Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and CEO of Project Reason, wrote a book called The End of Faith. He argued that religion is not only completely unreasonable, it is so dangerous in a world where there are weapons of mass destruction that it is no longer safe for us to keep it around. I haven't read this book, but apparently many Christians did, and some were so incensed they wrote him abusive letters.
(Note to my fellow Christians: writing abusive letters is definitely What Jesus Would Not Do!)
Harris replied not with personal abuse by return mail, but with a booklet called Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he responds to his correspondents with more grace than they deserve, restating his arguments simply and briefly.
He is primarily addressing fundamentalists, and I found I agreed with him on a lot of points. He is right to be horrified at some aspects of the Old Testament punitive law, like the stoning of adulterers and disobedient children, although he is wrong to suggest that Jesus endorsed these. He is right to point to the irrationality of belief in a literal six day creation. He is right to critique the opposition of many Christians to "harm reduction" approaches to sexual health (eg promoting the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection). He is right to suggest that religious people are not necessarily more moral than non-religious, although he is wrong to suggest that this is an argument against religion. He may even have a point about Christian opposition to stem cell research, although I think there is more to be said about that.
However, for a man who heads an organisation called "Project Reason" his critique is surprisingly unreasoned. For a start, like his friends Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, he has a rather hazy grasp of the content of religion. I'm not sure that he fully realises the extent to which, like Dawkins, he sees religion through fundamentalist glasses. This is what enables him to write like this about what he calls "religious liberalism and religious moderation".
...the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false....If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for non-believers like myself....So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.
It would be harder to find a better statement of fundamentalist belief in any fundamentalist publication. The problem for Harris seems to be that he actually prefers fundamentalism to what he calls "moderation" and "liberalism". Hence, he is able to toss two thousand years of biblical and theological study out of the window with barely a glance in much the same way fundamentalists do. No wonder that, like fundamentalists, he sees religious moderation as dangerous.
Funnily enough, he is not willing to apply the same standard to atheism.
Christians like yourself invariably declare that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism. While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organised religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional...
So, if I were to say that the Christians who wrote abusive letters to Harris are not acting on the basis of Christianity but of some personal pathology or distortion of the faith, I am out of order. But if Harris says that the bad deeds of atheist tyrants are based on personal pathology or delusion, that is OK. Moderate Christians are dangerous because they mask the dangers of fundamentalism, but moderate atheists are fine - in fact the salt of the earth - because they bring the light of reason to a benighted world.
Harris and his friends are classic examples of the polarising effects of war, In a war there can be no neutrals. Either you are for us, or you are against us. Voices of moderation are drowned out by the boom of cannons. In the 1950s and 1960s the problem was communism, and people who looked a little bit communist - trade unionists, fabian socialists, people who thought maybe we should be a little more generous to the poor - were suspect and placed under suveillance. The fact that most of these people were peacable, responsible citizens was neither here nor there.
Now the problem is religious terrorism, and anyone who is a bit religious is suspect. It doesn't matter if you are a moderate Christian, a pacifist, a peace-loving Indonesian muslim, you are suspect and your religion needs to be eradicated along with the distorted fanatical Salafism of Osama bin Laden. Although apparently Harris would make an exception for Jainism.
Sadly, the CEO of Project Reason is making a basic category mistake. He is suggesting that because our most recent terrorists are religious, religion must be the problem. Yet there have been many terrorists in history, using a wide range of religious, political and nationalist justifications for their unjustifiable atrocities. What they have in common is that they have managed to construct an ideology which allows, even obliges, them to impose their will on others with brutal force. This is the problem, not religion. I would happily help Harris combat this problem. While he is combating it with reason, I would combat it with arguments from religion. Perhaps between us we might get somewhere.