Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation was published shortly after The End of Faith, which is his more well-known work. I want to get to criticizing that book too, but I thought I would start my critique of Harris’s work by focussing on his most explicit attack on Christianity, which is the “Letter.”
Harris writes in the “Note to the Reader”: “Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, thousands of people have written to me to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. 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.”[i] So let’s break this down. Harris writes an insulting and vituperative book about religion and religious people. He is scandalized that some of these people are insulting and vituperative back at him. And he complains that they are not loving and forgiving enough. If writing to or about someone telling them that they wrong is not consistent with love and forgiveness (which is not the case), then Harris himself has not lived up to the ideals he demands from others. And if doing so in an insulting way is not consistent with love and forgiveness (which it is not for the most part), then again, Harris has not lived up to the standards he demands from others. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical for Sam Harris to complain of insults and written hostility, when it is his bread and butter? And then he seems to use his angry mail as evidence that “many” (note that word) Christians are “murderously” intolerant of criticism. How is angry mail evidence of murderous intolerance? If he did not use the angry mail as evidence of this claim, then what is his evidence that “many” who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are murderously intolerant? I doubt that a few self-proclaimed Christians wishing hellfire damnation on Harris is anything like a representative sample, and he knows this full well.
What I quoted above are the very first words one reads when opening the book. In the very first paragraph of the book he accuses “many” Christians, in the present time, of being murderously intolerant, without bothering to properly substantiate the claim. This casual demonization is typical of New Atheist polemics. If you are going to make such a grave allegation against “many” (i.e. a significant portion) of a particular group of people, of 2 billion people to be exact, morality demands that you at least properly substantiate it where you make the claim.
I wanted to address this idea that love and forgiveness means one will be some sort of doormat when faced with an aggressive critic like Sam Harris. This seems to be what Harris himself expects, but it is unreasonable. Saying someone is wrong, and even doing so in a forceful way, is not necessarily inconsistent with love and forgiveness. Forgiveness means you do not try to settle scores and commit vengeance or foster bitterness in your heart. Merely saying someone is wrong is not settling a score. Criticism can be from a vindictive motivation, but it is by no means a given that it is.
I’m sure Harris received mail warning him of hellfire or insulting him with biblical language and perhaps making death threats as well. But the fact of the matter is, if you attack any influential ideology, you will receive such a response from some in those community. Public figures especially those who are ideologues, or dare we call them “intellectuals”, receive death threats often. This is a fact of life for that type of career and certainly not unique to those people who criticize religion. The bottom line is, if significant numbers of American Christians ( who are far in the majority in the country) were truly murderously intolerant of criticism, America would look more like a Christian version of Saudi Arabia and people like Sam Harris certainly would not enjoy a career as a celebrated author and speaker.
This is not to condone the actions of those who wrote to him with malevolence. Harris is correct that wishing hellfire and damnation on him or calling him names is wrong according to the Christian ethic of forgiveness. But it is not wrong to write to Harris telling him that he’s wrong, even doing so with a little bit of spice. Doing that does not make one intolerant.
[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Random House, 2006), Kindle Edition, Loc. 12