Letter to a Secular Nation

Posted: Apr 02, 2008 12:01 AM
Letter to a Secular Nation

In his short book, Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris begins by talking about the torrent of hate mail he received in response to his previous book, The End of Faith. He has this to say about the worst of it:

The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.

Such a statement would be alarming to Christians were there not a fundamental logical error involved. One way to grasp that error is to imagine me starting a book with the following:

The most hostile of my communications have come from homosexuals. This is ironic, as homosexuals generally imagine that no lifestyle imparts the virtues of love and tolerance more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be liberated by alternative lifestyles are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.

Of course, all groups fail to live up to their ideals from time to time – whether it is Christians failing to show forgiveness or homosexuals failing to show tolerance. Some would rebut my example by claiming I should expect more hate mail from homosexuals because I criticize that group disproportionately. Harris, on the other hand, wrote a book criticizing people of all faiths with most of the hostile responses coming from Christians.

That logic is flawed and deeply so.

It should go without saying that - even if all of the world’s religions were, in fact, equally loving and forgiving - one should still expect more hostile responses from Christians. This can be attributed to the rather simple fact that Christianity is the world’s largest religion. And, of course, in the places where Sam Harris’ books are distributed and read that gap increases greatly.

That rather obvious truth raises another question: How many members of the world’s second largest religion (Islam) might be hostile towards the writings of Sam Harris but for various reasons are unable to access his writings?

I would suspect that the relative dearth of public libraries and private bookstores in Islamic nations would have something to do with the relatively low response rate from Muslims. I would also venture a guess that limited email access in Islamic nations prevents Islamic extremists from sending hate mail to Sam Harris. He may well get more hate mail from Muslims in the future but not until some of the communities in which those extremists reside actually manage to get indoor plumbing.

Of course, when the writings of Sam Harris do become a topic of widespread conversation in the Islamic world he is more likely to be the target of a nasty beheading courtesy of Hezbollah than a rude missive courtesy of Hotmail. And that beheading is more likely than hate mail to prevent future First Amendment expression.

Christianity is indeed flawed because of Christians like me who fail to live up to the ideals of the religion. But Christianity simply cannot be characterized as the religion most hostile to free expression. That contention is simply absurd.

Sam Harris contends that his primary purpose in writing Letter to a Christian Nation is to “arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right.” That is as dishonest a statement as I have read in quite some time.

Were Harris to seek to preserve the Establishment Clause by keeping one particular faith from becoming the “official” state religion his goals would be laudable. Were he to seek to keep religion “out of public policy” altogether his goals would be laughable. But none of this is relevant because Sam Harris seeks neither of these outcomes.

Instead, Sam Harris seeks to make Secular Humanism the “official religion” of each of our fifty United States. And he seeks to turn our public schools into houses of worship for the Secular Humanist religion with compulsory attendance for children funded with compulsory offerings by adults.

And he seeks to do so in a decidedly anti-intellectual manner. I plan to use the next several columns to respond.