Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

Sam Harris wrote this short piece, Letter to a Christian Nation,  arguing with a strawman conservative Christian that, I guess, they’re wrong and hurtful in their beliefs.  It is frustrating on quite a few levels.

For me, Harris is attempting the easiest possible refutation – undermining a belief set that requires every word in a sacred text to be literally true – and not doing a great job of it.  You simply cannot argue with the viewpoint that the Bible (or the Koran or whatever) is literally true from the mindset of a scientist who is looking for contradictory evidence. If the person who believes every word of the Bible believed in those kinds of argumentation styles or held those axioms, you would not need to write out the rest of the argument.

Any kind of argument about such disparate viewpoints has to start for some common ground, some sets of basic beliefs and shared context that would make a discussion (or even a meaningful argument) possible.  Because he is arguing with a straw man, Harris does not really have any mechanism for that search.  He simply conjures someone with the same underlying precepts who has been tricked into adopting these beliefs and talks him out of it.  That does not convince me of much.

Even if I believed that he had successfully argued his strawman into the ground, he really does not address the more difficult and interesting case of people of faith holding more moderate views that are congruent with modern science, but that still lead to moral outcomes he disagrees with.

I do not mean to undersell the difficulty of the problem.  I think Harris and I share similar worldviews.  But holding a consistent (or even correct) worldview is not enough when one sits down to try to convince others that their foundations of belief are wrong.  You have to set out your arguments in forms and from axioms that someone with very different ideas of the source of morality and the value of evidence will still have to accept at some level.  It is a fantastically difficult undertaking.

Harris’s swing at this hard problem did not convince me of much.

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