Book review: Letter to a Christian Nation

I called Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” a “critically insightful” book. Now Sam has come up with a slight volume titled Letter to a Christian Nation.

The book has a bit of an identity crisis, however. The title would indicate he’s addressing Christians, but actually, as Sam himself says, it’s meant to “arm secularists”. As a result, the book has a preaching-to-the-choir flavor. But it’s interesting to consider: what is the long-term process by which the world can be brought to stop believing in magic? In particular, is it through arguments? I doubt it. The people on either side of this divide are talking different languages.

First, we need to separate the biological and cultural tendencies towards religion. It’s widely accepted—and the premise of this blog—that religion has a heavy biological component. To the extent it does, only evolution can address that problem. But it is not biology that compels people to believe that Mary was a virgin or that poverty-stricken Africans should be taught abstinence. We can accept that we will continue to have biological tendencies that leave us in awe of the unknown, or govern the neural processes associated with personal development, while still attempting to address the culturally-dependent aspects of religion which are causing people to kill each other, among other things.

So let us draw a roadmap for achieving a society where people no longer believe in counter-productive, harmful, and obviously stupid things. Given the arc of human civilization, I suggest this roadmap needs to extend over a century or more. Such a roadmap will alert us to what needs to be done now to promote the process.

A key element is the teaching of religion to children. This was highlighted by Dawkins in The God Delusion as well as by Sam in his new book. Although there is a natural attrition away from religion even among children of religious parents (rather extreme in my family’s case, where by my count only two of eight children maintain their parents’ beliefs), it probably averages less than 25%. Those that have discarded magical beliefs, however, are unlikely to have even one child who reverts to them. The issue, then, becomes the ratio at which religious belief decays. If it is 25% per generation, over a century the number of believers would be reduced by only 60%. If, however, the attrition ratio could be raised to 50% per generation, the number of believers a hundred years later would be reduced to a manageable 10%. But how can we bring one out of two people per generation into the ranks of the “brights”?

Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris appear to believe that the right approach is to talk real loud and take no prisoners. However, as mentioned above, that is unlikely to work.

We need a more sophisticated approach. We need to manage the conversation in a way which resonates with those we are addressing. We need to control the terms of the discussion. We need to establish simple, compelling themes which will resonate. A large part of this is semiological in nature—what are the words and messages which we want to create and disseminate?

For instance, consider the message “God does not exist.” We can embellish this message with all kinds of details, as Dawkins does, rebutting each and every argument that He might in fact exist. But the believers will simply tune this out. We need a message which, jujitsu-like, take advantage of the gullibility and proclivity to believe on the part of those we are trying to address.

I like messages of the form “God is X.” Such messages start off by accepting the premise that God does in fact exist. helping to guarantee their acceptance.

For instance, take “God is mean”. This leverages the nagging feeling shared by everyone that there is something a little bit wrong about a God that lets Katrina happen, that lets babies die, that watches over planes smashing into skyskrapers, and basically fucks all of us over more than we care to admit. It can’t be sugar-coated. Let’s spread this meme, gently.

Another example is “God is too busy”. Let’s face it—worrying about six billion souls is just too much work for One Guy. And that’s even before you think about the 10^23 other stars in the universe he has to worry about, a point made brilliantly by Carl Sagan in “Varieties of Scientific Experience”, which I’ll review in the near future. He’s so busy, he’s probably not really taking care of me like He should be, or listening really closely to my prayers.

Then we could go with “God is not that smart.” I mean, look at all the mistakes He’s made. We know he created Adam from dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, but let’s face it, in the physiological design department we can’t exactly give Him an “A”. Just ask my knee doctor, who says one of these days I’m going to need a replacement.

Let’s spread these memes, focusing on them with laser intensity and refusing to dilute our message. As they spread and gain credence through society, people will not suddenly switch sides and start disbelieving—they will just stop caring about a God who is mean, too busy, and not that smart. That can get us to the 50% attrition per generation level and reduce believers to 10% of the current level over the next hundred years, at which point they will be nothing more than a minor nuisance.

