to
everyone, including Atheists. Thus, there are pre-conventional Muslims,
conventional Muslims, post-conventional Muslims; pre-conventional
Christians, conventional Christians, post-conventional Christians;
pre-conventional Atheists, conventional Atheists, post-conventional
Atheists. Meaning: Atheism is not immune to the extreme forms of
fanaticism that Harris is ranting about. Although religion is indeed a
big factor in stages of moral development, religion is not the root of
all evil. Individual and social intelligences come into play along the
way. Religion is a by-product of human (and collective) development,
not a root cause. But I agree with Harris that religion is a source
great suffering in the world; pre-conventional and conventional
religions to be exact.

Since Harris is arguing about faith,
let’s use James Fowler’s stages of faith as reference (so that people
of faith would be able to relate). In James Fowler’s stages of faith, Harris is doing battle with Stage 2 (“Mythic literal”) and Stage 3 (“Synthetic-Conventional”)–devout religious people–and then wielding his intellectual sword on Stage 4 (“Individuative-Reflective”) and Stage 5 (“Conjunctive Faith”)
whenever he turns his attention on religious moderates/liberals. While
Harris, in my opinion, is coming mostly from a Stage 5 (with his
“faith” anchored on science). It’s possible that Harris has had
glimpses of Stage 6 with his Dzogchen practice. But that remains to be seen.

(NOTE: I think Harris addresses Stage 6 (“Universalizing Faith”)
in his book, “The End of Faith,” in a chapter about consciousness. I’ll
talk more about that later when I get the chance to review that book.
Let me just say at this point that Fowler’s use of Mother Teresa as
example of a person with Stage 6 faith is highly objectionable it would
make Christopher Hitchens puke, especially after the revelation of Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith.)

And
therein lies the rub. Harris’s polemics may be highly reasonable and
rational, but people at stage 2 and stage 3 of faith will not hear his
reasoning. It would simply fall on their deaf ears. Yes, he will anger
them. Yes, he will offend them. In return, they will defend their
dogmas to the end. Only people who are ready to step out of stage 3
will hear his plea. In short, Sam Harris will not convert suicide
bombers and devout Christian missionaries. And I think he knows that.

Which brings us to the more relevant target audience of Harris’s writings: people at stage 4 and stage 5 of faith.
These are the stages of faith which bear the qualities of religious
tolerance and religious liberalism. This is where I find Harris’s
approach refreshing and deserving of a higher level of intellectual
discourse.

“It accomplishes nothing to merely declare
that ‘we all worship the same God.’ We do not all worship the same God,
and nothing attests to this fact more eloquently than our history of
religious bloodshed.”


“While religious
tolerance is surely better than religious war, tolerance is not without its
problems. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us
unwilling to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and
patently ridiculous. It has also obliged us to lie to
ourselves–repeatedly and at the highest level of discourse–about the
compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality. Our
competing religious certainties are impeding the emergence of a viable,
global civilization.”

For Harris, religious faith and
scientific rationality are not compatible. There’s no middle ground.
He’s not aiming for integration of science and religion. He wants to
end religion in favor of science and reason.

“…one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.”

“The
conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of
human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for
what he believes, or he does not.”

On initial reading,
we might think that Harris is reducing morality and spiritual
experiences to the domain of science. But upon further reading, Harris
also said:

“It is important to realize that the
distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding
our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation
about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can
reasonably conclude on their basis. There are good reasons to believe
that people like Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when
they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in
rare and beautiful ways. But any genuine exploration of ethics or the
contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and
self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse.”

People who are familiar with Spiral Dynamics might even suspect that Harris is predominantly exhibiting an Orange vMEME. I don’t think so. I think Harris is even arguing beyond the Green vMEME
(i.e. moral relativism, post-modernity, religious liberalism). At a
minimum, I think Harris is coming from a poorly articulated Yellow vMEME
perspective, at least in this book (i.e. no emphasis on stages of moral
development, his idealism is an “emergence of a viable, global
civilization”). However, I also think Harris expresses a Turquoise vMEME in his book, The End of Faith, when he argues for experiential spirituality and consciousness. But I will hold that thought until I finish reading that book.

(Note to integral geeks: Check out Julian Walker’s take on Sam Harris. See Sam Harris: Orange Meanie or Teal Secular Humanist?)

In the meantime, I highly recommend the book, Letters to a Christian Nation,
to people of all faiths. That is, people who are able to suspend their
faith for a while and be tolerant enough not to get offended when their
faith is subjected to critical analysis. That would be some people at
stage 3 (exiting) and people at stage 4 and stage 5 in James Fowler’s stages of faith.

To
all religious moderates and religious liberals out there: How would you
respond to Sam Harris’s challenge of intellectual honesty? I also leave
you with a question: What is your position regarding stem cell research?

That’s all for now. Up next on the Gospel of the New Atheists: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

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