Saturday, 27 December 2008

Book Review: Letter To A Christian Nation

The God Delusion was really the first piece of atheist literature I had ever read, it was more a curiosity than anything else since I was already a non-believer. Reading that book showed me a different perspective on the religious debate, and piqued my interest in the question of why people believe. It's just something I've never understood. Since then I've picked up the Sam Harris polemic argument The End Of Faith, a blunt insight into the dangers that religion as an institution poses. His follow-up novel Letter To A Christian Nation took the form of a long essay to deal with the core issues of what he sees at the problem.

The letter took the most extreme tenets that various Christian groups hold and successfully argued against those extreme views. With as many beliefs in Christianity as there are followers, I could see the dismissals of his work as a misrepresentation of their personal faith. The confronting nature of the book is bound to cause an adverse reaction and further isolate some extremists. At the same time it's going to put the moderates offside because it would seem like nothing more than a straw-man attack on religious beliefs. Harris makes it clear that the book isn't written for moderates.

There's no pussyfooting around the issues, each point that Harris makes is a merciless refutation coupled with examples of the exact danger the beliefs pose. Most telling were the examples of sexual sedition by the religious faith, the absurdity of opposing inoculations against STDs purely on the fact that in their eyes it promotes promiscuity. The opposition to stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa even among heterosexual married couples is particularly shocking. It's hard to walk away from this prose with a benign outlook on fundamentalist Christianity and the threat it poses to the world.

There was one moment of the book that stunned me:
The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: they don't know what it is like to really believe in God.
Maybe Harris is right on this count, personally I have no clue what it's like to believe in God. And certainly I don't know what it's like to believe in the fundamentalist sense. Though I wonder after reading this book if Harris truly does either. On that the entire argument rests because this book is an appeal against the fundamentalists. For it to be a success, he needs to communicate in a way that can appeal to those who with a strong education can still retain fundamentalists beliefs. My feeling upon reading this book, it's only really going to appeal to those who are already atheists.

Harris as written an honest appraisal of the threat of fundamentalists in this modern age, though he's really pointing out the obvious. As a response to the criticism of his first book, it's a fair read. But really his masterpiece tome is The End Of Faith, and a much better look at the dangers of faith. Here's hoping that once he finishes his doctorate he has something new to say.

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