October 7th, 2007

Books!

Fantastic little book!

Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is an amazing little book. As readers who have followed my reviews and journal on-going through the years know, I'm in a rather uncomfortable minority of folks who are both strongly conservative and extremely anti-religion. This creates a dynamic where I get ostracized from almost any discussion or group, as I have no tolerance on one hand for the socialistic fairy tales of the Left or the psychotic devotion to Imaginary Friends seen in so many on the Right. While I don't know how conservative Sam Harris is (I suspect not much as he gets into red-state/blue-state stuff in here, which is largely a liberal talking point), he is totally on-target with my views of Christianity.

Just as I have urged my readers to get books like Mona Charen's Useful Idiots or Ann Coulter's Treason (even those folks in the Left/Liberal camp), I would also recommend that everybody pick up a copy of Letter to a Christian Nation, especially if you're one of those Xtian types to whom the book is addressed! Yes, this is likely to get your undies in a wad nearly as much as Coulter does for the Che t-shirt wearing crowd, but it will likewise provide perspective of why some people think you're being delusional (and are thereby at times rather scary).

Frankly, I probably stuck more little bits of paper in here for "choice passages" than in any book I've recently read, and I'm somewhat frustrated that I'm only going to use a few here. Harris goes into the "philosophical" aspects of morality, personal behaviors, etc. in terms of the Bible, and after offering up examples of assorted Biblical admonitions suggests:

Anyone who believes that the Bible offers the best guidance we have on questions of morality has some very strange ideas about either guidance or morality.
He also discusses the Bible in the context of history and of other religious documents around the world (frequently wishing we had a Jain "cultural heritage" rather than the rather schizophrenic Judeo-Christian one), pointing out that:

If you think that Christianity is the most direct and undefiled expression of love and compassion that the world has ever seen, you do not know much about the world's other religions.
This pretty much defines how I came to my own lack of belief ... nothing like being a Religion Major to see that the emperor is butt-naked! While I do not typically self-identify as an atheist, Harris has an amusing take on the term, saying that nobody has to define themselves as a "non-astrologer" or "non-alchemist", and that:

Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
... further connecting these beliefs with those such as Elvis being alive and UFOs carving up livestock.

Again, there is so much of this book that I'd enthusiastically quote here, but it's only about 100 pages long, so I'd hate to be like the trailer for a B-movie that was serving up all the "good parts" (not that Letter to a Christian Nation isn't chock-full of "good parts", these are just the pithiest of the bits that jumped out at me!), so I'll only add a few more here ...

It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society.

Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.
Of course, while this book is addressed to Christians, it is certainly applicable to any dogmatic religion. Early on in the text, Harris addresses Islam and how both the Koran and the Bible (among many other religious tomes) are equally insistent on their unique infallibility. If one looks at enough religions which demand belief in their being the "only truth" it eventually becomes clear that the odds that none are "the truth" are far higher than any one being true. Or, as Harris puts it:

Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.
This reminds me of the quip that "the difference between an Atheist and a Monotheist is that an Atheist disbelieves in one more god", putting the Monotheist's "imaginary friend" in the same dustbin that the ancient pantheons of the Christian-conquered lands were tossed.

Personally, I can't wait to be able to pass copies of this along to my kids (I tried the 11-year-old and she said that she "really didn't care about that religion and politics stuff" at the moment) when they get to a point about wondering why we don't "do church".

If I had one quibble with Letter to a Christian Nation it would be its pricing. As noted above, this is only about 100 pages long, yet the hardcover is going for $16.95 ... which reminds me of Idries Shah selling what was essentially a blank book for $25 because "people don't value knowledge unless they've paid for it" ... somehow I doubt that Harris and his publisher Knopf are doing a "Sufi working" here, and this could easily have been pegged at half its current cover price (even the upcoming paperback edition is going to have an $11 cover). Perhaps they're counting on people like me being as enthusiastic as I am about this so that we don't care what it costs! That said, it looks like your best bet would be Amazon, which has this at 32% off, so if you combine it with other stuff to get free shipping, you'll be ahead of even the cheapest currently available new/used copy (once shipping's tacked on). Again ... this is one that I think everybody needs to read ... so go get a copy!


Visit the BTRIPP home page!