Thursday, September 6, 2012

Some “Notes to the Reader” in Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation
PDF here: 

These notes are guided by these intellectual concerns:
·         Understanding what the author means when he says something that is not clear.
·         Asking whether specific claims the author makes are true or false and why.
·         Asking what arguments (i.e., reasons) are or could be given in favor of a claim (or conclusion) and whether these arguments are sound or not.

Here are responses that will be avoided entirely because they are irrelevant to intellectual concerns:
·         Speculations on the author’s emotions: irrelevant to the quality of the arguments, truth or falsity of claims made, etc.
·         Speculations on the author’s motives: irrelevant to the quality of the arguments, truth or falsity of claims made, etc.
·         Reports on whether we like or dislike what the author says, and how we “feel” about the writing, unless this relates to the intellectual quality of the arguments.

p. vii:
People have told Harris that he is “wrong” to not believe in God. Many of these messages have been “hostile.” This hostility might be due to “human nature,” if it is our nature to respond with hostility to those who we disagree with. Or it might be due to an influence of religion. Or both? How might we know?
A question: what does it mean to say that someone is “wrong” to believe (or not believe) something?
Another question: if an advocate of beliefs X responds with hostility in defense of X, does that mean that beliefs X are false or unreasonable? No.
p. viii:
Harris says his book is intended for all faiths [and we will see what other religions are discussed]. But it is written as a letter to a Christian. Why would he do that?
He will respond to many arguments Christians give in favor of their religious belief.
Question: what arguments do they give? Are any of these arguments good? Are any bad? How would we know?
He will try to “arm secularists” who believe religion should be kept out of public policy.
Question: what role, if any, should religion have in public policy?
He defines what he means by a Christian (is this definition correct?). And observes that the beliefs of “conservative’ Christians have influence over society. (do they?)

p. ix.
He claims he will try to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity.’
                Question: what are these? What would it be to “demolish” them?
He mentions that there are different kinds of Christians: “conservative,” “liberal”, “moderate”. He observes that the “liberals” and “moderate” might agree with him on much concerning the “conservatives.” But he does note that the “conservatives” and “liberals” rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child with Christian, Jewish or Muslim beliefs: they have this in common with “conservatives.’
Question: is it legitimate to raise a child with any of these beliefs? Why might someone think it is? Why might someone think it’s not?
He’s going to focus on a certain kind of conservative Christianity, at its most “divisive, injurious and retrograde,” on that both “moderates”, “liberals” and nonbelievers all disagree with.
Question: what are these claims, what does he mean? Why might someone think they are true? Why think they are false?
p. x
Some mention of (Biblically literal) “creationism,” “intelligent design” and evolution. The claim is that those who believe in creationism – i.e., a view that the universe is about 6000 years old – is highly unscientific.  
Question: is this all true? How many people hold such (literal) creationist views? (Need to check surveys). Are such views indeed unscientific? Is evolution scientific?
p. xi
Worries expressed about this: if people hold unscientific or anti-scientific views, it might be a problem if they are electing government officials or are government officials. Assumption: governance and social policy should be guided by science. Those who hold un- or anti-scientific views about the origins of the universe will likely hold un- or anti-scientific views about other scientific matters? Is it bad to hold unscientific views?
p. xxi.
At least some Christians (how many?) believe Jesus will return soon (a good thing, on their view [right?]), after a big disaster. (Do they think this? Why?). If someone believes this, how might this influence their beliefs about the future, e.g., the environment, society, economy, etc?
Harris says this is claimed “purely on the basis of religious dogma.” Is this true?
Harris claims that people believing these sorts of things, since there are many of them (are there?) and they have influence on society (do they?) results in an “emergency.”

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