Sam Harris prefaces this open letter by clearly identifying his intended audience; the true believers, the estimated 44% of Americans who profess to place their faith in a literal translation of the Bible. He shows no fear of offending this audience as he unveils an absurdity of inconsistencies and dubious morality in the Bible to the cold light of reason. His arguments are precise and succinct, hitting hard and moving on to the next weak spot. He points out that, even compared to other religions, Christianity is woefully out of touch with contemporary moral ideals. Secular philosophy and ethics, he argues, has been more successful than religion in providing a workable moral framework for modern society through a focus on reducing human suffering that is unshackled from the arcane and ambiguous commandments of an imaginary creator.
By deliberately addressing his letter at fundamentalist Christians Harris allows himself to frame the debate in absolutes; “Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t. Either Christ was divine, or he was not.” This is a clever move as Harris is no doubt aware that, despite all its persuasiveness, his message is unlikely to hit that heavily defended target. In reality this book is designed to make an impact on religious moderates who he believes are guilty of excessive religious tolerance, to the point where fundamentalism of all kinds has been allowed to grow and threaten all of us. By distilling the debate down to its simplest dichotomy Harris forces moderates to pick a side and the choice seems obvious: the logical secular humanist side or the rather silly but downright dangerous religious faith side.
Critics will accuse him of being a fundamentalist atheist but, as Harris points out, this is to misunderstand the nature of atheism. No one over a certain age actually believes in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy but we do not imagine that this requires some contrary system of belief. Children simply accumulate a certain amount of evidence and through the application of reason and logic come to the realisation that they are merely fairy stories to keep kids well behaved. Similarly it does not follow that simply because atheists do not subscribe to a belief in God they must place their unused faith in some other, opposing belief structure. This is an important point to make as atheist are quickly becoming one of the most marginalised members of American society as is highlighted by the fact that, though it is no longer seen as an impediment to be female or black in presidential elections, an atheist has absolutely no chance of gaining office.
The dense brevity of this book makes it a perfect starting point for those who wish to quickly assay themselves with the most compelling atheist arguments before tackling more in depth works such as the God Delusion or The End of Faith. For card carrying atheists, reading this book will feel like an inspiring battle cry. For everyone else, the book makes bold statements that are thought-provoking but not entirely irrefutable and should at least provide the basis for much debate.
This book is published by Bantam Press