Saturday, January 16, 2010

Letter to a Christian Nation Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a fast read: about 90 pages in a conveniently small, pocket-book, format (even for the hardcover). A useful synopsis of the modern debate for the uninitiated, review points for current atheists. While designed to be inviting, honest, and sincerely challenging to Christian readers, its quick trend from friendly invitation to stark reasoning demands the reader think critically, and when the hand-holding is over, the truly devout may become too offended to grant fair consideration.

It's aimed directly at Christians in America, however, particularly those of the less moderate sects who tend to have a more literal and inflexible bible interpretation (say evangelicals, Pentecostals, and some of the more traditional baptists).

He's careful to gently point out that if there can be no objective way to measure the validity of each religion's claims on various matters, but only taking such claims on faith, then true believers in each conflicting religion are positively doomed to stay locked in conflict. Conflict which gets ever bloodier and does more collateral damage with time's passing.

Despite the perhaps self-evident nature of pure logical reasoning, new human relationships aren't always motivated by rationality, and require a period of assessment and trust-building between the participants.

While Harris takes care to respect this at the beginning of the book, as it progresses he comes on increasingly strong. I expect that the truly devout readers will quickly become offended, and the politics of human emotion in relationships will blind these folks to giving dispassionate consideration to his ideas. Some more moderate believers could become a bridge, as they might be deemed more trustworthy by devout people than declared nonbelievers. It's an argument from authority, but for the devout to be operators-in-faith, at some point arguments from authority started to hold their sway.

It's a great opener to the debate from the atheist's perspective. For newcomers to the debate, the newly atheist, the longtime faithful or agnostic, it represents a way to get up to speed on the modern challenges in short order, and be cogent in following argument.

It's also a great gateway for people struggling to answer their own faith questions. The reading list at the end of the book is invaluable for those who wish to investigate the atheist perspective in greater detail.

The first book in that list, Dawkins' "The God Delusion" was my very first introduction to the atheist perspective. Raised in the Lutheran tradition, before reading I already considered myself agnostic and a lassez-faire spiritualist. Being very scientifically minded and already open to the critical thinking process, Dawkins' book sunk in readily, deeply, and exploded utterly my preconceptions.

I recognized I was actually an atheist before its conclusion, and the wisdom of that book's presentation still resonates for me. Dawkins itemizes and deconstructs all the major arguments for belief (or against atheism, evolution, scientific thought and critical reason) and hints at knowledge and understanding as its own reward which can develop and sustain a human need for spirituality.

To Harris' reading list, I would add:

Christopher Hitchens, "God is Not GREAT"
- views of conflict inspired by religious zeal, presented in a style unique to Hitchens, and that's made him (in)famous
Mary Jane Engh, "In the Name of Heaven"
- historical primer on 3000 years of documented religious conflict
(by this point you really start to see a pattern in humanity)
Sam Harris, "The End of Faith[...:]"
- adds in relevance to today's world conflict; how to approach religion-inspired terrorism; adds philosophy and shows how atheism does not exclude being spiritual
John Shelby Spong, "Eternal Life[...:]"
- great for current Christians, a lifelong Episcopalian minister reveals his how his Christian-inspired spirituality ultimately lead him to adopt an essentially atheist viewpoint, and without discarding his Christianity, transcends its Biblical verbiage to discover a spiritual perspective that redefined what is meant by the Christian concept of eternal life and ultimately what the full expression of Christianity must be, freed from human-generated dogma. Spong holds Harris in high regard, acknowledging his statements on spirituality, but says he goes further.

For the OTHER side of the argument, you may wish to consider Ravi Zacharias' "The End of Reason" (which now scares me).

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