Sam Harris LCN

Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris

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  1. Religion: Scourge or Refuge?
    Steven Clark Cunningham
    Essay for RELI E-1010: World Religions, Harvard Extension School

    Part I of this essay identifies three distinct strong arguments that Sam Harris makes in Letter to Christian Nation against the Abrahamic traditions, citing evidence that Harris offers for each of these attacks on religious faith or practice. Part II reviews examples from the Abrahamic traditions discussed in the Mary Pat Fisher texts Living Religions and in Anthology of Living Religions, that answer Harris’s criticisms. Part III draws from the essays in Subverting Hatred and shows how a one specific religious teaching/practice might contribute to the easing of tension or the reduction of violence in the world today.

    Part I
    The so-called New Atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens, have established themselves as a very popular, if intemperate, force in an ongoing debate about the relative costs and benefits of religion to individuals and to society. In this essay, I will focus on Sam Harris and his Letter to a Christian Nation, highlighting three of Harris’s most salient arguments, viz, 1) that religion (and Christianity in particular) commits several egregious “intellectual and moral pretensions” (ix), 2) that religion (and Christianity and Islam in particular) contributes to, and even directly causes and incites, violence in our world, and 3) that there is no room for religious moderation in this debate.

    Regarding the first argument, Harris seems to be using “pretensions” in the sense of allegations of doubtful value. In discussing what he describes as the untenable stance of liberal or moderate Christians (a point further explored in the below discussion of his second argument), he claims that “such believers often say that they believe in God because this ‘gives their lives meaning’” (47). But he goes on to cite by way of counterexample the horrific 2004 tsunami that occurred off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and describes both the response of “conservative Christians [who] viewed the cataclysm as evidence of God’s wrath” (47), a view he finds repellent (but reasonable given particular beliefs about God), and the response of liberals and moderates: as “admonish[ing] one another to look for God ‘not in the power that moved the wave, but in the human response to the wave’” (48). Regarding the conservative view that he describes, and given his staunch atheism, it is self-evident that his position is that the allegation that God had any agency is false. Regarding the liberal or moderate view, he attempts to make the case that the sheer horror of the tragedy must lead any thoughtful, honest liberal or moderate to eschew any belief in a benevolent God:

    “On a day when over one hundred thousand children were simultaneously torn from their mothers’ arms and casually drowned, liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is: the sheerest of mortal pretenses” (48).

    Thus he argues that the “pretensions” of the religions with respect to belief in an immortal God are both mortal and moral.

    Much of the book is spent on his second (also moral) argument, that religion, especially Christianity and Islam, are inherently violent religions, compared to atheism, which he claims is evidenced to be less violent and more benevolent. While acknowledging that party affiliation is not a perfect surrogate of religious belief, he nevertheless relies on statistics (uncited, unfortunately) showing that Republican, or “red,” states tend to be more frequently associated with conservative Christianity, compared to Democratic, or “blue,” states and provides data for the relative levels of violence in these two groups of states:

    “Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in ‘blue’ states and 38 percent are in ‘red’ states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, 24 percent in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red” (45).

    Moving beyond political affiliation, he places the blame for violence more squarely upon the shoulders of religion: “Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than … politics ever can” (80). The rationale for this argument is that, he claims, religion is a unique form of us-versus-them tribalistic thinking because, more so than other ingroup mentalities, such as racism, religion frames the distinctions “in terms of eternal rewards and punishments” (80), which lends an unassailable, otherworldly authority to those distinctions between groups. Furthermore, set against this backdrop of eternal consequences, he argues that “one of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religious faith” (80). Therefore, he concludes, religious faith promotes violence in the following two ways: 1) because people are led by their beliefs to kill other humans due to a belief that God has commanded them to do so (he cites Islamist terrorism as an example, and indeed this is what Daesh [a.k.a. The Islamic State] has publicly stated themselves ); and 2) because when people define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation they are more likely to develop conflicts with each other. Although he acknowledges that these conflicts are not always explicitly religious, he argues that the bigotry and hatred that divide people are the direct product of their religious identities (81).

    Not only does Harris argue that religion incites violence and is therefore morally wrong, but further that atheism promotes benevolence, nonviolence, and charitable giving more than religion does. Although he provides no citation, he does claim that “countries with high levels of atheism are also the most charitable both in terms of the percentage of their wealth they devote to social welfare programs and the percentage they give in aid to the developing world” (46).

