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VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.



  
From a random review:

  

« Hallman, J.C.: The Chess Artist | Main | Caudron, Shari: Who Are You People? »

Harris, Sam: Letter to a Christian Nation

  

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Alfred A. Knopf © 2006, 96 pages [amazon]
5 stars

In writing his thoughtful little book Letter to a Christian Nation Sam Harris's principal purpose was "to arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right." The book is in fact an indictment of all religion, but it is addressed in particular to Christians who believe "at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death." Harris's argument, in short, is that resources are misallocated and immoral decisions are made because people are deluded by Christian dogma ("immoral" in that the decisions result in prolonged human suffering, not because they are not in accord with Christian teaching).

For myself, if I had highlighted the passages I most appreciated in the book my copy would be awash in vibrant yellow.There are no chapters per se in the book, but Harris divides his argument into ten titled sections in which, despite the book's brevity, he addresses a great many topics. Harris argues, for example, that the Bible cannot be considered a moral guide (it can as easily be used to justify the Inquisition as it can the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr.); that Christian morality is often divorced from the "reality of human and animal suffering" (which "explains why you [Christians] can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year"); that atheism is demonstrably "compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society" and further "that widespread belief in God does not ensure a society's health." Harris discusses the debate between science and religion, creationism and intelligent design vs. evolution, the singular position that religious faith is accorded in society:

"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. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane."
Harris effectively invokes the Olympian gods also in making a common sense argument about religion and the misallocation of resources:
"Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn't know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in."
And Harris touches on the timely issue of religious violence and Muslim extremism:
"It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognize why this is so--it is so because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith."

The rational nonbelievers among Harris's readers will frequently find themselves nodding vigorously in agreement with him. For myself, if I had highlighted the passages I most appreciated in the book my copy would be awash in vibrant yellow. He makes so many good points that I can't possibly even summarize them all here. The book is cogently argued and thoroughly convincing, timely and important. But then, Harris is preaching here to the converted. How will the book be received by its intended audience? My worry is that the hard-core Christians to whom it is addressed won't be picking a copy up, and that even if they do they will be unconvinced, religious faith being impervious to, or in a different sphere than, reason. The already converted, though, will want to read Harris' book, and buy copies for their friends, so as to become angrier about the misery that religious fanaticism--assuredly not Christian only--continues to cause in this world.

Harris hopes that one day all religious belief will be eradicated. Impossible, surely! But he likens this idea to the eradication of slavery, another long-practiced human activity whose abolishment must have seemed equally impossible just a few hundred years ago, but which is now viewed in retrospect as being patently immoral. Harris imagines a future world whose inhabitants may similarly look back with "horror and amazement" at our society's religious faith. Impossible, maybe. But one can hope.

Review summary: Sam Harris's principal purpose in writing Letter to a Christian Nation was "to arm secularists in our society...against their opponents on the Christian Right." The book is in fact an indictment of all religion, but it is addressed in particular to Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and maintain that acceptance of Christ is a sine qua non of eternal salvation. Harris argues, in short, that resources are misallocated and immoral decisions are made because people are deluded by Christian dogma. But in the book's ten titled sections (there are no chapters, per se) he addresses a great many topics--stem cell research, Muslim extremism, etc. Nonbelievers will find themselves nodding vigorously in agreement with Harris: his book is well argued and convincing, timely and important. But I worry that the hard-core Christians to whom it is addressed won't be picking a copy up.

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Comments

1.

There is an excellent debate on this topic on my website:
http://www.roundtabletalk.com/2006/09/force-of-fiction-sam-harris-on-popes.html

The debate reveals both sides of this issue and is a fascinating look at the struggle to come.

2.

A *very* active discussion. Thanks for the link.

3.

Just thought you may like to know that a new book has just been released that offers a solid response to Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation." It is entitled "Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point" by RC Metcalf. Please let others know about this important work!




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About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.