November 01, 2006

On the Bookshelf

James Shaheen

Sam Harris, bestselling author of The End of Faith and telegenic darling of the Godless set, has recently come out with a new title—Letter to a Christian Nation. For those who've been waiting for someone to debunk the miraculous or tell us that Leviticus could use an update, it's a real treat. After all, it's been a long six years.

Harris thinks big. With this latest, he "set[s] out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms." But if geology and astronomy haven't done the trick, there's no reason to believe this book will. The target readership, in fact, seems to be Harris's own peers. It’s doubtful the 91-page missive will make its way to the Crystal Cathedral any time soon.

Harris has plenty to say to religious moderates, too: "It is my hope…that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths." He seems to have a special disdain for the moderate Christian’s "cherry-picking"—taking those teachings most compatible with one's own sensibilities and dismissing the rest. Curiously, Harris has argued for just this when it comes to Buddhism:

"For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity."

Now if that's not cherry-picking, I don't know what is.

Nor does Letter to a Christian Nation spare the secular and tolerant. In his earlier book, Harris writes, "I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss" (and all this time I thought it was born of the religious wars that racked Europe for so long). And now, in Letter, Harris points out that "although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew." So call Social Services.

The End of Faith was skeptically reviewed in Tricycle by contributing editor Eliot Fintushel just before it earned a PEN Literary Award. Whether Letter achieves the same success is anyone's guess, but it's arrived just in time for Christmas.

James Shaheen, Editor

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