“Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris- Part 1

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One of the leading voices in New Atheism is Sam Harris. Harris, 40 years old, if not a leading voice, is definitely one of the loudest and most aggressive ones. His brash arrogance is very popular in a world of sound bites, as people are more intrigued by style than substance. I believe one of the reasons Harris has been so successful and popular is because he’s not afraid to voice his opinions, and usually does so with resounding confidence.

One of his more popular books is “Letter to a Christian Nation”. A couple months ago I sat down to read through this ‘Anti-Christian Manifesto’ to see what Harris was all about. I have to be honest. When I initially started reading, I was somewhat concerned with reading something that was really going to make he stop and think. I wasn’t thinking that he was going to shake me to my foundation and mortally challenge my faith, but I thought I would at least run across an notion that I had not heard and that would cause me to seek out an answer from someone wiser than I. When I finished my reading through the book, I was very unimpressed. I didn’t run across any ‘silver bullet’ arguments. Instead, all I found was a bunch of ‘straw-man arguments, unfair representations, arrogant commentary, and gigantic leaps to conclusions.

I made many notes as I was going through this book, so this will be a multiple-post topic. I realize that not many people want to read on huge post, but that it is easier to digest multiple smaller posts.

Harris begins his book by making his first generalization, saying that many of his ‘hostile communications’ have come from Christians. He’s quick to point out that Christians claim to be the ‘loving’ religion, and therefore this is hypocritical. If its one thing that Harris loves to do, it is combining all of Christianity into one lump. The thought that there are many different types of “Christians” and ways of thinking doesn’t seem to cross his mind. He’s more content with pointing out any inconsistency and use it to attack a belief in God. There are numerous examples of this, and I will be pointing them out as I go through.

His point is to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” He’ll attempt to do this by presenting rerun arguments and old accusations. Something that has been a comfort to me is that the Word of God has stood the test of time, and when men like Sam Harris roll around, they aren’t raising any accusation that hasn’t already been raised and defended. These attacks usually just come with different packaging.

One of Harris’ main arguments is against the idea of “intelligent design”. Harris says that it is frightening how so many people believe in a God-created world. It is troubling, he says, because it offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.” (He goes on to offer some laughable examples of this ‘unintelligent design’, which I’ll cover later) Harris may not find it ‘compelling’, but some others do. There is evidence out there, that we believe points to a Creator, he just chooses not to find it ‘compelling’.

Harris seems to equate the idea that the earth was Created with the belief that the world has to be 6,000 years old. He never mentions that there are Christians who believe that the world is actually older, or that it may have even been created with age, just as man was created as an adult, not an infant. He says that we believe that dinosaurs lived on the ark, although I wasn’t aware that I believed that.

Another example of mischaracterization is Harris note that 44% of Americans believe that Christ will return in the next 50 years. Who are these 44%? I’m sure he didn’t just make this number up, but he doesn’t provide the source. He says that most Christians also believe that things on earth will get a lot worse before Christ comes. Therefore, he concludes, most Christians would be happy were New York engulfed in a ball of fire.

According to Harris, America should catch up with the rest of the world and abandon our Christian roots. This, seemingly, has led us to be a ‘lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant.’ He says that a Christian faith will lead this country in the wrong direction socially, economically, environmentally, and geopolitically. But last time I checked the Bible, that wasn’t what Christianity was all about. It is meant to change people spiritually. The Bible doesn’t promise that things will go well economically or environmentally should a society ‘follow’ Him. The most important need is that this nation needs Christ for spiritual cleansing.

Well, that’s the introduction! As you can see, I have quite a bit to say, and being just 7 pages into the book, who knows how long this is going to take, but we’ll see.

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Critique of New Atheism

Here are the first and second part of the characteristics of New Atheism that I wrote in the past couple weeks. You should check them out before you read this post, if you haven’t read them yet.

I thought it would be good to wrap-up this introduction to New Atheism with some of my thoughts and complaints with this new movement. These are not all of my views, but some more of the more important ones. Let me use a disclaimer that I don’t pretend to think that these are true of all New Atheists. These are just general characterizations of some of the leaders and most vocal individuals in the movement. If you are an atheist and are offended by some of the characterizations, just know that I’m not lumping everyone into the same pile.

1. They unfortunately horribly mischaracterize Christianity. Like I said in the previous posts, they are notorious for straw-man arguments. That is when you define that which you are arguing against in a way in which it would be easier to tear down. They often equate the most radical extremes, and present them as being mainline.

