The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris

W. W. Norton, 978-0-393-32765-6, 348 pp. (incl. notes, bibliography and index), 2004

I picked up Sam Harris’ The End of Faith after watching The Four Horsemen, a two hour atheist roundtable he appeared in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. I found many of Harris’ comments on spirituality intriguing, though I found myself repulsed by bigoted comments regarding Islam.

The End of Faith deals with several themes surrounding religion and why it’s no good (to put it mildly). Harris rightly states that “most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors”.1 Worse, religions tend to decry critical examination of any kind.

The bulk of  Harris’s criticism of religion is is focused on Christianity and vitriol towards Islam. While the underlying sentiment is sound – that religion induces people who might otherwise make good friends and neighbours to kill and maim one another at the behest of grotesquely cruel imaginary beings – the conclusions Harris draws regarding what is to be done about these irrationally harmful beliefs is disquieting, to say the least. For example, Harris writes:

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them…((Emphasis mine.)) Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”2

I fail to see how this makes the “rational” person more worthy of respect than the mad religious one. Harris seems to reject the possibility of dialogue with “some people” outright, as if it will never be possible.

“Given the constraints of Muslim orthodoxy, given the penalties within Islam for a radical (and reasonable) adaptation to modernity, I think it is clear that Islam must find some way to revise itself, peacefully or otherwise…the West must either win the argument or win the war. All else will be bondage.”3

Harris has decided that to bridge the gap from “tyranny to liberation” in a so-called civil society (defined as “a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without risk of physical violence”)4  “some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary… But benignity is the key – and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without.” Harris acknowledges this as “exceedingly arrogant”, yet fears that “[w]e cannot wait for weapons of mass destruction to dribble out of the former Soviet Union”.5

Yet we know that reform does not occur overnight, and rarely, if ever, due to the impositions of an invading force. Insurrection must come from within.

Consider, two hundred years ago, heck, even a hundred years ago it was considered an impossibility that women could take part in government affairs in any country. It’s only very, very recently that women have even been able to vote:

  • 1893 – New Zealand
  • 1902 – Australia
  • 1906 – Finland
  • 1913 – Norway
  • 1917 – Canada
  • 1920 – United States
  • 1928 – Britain
  • 1945 – France
  • 1946 – Belgium
  • 1971 – Switzerland
  • 2006 – Kuwait6

These are largely post-Enlightenment “Western” cultures who  treated women as property due with excuses derived from religion, philosophy and pseudo-science. Why would anyone expect that, had Martians incinerated those who opposed the liberation of women, that the men of these societies would have suddenly dropped their weapons and instantiated women as prime ministers and presidents to lead their countries? We got there by fighting, sure, but fighting with ideas.

Harris relates a story of how he saved a woman being beaten from abduction in the streets of Prague non-violently by distracting the attackers’ attention, yet he feels himself a coward for not “correcting” these men with brute force, knowing that they outnumbered him and he would likely have been beaten, and very possibly killed for interfering in this way.

This is absurd. Why do airlines advise passengers to secure their own oxygen masks prior to coming to the aid of others? To ensure you’re still alive to do so, of course. If you die in the service to one other, you’re in no position to change things. Had Harris attacked these men and died, his death would have been utterly worthless. They would not have understood the “lesson” he intended.7 Alive, and “cowardly” (!), he helped a woman in distress escape  dangerous situation, avoided harm himself, and lives on to write a bigoted and largely misguided book, but surely even this is a more meaningful outcome?

The critique of Islam extends to the Qu’ran itself. After no less than six pages of “desperately tedious” cherry-picked quotations disparaging non-believers, Harris has the gall to say that “[a]nyone who can read passages like those quoted above and still not see a link between Muslim faith and Muslim violence should probably consult a neurologist.” One could, of course, select a string of moving phrases and say something like “anyone who reads passages like these and who fails to see a link between Muslim faith and Muslim art and beauty should chill out a bit, and enjoy.”

Further, he writes that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised has all the banks of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”8 Really? I mean, really? Even more than Christianity, which worships a ressurected zombie and partakes of ritual cannabilism? We could string along reams of horrid tortures the Christian bible endorses, too, but these are dated texts the practitioners rarely read fully themselves.

While acknowledging that he, an American, lives in a theocracy himself (especially considering that this book was conceived of and published during George W. Bush’s reign), he fails to see this “war of ideals” clearly in the religious terms it is. He does not seem to recognize the extent that the religious beliefs of those around him had an influence on cultural foundation.

Harris writes that “moral relativists generally believe that all cultural practices should be respected on their own terms, that the practitioners of the various barbarisms that persist around the globe cannot be judged by the standards of the present. ”9 No, not necessarily respected, and while judgement and condemnation may be favourite American passtimes, an alternative would be to  seek to understand another’s position and there by enter dialogue. Few are persuaded to change their ways by wagging fingers and bullying.

For instance, knowing that Harris began writing The End of Faith on September 12th, 2001 does help place it in context, and therefore one can come to a better understanding of the root of his bigotry towards Muslims, but reasonable people may not cannot condone it, nor does it, in any way, excuse it.

I’m an atheist. I believe religion is misguided and frequently harmful. I’m with Richard Dawkins when he describes early indoctrination as a form of child abuse. But I cannot support or condone violent means as a rational approach to progress.

The End of Faith certainly highlights some of the attocities religion has inspired, immediately rejecting dialogue out of hand rather than favouring it as an approach to understanding, further dialogue and reform cannot hope to be a stable path to peace for the future.

  1. p. 31 []
  2. p. 53 []
  3. p. 131 []
  4. Unless you have the wrong ideas according to some Americans, it seems. []
  5. p. 150-151 []
  6. From Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, p. 301, supplimented by “Women’s Right to Vote in Canada” (16 May 2009). []
  7. His communications with them in English confused them, and he could not speak their language. No constructive dialogue could have taken place. []
  8. p. 123 []
  9. p. 179 []
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