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Letter To A Christian Nation

Sam Harris' Letter To A Christian Nation is a short, simple essay that took only about two hours to get through; yet those two hours provide a concise summary of the principles of atheism and why (according to Harris) a religion-oriented society is outdated and unnecessary in the modern civilized world of the 21st century. This little book, a followup to Harris' The End Of Faith, became a New York Times best-seller…and if a better book written especially to piss off the vast majority of mainstream Americans has been published in the past decade or so, I haven't heard of it. This is Harris' real objective in this book: to make you angry, to make you think about the principles of faith, and to question the absurdities built into religion in general. When taken as a generalized argument against religious faith, the book succeeds pretty darn well.

However, during my reading of the book, I found myself thinking of little ways that would probably be used by a critic of the book to oppose and disassemble some of the individual points Harris puts forth. For instance, one of the reasons why he disdains the Bible stems from the way that Biblical scholars casually toss aside the parts of the book that they don't like, especially the parts that contradict their own beliefs and philosophical points; then he does precisely the same thing near the beginning of the book when he points out that the most completely non-violent and altruistic religious dogma ever devised (at least in his eyes) is that of Jainism, a belief system from India that influenced Mahatma Ghandi. Harris briefly mentions that Jainism isn't perfect and it has its bad parts, too, but he casually puts that fact aside after bringing it up. If he were basing his entire book on Jainism, then he could be faulted for using this rationale; but that's not the major point of this essay, so I'll forgive him for it.

Less easy to take straight is the way he argues in favor of abortion by describing an embryo as a "blastocyst" – not because I disagree with him, but because he falls for one of the more common logical traps used in an emotional debate such as this one: invent a new name to call your opponent, so as to make it easier to see the opposition as less than human, and thus make the easier to dismiss. This is seen regularly in the abortion battles, as pro-lifers refer to pro-choicers as "baby-killing pro-choice yahoos." A seasoned anti-abortion veteran would no doubt ridicule Harris' use of the term "blastocyst," as it takes away from the overused pro-life tactic of using emotional buzzwords to describe the fetus ("baby," "innocent life").

These are not the only details that can be countered; they're just two examples of many presented in this slim book (less than one hundred pages). I don't disagree with Harris on these points, either. I simply note his that his arguments are not infallible, and this is why Letter To A Christian Nation has upset so many people to the point that they feel they have to respond (often with threats and Bible quotes). But the flaws in Harris' arguments do not detract from the overall conclusion he reaches: that religious thinking is dangerous in a world where many, many people have access to modern-day technology, because it is standing as a major obstacle to the advancement of science – especially the development of scientific methods and treatments that can help many people worldwide.

As for the book's intended role as a new weapon in the ongoing war between religion and science (which is what many of the more idiotic controversies in modern-day Western society boil down to), Harris does make some logical fallacies at times. These fallacies, naturally, are what his critics seize upon in their published responses to the book…of which there have been at least five so far. The fact that so many people have taken the time to attack Harris and reply specifically to his book shows that he has certainly succeeded in forcing them to think. I consider that a point in his favor. What I consider even more amusing are the ways his self-appointed opponents attack his arguments – often using the very same flawed arguments Harris disproves. Go onto Amazon and read the responses to his book, especially the "one-star reviews" (out of five) for the book, and count how many of them use quotes from the Bible to prove the Bible is true, and that God exists. I only wish I had the capability to outrage and troll so many readers in the logical and (mostly) cool-headed manner that Harris has done with this book.