I've been reading Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation for the second time in a few weeks, and it raises some old questions and issues I've been challenged to re-think. Harris is an atheist, a term he dislikes. He writes, "Atheism is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non-astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist.'" He continues, "Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious... An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence - and indeed, for his benevolence, giving the relentless destruction of innocent human beings that we witness in the world each day. An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl - even once in a million years - casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God."
I disagree with Harris on many points since I believe that the existence of a supreme being and creator is perhaps the most obvious fact about this world. I have no plans to embrace atheism. But I find Harris' 91-page book worthwhile reading and I would recommend it to you also. Harris raises the usual questions asked by those who believe, and don't believe in God. How can there be a benevolent all powerful God when innocent people every day are suffering and dying throught no fault of their own? Why such horrible God-given laws in the Old Testament as the orders to kill disobedient children, and to execute people for certain sins such as working on the Sabbath? In fact I believe there are explanations and answers to those questions. Harris also points out some of the contradictions in the Bible and makes a credible argument against the Bible being infallible. I have no problem with those arguments. Many Christians damage the credibility of Christianity by making claims that have no basis in truth or Biblical fact. In order for the Bible to be infallible, the language it's written in would also have to be infallible. No language used by humans is infallible. An infallible language is one in which misunderstandings could not exist. Of course no such language exists. Harris is right in challenging the phony claim, made by many Christians, that the Bible is infallible.
More troubling to me is Harris' report that since the publication of his first book, The End of Faith, which addresses the same issues, the most hostile responses he received came from Christians. I guess we can always count on some Christians giving Christianity a bad name. Just as important is the information that the least religious countries in the world: Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, are also the healthiest as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Why do the religious beliefs of Christians often seem to impede human development? If our religious beliefs block human development, can those beliefs actually be Christian beliefs? Harris does acknowledge that not all Christians are alike, that some do not take their beliefs too seriously and use them as weapons against others.
I recommend reading this book because it helped me to see how some other people view Christians. It demonstrates a need to rethink how we as Christians talk about and practice our faith. What kind of impression are we leaving with others? Do my beliefs actually impede human progress? Is God really all-powerful? Harris raises brief, but solid criticism to Christian opposition to evolution, abortion, and stem cell research. He points out that "religion tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering." Harris writes that "religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral." I agree. Christian support for the US military attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan is highly immoral for numerous reasons, but primarily because of the harmful impact those wars are having on the lives of innocent humans. Many of Harris' arguments are very credible and directed at what I would see as Christian mis-interpretation of the teachings of Christianity.
Harris doesn't take into consideration the distinction between Old and New Testaments, or the differences between the various types of literature in the Bible: poetry, history, didactic writings, prophecy, etc., and that each needs to be read somewhat differently, as today we read and interpret differently, a poem, a play by Shakespeare, and the front page of the daily newspaper. Failure to address those factors weakens Harris' arguments. He also seems to assume that the writings from the Bible are believed by Christians to be the work of God with no influence from human culture, as opposed to a hybrid or "cocktail" of writings by men and women inspired by God, but also reflecting strong human and cultural influence, which, I believe, more accurately describes the Bible. Since Harris is not a believer we cannot expect him to embrace the Anabaptist concept that the life and teachings of Jesus is the first principal of Biblical interpretation. This book does illustrate the value of interpreting the Bible through the life and teachings of Jesus although such an interpretation does not adequately respond to all of Harris' criticisms.
Harris would like to see religion eradicated and compares efforts to eliminate religion to the effort to abolish slavery in the eighteenth century. He claims that those who pray are simply "talking to an imaginary friend," He points out, with some justification, that when an atheist contributes to help meet human need, it's a greater act of charity than a Christian doing the same, because at least the atheist doesn't expect to get something, such as eternal life, in return. He rightly reminds us that Christian opposition to stem cell research, to vaccination to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and to condom use actually results in more human suffering and premature deaths.
These challenges to Christianity are what many Christians need to hear. They raise questions we need to face. What kind of impact do my Christian beliefs have on others? Does my interpretation of the Bible make sense in light of what we know about history and science, or are they as ridiculous as believing that the earth is flat? Read Letter to a Christian Nation and I believe you will be inspired and challenged to face your beliefs, and ask yourself some of these important questions that Harris raises.
Previously published in slightly different form in the May, 2007 edition of "The Olive Branch," the newsletter of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship in Boise, Idaho.