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The New Atheism

Disclaimer: This post will begin a series I’m going to be doing on New Atheism.  Let me begin with a warning and a request.  I realize that these posts will be somewhat unpopular with many people, namely atheists.  The purpose of these posts really isn’t to create a dialogue between Christians and Atheists, and as you will see later, I don’t think this would be possible or a good opportunity to do that.  So here is my request:  if you are an atheist and you really hate these posts, this isn’t a place for you to voice your aggravation and continue to attack Christianity.  As we will see, New Atheism isn’t about an open debate, but about intolerance towards any sort of acceptance of Christianity.  So if you have a comment that wouldn’t be considered ‘healthy dialogue’, I kindly and respectfully ask you not to post it.

New Atheism

For many years, atheism has been a view that a person would hold to if they just didn’t believe in God.  It often reflected a lack of desire to try to believe or search things out.  Most of the time they didn’t mind if anyone else believed in God, as long as those beliefs didn’t infringe too much on their own lives.  Recently, there has been a significant shift in atheism, and a ‘New Atheism’ has been born.  This new movement can be characterized by not only intolerance towards Christianity, but also towards anyone who would tolerate it to any degree.  They see themselves as being repressed and held down by a society that inexplicably holds to Christianity, only to its own demise.

Just like any movement, this one is lead by charasmatic personalities, both young and old.  The senior statesman would be the British scientist and evolutionist, Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford was, for many years, known as the author of  “The Selfish Gene”.  Though he grew up in a normal Anglican family, he questioned religion from an early age.  Interestingly, at one point he was convinced back to Christianity due to the argument from design, but eventually abandoned religion altogether when he became convinced that evolution satisfyingly answered the questions of the complex design of the world.

Recently, around the events of 9/11, Dawkins began to become more militaristic in his fight against Theism, namely Christianity.  This is worked its way to his recent book, “The God Delusion”, where he presents his evidence that a belief in God is just foolishness.  It is mostly centered around the idea that Creationism is just  “preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood”.  The book has been very successful, reaching #5 on the New York Time’s bestsellers list for hardcover non-fiction books.  As of November 2007, it has sold 1.5 million copies.  It has gotten around, to say the least.

Another, and even more militaristic personality, is an American named Sam Harris.  He has been called Atheisms new bulldog, and has led his charge with two books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”.  Sam Harris seems to take it to the next step, blaming every bad thing in America on Christianity, calling for an abandoning of  Christianity to a new society based on  reason.  The thing that all these men have in common is that science is the new religion. They see science as falling woefully short of obvious scientific truths.  Harris grew up in with a Jewish mom and a Quaker dad, attended Stanford studying English, but dropped out when he started Ecstasy.  This lead him to study Buddhism, meditation, and read hundreds of religious books.  Eventually, he would return to Stanford, obtaining his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy.  He is now pursuing a doctorate in  neuroscience, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. (Wikipedia)

Harris says that religion, namely Christianity, served a purpose for some time, but it is now time to view God the same way we view the myth of Zeus.  It is now time to leave religion behind, and take society in a new direction.  Religion as been “one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised.”  According to Harris, we must bring the nation to a point where we can not only talk about how mentally ridiculous Christianity is, but to the point where we cease to let it effect the way our society is run.  Reason, instead, should be the basis of society.   In the near future, I will be writing some views on his “Letter to a Christian Nation” book, so you will become very familiar with Harris.

Other personalities in the New Atheism movement are Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, as well as entertainers Penn and Teller, who have made bashing Christianity and Creationism a part of their popular act.  If you could boil all of their thoughts down to one, I think it may sound something like this: A belief in Christianity, Theism, God, Creationism, the Bible, the Koran, or any other ‘holy scripture’ is idiotic, baseless, and you are stupid if you believe them.  They very much carry themselves as being societies best thinkers, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just a nim-wit.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be adding various other posts to continue to explore some of these writings, what they teach, and how it may affect our society.  Their mission is to make Christianity intolerable, outlawed, and banished, along with those that hold to it.  They will not rest until their mission is accomplished.  What is a Biblically minded Christian to do?  Through this series, I pray that you do not fear these men and their bravado, but you realize that this is another season of attacks on faith.  Interestingly enough, in England, where Dawkin’s books shot up the sales of books of spirituality by 50% and the sales of Bibles by 120%.  Somewhat ironic that this has lead to a resurgence in the reading of the Bible.  I doubt that was the intended reaction.  I pray that it leads us to a resurgence in understanding our faith, and how to defend it.

“The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman: Reader Beware?

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This past summer I’ve been hearing about this book called “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman and how it is ‘Anti-Christian’. When I heard it was going to be a major motion picture, I figured that it would be quite the topic for conversation, so I bought the book and gave it a quick read over the last week or so. I would challenge you to also read the book and not just take my word for it. And if you are a parent, it’s that much more important to read the books your children are reading. Let me say from the beginning, if you don’t want the ending ruined in any way, you shouldn’t read this review. In order to clearly explain things, I will have to give away plot lines.