    Harris’s third argument, that religious moderation is a not only an untenable but a dangerous position, was alluded to in the above discussion of the moderate or liberal Christian’s “pretension” vis-à-vis God’s purported role in natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami. Again implying pretentiousness, this time in the sense of an affected or insincere middle-of-the-road stance towards the religious matters that Harris sees as black-and-white, he implores his moderate readers: “So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose” (5). Here he lays out what he sees as the clearly dichotomous issues that, he argues, are “both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit” (5):

    “Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false” (5).

    Alluding to his arguments “elsewhere [about the] problems I see with … religious moderation” (5) (e.g., that “moderation … offers us no bulwark against the spread of religious extremism and religious violence,” that “moderation in religion has made it taboo even to acknowledge the differences among our religious traditions: to notice, for instance, that Islam is especially hostile to the principles of civil society,” that “[moderates] can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons”), Harris here simply wants to reinforce his point that there simply is, therefore, no room for moderation in religion.

    Part II
    Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent texts Living Religions and An Anthology of Living Religions frequently address Harris’s arguments. Regarding his first argument (that the Abrahamic religions in particular suffer from many intellectual and moral allegations of doubtful value), while he seems to assume that religious stories and doctrines are to be taken literally, such as the book of Revelation in the bible (LCN 5), Fisher notes that in the Judeo-Christian tradition many interpretations are metaphorical or allegorical, not literal:

    “Humans are the pinnacle of creation, created in the ‘image’ of God, according to the account of Creation in Genesis 1. Jews do not take this passage to mean that God literally looks like a human. It is often interpreted in an ethical sense: That humans are so wonderfully endowed that they can mirror God’s qualities, such as justice, wisdom, righteousness, and love” (LR 281, my emphasis).

    This example from Fisher also addresses Harris’s concern that the purported “pretentions” are “moral” (LCN ix) since built into such nonliteral interpretations are the ethical values of justice, wisdom, righteousness, and love, most of which Harris himself certainly endorses. To be sure, there are Christian literalists, but as Fisher notes, one of the most important Christian theologians, Origen, taught precisely against this position, viz., taught that Biblical accounts are best interpreted allegorically (AR 246 and LR 306). Similarly, regarding the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Fisher notes that “this belief … is still a literal article of faith today for some Christians [but] others regard it as pointing to the certainty of God’s coming rule of love and peace” (324), underscoring the fact that religions are not monolithic, a tenant of religious literacy that seems to have altogether escaped Harris. The irony is that Harris, while lambasting the religious for extremism and literalism, is himself taking part in an extremist position, reading scripture literally himself.

    Harris’s literalist attack of Islam, too, including his apparent assumption that all Islamist martyrs believe that they will literally be rewarded with 72 virgins in paradise (LCN 82-3), is misled given that there are interpretations of Islam, such as the Sufi tradition, that admonishes Muslims from interpreting “literally and thus mistakenly” (LR 399), and the Quranic scholar Amina Wadud, who notes that while “conservative thinkers read explicit Qur’anic reforms … as the literal and definitive statement on these practices for all times and places … I am calling for … a reading that regards those reforms as establishing precedent for continual development toward a just social order (LR 413, quoting Wahud, with my emphasis).

    Harris’s second argument, that religion incites violence, is at once the easiest to endorse and to refute, principally because there are so many examples and counterexamples. While there is no doubt that religiously motivated violence exists (as Fisher even notes: “violence perpetrated in the name of religion is … growing” [ix]), there is also no doubt that all religions promote peace. Indeed, probably the most consistent teaching across all three Abrahamic religions is the Golden Rule: In Judaism, the Midrash states “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is all the Torah. The rest is commentary” (AR 209). In Christianity, the Beatitudes state that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (AR238) and, even more explicitly, Matthew 7:12 states “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets;” In Islam, a hadith states “I have made oppression unlawful for Me and unlawful for you, so do not commit oppression against one another” (AR 289) and even more explicitly, another hadith states “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you, and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.” A salient example of how such religious teaching and practice might contribute to the reduction of violence in the world today will be explored in Part III below.