9 Responses to “Book review: Letter to a Christian Nation”

  1. Ettsem Says:

    Gently spread the meme
    That “God is really mean”
    His love might be supreme
    His violence is obscene

    The reason we rebel?
    It matters little why
    We’re born to live in hell
    And then we get to die

    We may be incorrect
    We’re willing to discuss
    But some of us suspect
    The answer lies with us

  2. Justin Says:

    I saw a sign held up at an abortion rally by a guy who was protesting the anti-abortion protestors. His sign said “God Kills Babies”. It isn’t the most pleasant thought, but there is no way to argue against it.

  3. Mary Ann Parker Says:

    I’d love to hear you comment on Alan Watt’s “Beat Zen and Square Zen”. He decries the people who practice Zen either because it’s cool or because it’s what their parents do; neither is really understanding the point. I wonder if some of your reaction to these books falls in the same category. Consider the following:

    1. Attrition goes both ways. The total number of evangelicals is on the rise, so by definition there are actually more converts each generation than fewer.

    2. A lot of religious belief is tied closely to family traditions, which are extremely hard to break. There are many Jews or Mormons, for example, who are as “bright” as the best of them, but don’t you dare ask them to stop practicing their religion. They love their parents and family traditions deeply, and don’t see why they shouldn’t continue practicing all the rituals, whether they “believe” in them or not. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but in my family we still hang stockings on the chimney each Christmas.

    3. Religion is an instinct, biologically built into us. With enough effort, we can overcome our instincts, but don’t think it’s as easy as just spreading the right “meme”.

    4. I’m not sure some of the crazy things done in the name of religion are always bad. A lot of under-educated housewives in Kansas know and debate obscure aspects of Evolution more passionatey and with more detail than a lot of university biology departments. The creationists are completely wrong of course, but come on, what other country has housewives who can quote everything Stephen Jay Gould ever said?

  4. David Says:

    I found this site because I was interested in the premise of this book.

    I clicked, expecting a review, but instead found a surprisingly bigoted diatribe.

    The author(Mary Ann Parker) is ignorant of Christian thought; the Christian God is rarely blamed for human tragedy because it is believed that all of human tragedy is caused by humans/the fall of Adam and Eve – disease, environmental instability, war, even abortion. The author also promotes this ignorance despite confessing to at least limited exposure to Christian doctrine as a child.

    Keep this discussion open. ‘God is X’ exposes your inability to dialog and blemishes the notion that secularism is some how progressive and more intelligent.

    As for our household, my children will learn about various faiths – billions of adherents to a multitude of belief systems, including secular humanism.

    In any case, how about a review next time?

  5. Claire Says:

    It appears your theory is that the world would somehow be better if more people stopped “believing in magic.” Although this seems a difficult theory to test, given the challenge in finding a suitable control group, I found myself wondering what kind of studies have been done of communist countries where significant efforts were made to reduce the number of people with strongly held religious beliefs? Was there a correlation between a reduction in believers and the kinds of changes you hope for?

  6. Ben Paul Says:

    I have been thinking of your thoughtful and unique suggestion to spread memes rather than quibble on confusing theology. It is especially interesting that the examples you give presuppose God’s existence but ascribe bad qualities to Her. I think this could be a successful strategy to decrease the incidence of religious belief (and consequently, the negative effects of religious belief). I am going to forward this entry to USC’s Secular Alliance, of which I am a part. Let’s see what happens!

  7. DavidD Says:

    I doubt that the ratio at which religious beliefs decay is a number as fixed as that for radioisotope decay. In my own vision I see the traditional beliefs holding up fairly well for a few generations, certainly enough for traditional religion still to have significant power in 100 years. But at some point they’ll be a generation where there is heavy defection, as with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in music, which was followed by a generation very similar in musical tastes.

    It’s all about a world being transformed by the Enlightenment and scientific revolution. I bet the cultural effects of this will take more like 500 years to sink in than 100 years, no matter what individuals do to push it one way or the other. I wish I understood cultural evolution better to see this more clearly, but this is still my best guess. And of course, who and what God really is will have some effect on the outcome, I would think.

  8. RC Metcalf Says:

    You may be interested in a new book that has just been published in response to Sam Harris. It is entitled “Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point” by RC Metcalf. It is available through Amazon and B&N or through the author’s website at Please let others know about this important work!

  9. required name Says:

    “It can’t be sugar-coated. Let’s spread this meme, gently.”

    Who writes this has a somewhat limited perspective on religion. There are people believing in mean gods, but still believing.

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