Much has been written in the past year about the New Atheist "movement," about the increasing aggressiveness of some secular humanists trying to rid public discourse of unquestioned tolerance for—and deference to—religious beliefs. And no one personifies that movement in America more than Sam Harris.
With his first book, End of Faith, Harris threw out the notion that religious faith was somehow immune from the evidence-based requirements we have for all other claims that people make about the nature of the world. When the devout, for instance, insist that the world is only 6,000 years old, Harris suggests we stop cautiously nodding, afraid to offend their religious convictions. Instead, he argues, we should demand at least a rational explanation for those convictions—especially if the religious are attempting to influence public policy.
This stance has earned him heaps of praise from secularists and atheists who have otherwise remained on the margins of public discourse. In effect, Harris gave them permission to stop being so polite, so "respectful." But it's also drawn loads of criticism, even from leaders on the left, who have claimed that Harris and his followers are just as intolerant and fundamentalist as hard-line believers.
His new book, Letter To A Christian Nation, is a response to those criticisms. Ostensibly, it's aimed at Christians, and is, in fact, addressed to them directly (see the title of the book). In practical terms, it reads more like a justification of his perceived intolerance for an audience that might already be inclined to agree with him, but are afraid to be seen as offensive.
The result is an unflinching refutation that Christian beliefs should be allowed to stand without direct confrontation. Harris argues that sitting quietly is not only chickenshit, but immoral. Accommodating religious teachings against contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, homosexuality, etc., leads to outcomes (unwanted pregnancies, curable illnesses that aren't cured, intolerance) that can't survive a reason-based ethical examination.
No matter what one thinks of Harris or his devotees, it's well past time for these arguments to be given a place in the public sphere. Happy holidays.