    Regarding the Harris’s third argument, that there is no room for moderation, the falsity of this claim seems evident prima facie, but still the argument and responses to it are worth considering more deeply. The cliché “all things in moderation” is a cliché because it is so widely and obviously (even if not universally) true. Yet, the often-modified version “all things in moderation, including moderation” is one that Harris would endorse, since, he claims, in the particular case of religion, moderation is dangerous because it provides no “bulwark against the spread of religious extremism and religious violence.” So, is moderation in religion dangerous? Given that religious moderates do not generally commit acts of violence as religious extremists seem prone to do, it seems that moderation is obviously not dangerous. Harris’s argument that religious moderation, due to the taboo against criticizing religion, will insidiously facilitate religious extremism would be an interesting idea, were it not for the lack of evidence that such religious-moderate-facilitated violence actually occurs. He certainly cites none and Fisher (and everyday life) provides many examples of religious moderates fighting against the violence of religious extremism. Indeed, she notes the truism that religion itself “can be manipulated to influence social change—either to thwart, moderate, or encourage it” (LR 6). Furthermore, Fisher points out that extremism is, by definition, anti-moderation, if not actually breeding further extremism, and that “The United States’ ‘war on terrorism’ has brought an increase in acts of terrorism and made it more difficult for moderate Muslim leaders to hold their ground against critics within their countries” (LR 424). Similarly, Harvard professor of cognitive psychology Steven Pinker has noted that “The most damaging effect of terrorism is countries’ overreaction to it, the case in point being the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11.”

    Part III
    Given so many examples of religiously motivated violence and counterexamples of religiously motivated peace, how is one to proceed from this debate? One example of a way forward is offered in the book Subverting Hatred, in which Daniel L. Smith-Christopher’s provocative essay, “Political Atheism and Radical Faith,” presents a specific religious teaching and practice that, if widely enough adopted, may well succeed in easing of tensions and reducing violence in the world today.

    This titular approach, political atheism and radical faith, derives from the fact that early Christians were considered “atheists” because “they did not ‘believe’ in … the national gods of Rome” (SH 172), which is to say, in Roman nationalism. The second half of this approach, “radical faith,” refers to a Christian faith that is radical because it “challenges all forms of nationalism, patriotism and cults of violence” (172). Smith-Christopher is suggesting this Christian teaching and practice be renewed now in the twenty-first century just as it had been employed by Christians in the first centuries.

    While at first glance this approach does not seem applicable to Muslims, since, as noted by Rabina Terri Harris, also in Subverting Hatred, “Islam makes no distinction between ‘church’ and ‘state’” (108). Yet, she goes on, when one looks at the life of the Prophet Muhammad, one sees that he, like the early Christians, and like the twenty-first-century Christian audience of Smith-Christopher’s essay, “steadily shunned all trappings of kingship and insisted that he and his followers commit themselves to servanthood” (121), which begins to sound a lot like the teaching of Jesus and his followers rejecting the “kingship” of Rome in favor of servanthood of their fellow humans.

    Despite the occurrences of armed struggle in Islam, and the violence occurring in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the fact that all three share the Golden Rule, which, as seen above, is underscored as the essential teaching, suggests that this common thread may weave the three Abrahamic religions together in being able to follow the “political atheism, radical faith” approach. And this thread must, even to his chagrin, entwine Sam Harris, and his New Atheist colleagues, who endorse the Golden Rule, which amounts to a manifestation of all peace movements, including political atheism and radical faith, as “a wonderful moral precept” (LCN 11).

    1. Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 2008). All references in this essay are to this edition and will henceforth be cited parenthetically, with “LCN” where appropriate for clarity

    2. The Islamic State, “Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You,” Dabiq 15, (2016): 30-33.

    3. “The Virus of Religious Moderation,” Sam Harris, March 19, 2005 blog post, accessed April 24, 2018,

    4. Fisher, Mary Pat, and Robin Rinehart. Living Religions. Boston: Pearson, 2017. All references in this essay are to this edition and will henceforth be cited parenthetically, with “LR” where appropriate for clarity.

    5. Fisher, Mary Pat, and Lee W. Bailey. An Anthology of Living Religions. Boston: Pearson, 2012. All references in this essay are to this edition and will henceforth be cited parenthetically, with “AR” where appropriate for clarity.

    6. New International Version.

    7. “Golden rule in Islam – treat others as you wanted to be treated,” Qur’aan Today, January 16, 2004, accessed April 25, 2018,

    8. “The Virus of Religious Moderation,” Sam Harris, March 19, 2005 blog post, accessed April 24, 2018,

    9. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018), 197.

    10. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, “Political Atheism and Radical Faith,” in Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religions Traditions, ed. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2007), 171-196. All references in this essay are to this edition and will henceforth be cited parenthetically, with “SH” where appropriate for clarity, even if referring to another author’s contribution to the book.

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