“The Golden Compass” is a book geared towards children, as that is where I had to go at the Barnes and Nobles I bought it at. It is the first in a series of three books called “His Dark Materials”. It is written by a strong atheist in response to “The Chronicles of Narnia”. The book won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction in the UK in 1995, and in 2007 it was selected by judges of the Carnegie Medal as one of the ten most important children’s novels of the past 70 years. (info from wikipedia) The third book in the series won the Whitbread Prize in 2001, the first children’s book to do so. And more recently the first book made it on Al Roker’s book reading club’s book list. Needless to say, these books have won quite the popularity, and the movie coming out will only encourage children to flock to read the books.

Like I said, Pullman is a very avowed Atheist and even said in an interview with a newspaper in Sydney, “My books are about killing God.” That is in fact, what he does in the third book, where a character that is obviously the allegorical character for God. The books and the movie have been condemned by the Catholic League. I would imagine that the movies themselves will ‘tone down’ anti-God rhetoric found in the book. Otherwise the studios would be running far too much of a risk of alienating and severely offending a majority of its intended audience. I should also say here that the movie is rated PG-13, as I would imagine with many of the violent battles and tense situations.

So what is in the book, you ask? Let me first lay out the plot. The setting is a basically a parallel dimension to our world. It has most of the same geographical locations, with a large portion of the book set in London. But this world has witches, talking bears, and every human has what he calls a ‘daemon’. These daemons are small animals that are basically the human’s souls or spirit, but live outside of the person. The reflect the personality of the person, and until a child hits puberty, they can shift depending on the situation the person finds them in. A large portion of the book focuses on the relationship between humans and their daemons.

A very significant plot line that much of the criticism springs from is the fact that society is run by The Church. The Church in the book is obviously modeled after The Roman Catholic Church. They run everything in society and anyone who encourages thought contrary to the Church is condemned, locked away, or even killed. This is a good place to mention that religious figures are generally treated with contempt and distrust in the book. Main characters make habit of mocking them. It ma be subtle, but the anti-religion clamor reaches a climax at the end of the book.

The main character is a young 11 year old girl named Lyra . She has been raised in Oxford at Jordan College and hardly acts as they say a girl should act. She is the good natured kid who is always running around, hanging around with kids she shouldn’t be, going places she shouldn’t go and generally causing problems around campus. There are definitely some behavioral problems that Lyra exhibits that seemingly go uncondemned. Throughout the book she uses foul language, although the author never actually writes a foul word. It just tells the reader that she used every foul word she knew. There are other points in the book where she is drinking hard alcohol or smoking and no one condemns the behavior of an eleven year old.

The main plot is that there are some people that are kidnapping children and it is Lyra’s job to find out why they were taken, where they were taken to, and help rescue them. The child kidnapping hits home with Lyra, as one of her best friends and partner in crime is suddenly missing. She sets off on a mission that takes her on adventures she’s never experienced and makes relationships that go deeper than any she’s previously had. Along the way she begins to discover exactly what’s going on, and what the nature of ‘dust’ is. ‘Dust’ is spoken of throughout the book, and as her journey progresses, she finds out more about it. What they know is that this ‘dust’ is a particle that cannot be broken down and appears naturally. Oddly, researches have found that the ‘dust’ is not drawn to children, but only to adults.

This pushes an organization to study the ‘dust’ and what it is, how it works, and when it attaches to humans. This leads them to kidnap the children in order to study them. They effectually torture the children, and most that are put through the procedure end up dying. As she finds out, the Church is behind the people kidnapping, studying, and torturing. It is not until the last few pages that the bomb, though, is dropped. The Church believes that the Dust is Original Sin. They believe when a child goes through puberty, that they no longer have the ability to reject the ‘dust’. And if they can somehow figure out how to keep this from happening, the Church wil have defeated Original Sin.

For those of you who don’t know what Original Sin is, it depends on your doctrinal position. Most would say that it is the sin nature passed down from Adam. The Catholic Church believes infant baptism erases this Original Sin. So, the Church, in the book, is sacrificing the lives of countless innocent children to figure this out.

One of the greatest dangers of this book is the seed of fear and mistrust of Christianity that it would plant in the minds of children. It is written from an atheist perspective, and I’m sure Pullman would say exactly what countless other Atheists have said: The Church is responsible for more deaths, tragedy, and suffering than any other organization, and all in the name of “God”. This is almost a main tenet of modern atheism. What they don’t tell you are the countless lives lost to atheist tyrants such as Pol Pot, Marx, Stalin, Slobodan Milosevic, Lenin, and Mao Tse-Tung. All were dictators. All were tyrants. All were atheists.

