i n t e g r a l c o u n s e l i n g i n s t i t u t e
January 2007 Book Review and Quotes Archive
Letter to a Christian Nation
By: Sam Harris
Guest Review by Scott Parker
It is a silly thing for a book such as Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation to appear atop the bestseller lists in 2006.
A wise nation might find such a trenchant criticism of religion almost charming in its quaintness, yet moot musings no
longer relevant to the concerns of serious people. But, Harris didn't write his letter to a wise nation. He wrote it to
America. And the only thing sillier than the need for a book like Harris' is how desperate that need is.
Harris describes an American Christian, 147 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, believing that
the universe is 6,000 years old; that an invisible god inhaled life into dirt to make a man that spawned a wife from
his ribs and talked to a snake; that God fathered a biological son; and that that son will return to Earth in the next
few decades, trailing with him the Apocalypse. Two things are most shocking about this depiction: 1) This isn't
an eight year old; and 2) This isn't an exception. These myths comprise the metaphysical beliefs of the average
And this is dangerous.
These beliefs cannot be verified, or proved, or even supported, except in the final trump of retreating to faith, that
rational-halt that has so long been left unchallenged. I believe Harris' greatest achievement has not been his
criticism of the irrationality of religion - this has been done before, though perhaps not much better than: “You
[Christians] are using your own moral intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your
moral intuitions. Your own intuitions are still primary, and your reasoning is circular” (49). - but his criticism of a
society that is incapable of rooting out that irrationality from its foundations because of the respect it affords faith.
By retreating from any criticism of something that is a person's faith, we effectively forgo the opportunity to
criticize the consequences of that faith. “Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us unwilling
to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and patently ridiculous" (80). For example, the bizarre
and arrogant belief that Jesus has been waiting 2,000 years to make his end-of-time-marking return in your
lifetime, makes for disastrous social policy, the absence of compassion, and ultimately, nihilism. Why care for
the planet, educate children, or plan for the future if Jesus will erase it all in a matter of years anyway? This
quick thought is a reminder to nonbelievers that the consequences of Christian mythology are not constrained
to the insides of others' minds.
But I don't need to go into Harris' arguments in this forum (though I assure you, they're quite good). Instead,
I'd like to consider what this message means to integral thinking.
For integral thinkers who are inclined toward the subjective, even the mystical, there is a danger here of wanting
to form an ally with religion, as the latter at least offers some space for inner exploration. The implied contrast
being that science offers no space for such explorations, and some space, even if it is squarely enclosed in
the four walls of a church, is better than no space. This is exactly where integral could be helpful in using
the subjective to complement science, rather than rejecting it, as religion would have it. But that opportunity
is lost if integral builds on that faulty foundations of religious mythology.
And Harris would espouse something similar; his letter betrays no scientism. He understands that people
have wide-ranging subjective experiences that cannot be explained away in the language of cells and
action potentials. “There is no question that it is possible for people to have profoundly transformative
experiences. And there is no question that it is possible for them to misinterpret these experiences, and to
further delude themselves about the nature of reality” (89). The problem is not the experience. The
problem is that, because we lack alternatives, these experiences are held up to support religious worldviews.
That, I believe, will be the divided response of the integral types. Some will find Harris' letter harsh and
hyper-rational. Others will agree that religious sympathies are consequent to nihilistic concessions.
As for the subjects themselves, the addressees of Harris' letter, what will be their response? Will their
metaphysical stance preempt the rational discourse that could undermine it? Their faith will encourage it.
The epistemology of the religious is that a criticism such as Harris' is wrong not because it is logically flawed,
but because it is a criticism. The conversation appears to be over before it's begun. Sadly for the rest of
the world, this is not a debate of right or wrong where only pride is on the line. This is a foundational debate
about how decisions are made in our society. Will we allow mythology to guide us to the Apocalypse or
will we recognize that, as Harris says: "That religion may have served some necessary function for us in
the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization” (91).
January 2007 Weekly Quotes
"Most of the time I'm not even aware I exist." ~ Robin Williams, What Dreams May Come
"The natural laws we have believed in and taught our children have sometimes been found to
be not natural laws at all, but rather fearsome constructs of our own making, undermined by the
evidence. Time and again, the bear they had sworn would rip us limb from limb was begrudgingly
allowed a place at the table, and behold, it used a fork and a spoon." ~ Barbara Kingsolver
You’re never going to make the right decision, come to the final understanding, write the perfect
sentence. These are sacred goals for profane pursuits: You don’t have a chance. So just make
a decision, have some understanding, write a sentence: Do something. It’s the proverbial jumping
right in. And it’s a literal oxymoron. ~ Scott Parker, A Year of Service
"What do you suppose is in the cocoon, Charley? Much more beautiful than a butterfly - a moth.
It's ironic, butterflies get all the attention but moths spin silk, they're stronger, faster. You see this
little hole? This moth is just about ready to emerge. Its in there right now struggling to dig its way
through the thick hide of the cocoon. I could help it, take my knife, gently widen it and the moth would
be free. But it would be too weak to survive. Struggle is nature's way of strengthening it. Now, that's
the second time you've asked for your drugs back." ~ John Locke, LOST, episode 105: The Moth