Books > Book review
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
This not a book about how the end of faith is coming. It is a book about how the end of faith is essential for the survival of the human race. Sam Harris would like to see a world without religion, because he believes, with a lot of justification, that there will never be peace until people stop believing in invisible friends and fighting over whose invisible friend is real and whose is not, and he is pessimistic about the future unless such a peace can be achieved.
There is always much talk whenever sectarian conflict happens about how it is only the extremists who cause trouble and the majority of believers are quite prepared to be ecumenical and get along with everyone else, regardless of religion. Harris makes the point that any religion defines outsiders as heathens who must either be converted or condemned to Hell for eternity, and there can be no in-between. (He concentrates on the People of The Book - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He has a much different view of eastern religions, and I will mention this later.) His main target is Islam, simply because Islam is the religion which is most threatening today, and he goes to great lengths to dispose of the idea that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and cooperation. For example, in one part of the book he takes several pages to quote, in bibliological sequence, all the instructions in the Koran which require Muslims to do damage to infidels.
Christianity doesn't get let off, and Harris spends some time describing the insanity of the Inquisition, but the point he is really making is that Islam seems to be now where Christianity was about five or six centuries ago. Judaism gets only a brief mention (being not politically correct can only go so far), but it shares with the other two Abrahamic religions the idea that only the inner circle are going to be saved and it can be just as intolerant of outsiders as anyone else can.
One point that Harris makes, and it needs to be shouted louder, is that religion, unlike almost all other human intellectual pursuits, is by its nature stagnant. Holy writ is holy writ, and any changes must indicate that what was taught and believed in the past was in error, leaving open the possibility that what is being taught now may also be in error. (This is the problem faced by reformers at any time. See my review of The Sins of Scripture by Bishop John Shelby Spong.) To illustrate this stagnation, Harris points out that if you were to take the best educated person in Europe from the 16th century and drop him (it would be a "him") into any major world city now he would have no idea of what was happening. He would have no way of discussing science, politics or almost anything else. Except religion, because his expertise would still be current. This is the basis for fighting creationism and other manifestations of fundamentalism - the world is different now and it is time to put away childish things.
There are two parts of this book which have the appearance of being added to pad the book out to publishable length. (Harris is not the only author guilty of this. One of the best skeptical books of all time is Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, but there are a couple of chapters near the end which look like afterthoughts.)
The first of these is an essay titled "A Science of Good and Evil". The subject matter has little to do with the main thesis of the book, although the occasional sentence has been inserted in an attempt to make a linkage. It is essentially an essay about how a system of ethics can be created without the need for an overseeing God to make the rules and encourage obedience by threats of punishment in an afterlife. There is not much here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who had studied undergraduate philosophy, and is essentially a reworking of Jesus' Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and Kant's categorical imperative (other people should never be treated as means, only as ends), with a bit of Utilitarianism dusted over the top. There is an interesting thought experiment which leads the reader further and further into the quagmire of justification of torture, but all this illustrates is that in certain circumstances almost anybody could question their ethical principles. I suppose Harris is trying to show that religion is unnecessary for the purpose most often offered to justify its existence, but this didn't need to be pointed out in a book dealing with the particular focus of this one.
The second addition is quite strange. It is a chapter titled "Experiments in Consciousness", and seems to be something written as part of Harris' work towards his doctorate. It has almost nothing to do with the dangers of religion, and even goes so far as to suggest that Eastern mysticism might have value and provide insights into the human condition that would be otherwise unavailable. It seems to suggest that Western thought has never properly addressed the concept of "self" and self-awareness, a suggestion which seems to ignore two millennia of philosophy, from the Greeks to the Enlightenment to Existentialism. Whatever was Descartes writing about when he said "cogito, ergo sum" if it wasn't about awareness of the self as the foundation of all knowing?
So, is this a good book? Yes, it is. It contains things which need to be said and which too often are hidden under a covering of politeness and political correctness. It's just that nothing is lost by putting the book down without reading the last fifty or so pages.
Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years. Mr. Harris is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). His work has been discussed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, New Scientist, SEED Magazine, Stanford Magazine, and many other journals. Mr. Harris makes regular appearances on television and radio to discuss the danger that religion now poses to modern societies. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Several foreign editions are in press. Mr. Harris lives in New York City.