Now, obviously, this isn’t to say that all atheists are cruel, tyrannical dictators with hearts set on mass murder. But their heritage is hardly innocent. The fact is that all men are capable of doing such atrocities, and just because something is done in the name of God doesn’t mean that God approved of such a practice or even that they were genuine believers in God.

My last warning about the book is that it contains some very graphic and tense situations. Comparisons to “The Chronicles of Narnia” are inevitable, and having now read both, I can say with assurance that this has much more blood and gore than “Narnia”. There is talk of people who bore holes in the heads of people, eating the guts of children, the crushing of heads and tearing off of limbs, and similar behavior. Probably the most traumatic moment in the book has to do with what they do at the experiment station. I don’t want to talk about it, as that would ruin part of the book, but I don’t think it is at all appropriate for young children to read. It has very tense situations and subject matter that a pre-teen shouldn’t necessarily be reading.

Besides that, I have to say that the book was very readable, and I can see how it won awards, although it’s anti-God, pro-Atheism stance probably helped it out in that area. I found it a generally entertaining book that read quickly. From strictly a literary point of view, I can see that it is probably going to be a very entertaining movie.

So what should the concerned Christian parent do. If you have any questions, read the book for yourself and use your own discernment as to whether you want to allow your child to read it. I think we too often just dismiss things because we don’t agree with them, and maybe it would be good to discuss the danger points with your child. Our society is quickly being more and more influenced by the new Atheism and voices such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are becoming louder. Do you teach your child to put their head in the sand, or should we seek to discuss these things with them. This may be a good opportunity to teach them discernment. Read through the book with them and teach them to read with discernment. Obviously, this would only be for youth that can discern. But it may be a valuable exercise in their spiritual maturity.

If you’re interested, here’s the trailer for the movie. Speaking of just cinematic quality, it looks pretty good. All I have to say is from the moment I was introduced to what Nicole Kidman’s character would be, I knew she would play the part perfectly.

Sam Harris- Atheism’s New Bulldog

Awhile ago I wrote this post about a debate that Rick Warren had with Sam Harris, one of the leading Atheists.  I was actually a little surprised at how Warren handled it and thought he could have done worse.  Then I ran across this article from the BIOLA Connections magazine that Tim Dinkins, the Student Ministries Intern gets.  I thought it was interesting for a Christian college magazine to dedicate an cover to someone who would be so against Christianity.

Harris believes that religion is the biggest danger that faces humanity and that our culture must get beyond the political correctness and criticize religion.  He sees no rational reason for people believing holding so blindly to religion and that the world would be a better place if we erased religion from the face of the earth.

I’m not going to take the time to recap what that article says, so I encourage you to read it yourselves.  Instead, I have bought his two main books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”.  I’m trying to work my way through “The End of Faith” and will post views as I get through the book.

My thoughts so far pretty much echo the thoughts of the men in that BIOLA article.   Harris throws out empty accusations without providing examples.  He equates Yahweh with Zeus and says we must see God as we see Zeus.  When speaking of the Bible he says it is ‘a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency.’  But then he provides no examples.

When he does try to wade in the Bible, he shows himself to have a very poor grasp on theology and hermeneutics.  He says that Christianity fails to live up to the Bible because we don’t go and kill unbelievers like God commanded people to do in the Old Testament.  He fails to realize any idea of covenants.  Harris is NOT a theologian and tends to embarrass himself when he tries to criticize what he doesn’t understand.

He cannot understand why people would believe what he sees as being totally inconsistent, and says that people believe the “incredible claim about the universe and seem to require no evidence whatsoever.”  He thinks that Christians are those who just unplug their minds and equates the existence of God with the idea that there is a yogurt that will make you invisible if you eat it.  He makes these claims and they become very popular with those who follow him, but there is no depth behind his statements.  He just throws stuff up against a wall and goes with whatever sticks.

He doesn’t separate radicals from moderates because he believes that if people were to really follow their beliefs, then they should be radical.  He believes moderates are just bad religious followers, but still carry the idea that they are intolerant towards other religious followers of different systems.

He sees that Christianity has made no doctrinal progress over the years and says that people just hold to dogmatic positions.  He says that geography, astronomy, and medicine have made leaps and bounds, but doctrine hasn’t.  He says, “There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago- while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate- or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.”

These are just some thoughts on what I’ve read recently, and as I continue to read, I’ll post some more thoughts.