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Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: The End of Faith (Book Review)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The End of Faith (Book Review)

When was the last time you read a thought-provoking book which explores the realms of religion, reason, science, and philosophy? I had the pleasure of reading such a book while on my two week break from my online classes. I was so impressed with the book, I thought I would share my thoughts with my readers. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) fearlessly explores the many issues raised in the title. Understandably, many people of faith will likely want to avoid this book because Harris pulls no punches. The End of Faith is hardly a mindless Christian bashing book, however. Every religion or belief (including atheism) is taken to task using a reasoned approach. Harris commits very few (if any) logical fallacies backing up most every argument with solid facts.

Harris opens the book with the all-too-common story of a young man with a bomb strapped to his chest boarding a bus. The bus is full of passengers of all ages. The bomber detonates the bomb and the bus explodes killing everyone on board as well as others in the immediate area. The bomber’s family, though saddened, celebrates knowing that their loved one will be going to heaven for sending so many infidels to hell. Harris doesn’t even bother to reveal the bomber’s religion because anyone who watches the news at all already knows the likely answer.

Only an irrational or insane person would carry out such a mission which would mean ending his or her life right? In one sense, the answer would be ‘yes’ but if you grow up believing that you are guaranteed a spot in heaven with beautiful virgins and can select a number of loved ones to go to heaven with you, does blowing up a bus full of people still seem irrational? Would the same person have committed this act of violence without faith? Doubtful.

How dare we be critical of a person’s religion regardless of what damage it does society! Harris goes into the territory of faith where few people want to go writing:

[C]riticizing a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture […] religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse. Criticizing a person’s ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics and history is not. (p. 13)
In other words, we need to stop holding back criticism of religion when criticism is merited. This is one of the very refreshing aspects of this book; there is none of this ‘religion of peace’ or ‘the fundamentalists have hijacked a good religion’ nonsense. In the fourth chapter titled “The Problem with Islam” Harris finds much of the ‘problem’ with Islam directly in the pages of the Koran and the hadith which he quotes and references at length.

While it is true that Christians have mostly avoided violence against non-believers in the past century, it remains important to remember past transgressions to keep history from repeating. Perhaps the two darkest times in Europe occurred during The Spanish Inquisition that spanned over 300 years and The Holocaust. The Catholic church of that time, much as modern Islamofascits do today, drew inspiration from their holy book to justify the hunting and killing of witches from Deuteronomy 13:12-16. Much like the Koran, these particular Bible verses command believers to kill non-believers. As a result, some 40,000 to 50,000 suspected witches were executed (p. 87).

The Jews endured an even longer period of persecution from Christians and Muslims alike (p. 93). Christians reasoned that it was the Jews who murdered Christ (wasn’t this the supposed divine plan to begin with?), continued to deny his divinity (p. 94), and believed that Jews drank the blood of Christians in different occult-like rituals (p. 98). This built-in anti-Semitism among German Christians proved valuable to Hitler during the holocaust. Because Jews were considered the vilest of creatures, cooperation to identify and locate Jews in Nazi Germany was not a difficult task (p. 101 and 102). Certain high-level Vatican officials continued to aid top SS leaders (Adolf Eichman among others) after the war by helping them escape to the Middle East and South America. Harris acknowledges that certain Vatican officials also helped Jews escape from extermination during the war but points out that the aid was often contingent on whether or not the Jew had been baptized in the Catholic Church (p. 105).

Not everything involving religion is as obviously terrifying as the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust. Harris finds that some of the dangers of faith are much more subtle. Faith can be (often is) an obstacle to personal liberty. Harris points out that many of the ‘vice’ laws are based only on religious grounds. This means that prison overcrowding due to the war on drugs, prostitution, gambling, and other ‘victimless crimes’ have no other basis in reason (p. 158-164). Religion with the force of government also erects obstacles to scientific research (i.e. embryonic stems cell research), allows bigotry to become law (outlawing certain sexual practices; gay marriage), and determines what is ‘decent,’ ‘indecent,’ or ‘obscene’ (because we are incapable as adults to make our own choices).

In regards to many of his fellow non-believers, Harris is critical with how poorly many have handled the issue of morality allowing believers (of whatever religion) gain the moral high ground. Far too many non-religious people are moral relativists. Harris on the other hand believes that right and wrong can be determined, as in every other science, with reason. Much as technology and our understanding of the universe has evolved, so has our moral standards. America, for example, has gone from a country where it was once acceptable to own other human beings and regarded women as second class citizens to a country which evolved into the one we have today where minority voices are respected. Certainly we have more work to do; 100 years from now future Americans’ morals will hopefully be superior to ours.

In the year 2006, not every country is up to the same technological standards. The same is true in regard to moral codes across cultures. Here Harris makes a very politically incorrect assertion that some cultures are morally superior to others. This is one area were he parts company with the Left, the blame-America-first, and peace-at-all-costs crowd. Not only is pacifism in the face of tyranny cowardly but also immoral.

Harris also takes aim at Noam Chomsky’s common moral equivalence notions that the U.S. is just as bad as the 9/11 hijackers because of a failed foreign policy. Even if we accept the premise that the U.S. foreign policy has lead to deaths of many innocents, unlike the terrorists, the taking of innocent life is unintentional. Harris then raises the question of a perfect weapon; a weapon which would only destroy the intended targets. Would a pacifist be willing to use such a weapon? Harris concludes that a pacifist would not even if it meant bad people would continue to hurt innocent people.

Now consider how this perfect weapon might be used in the hands of George W. Bush vs. Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden (or any of these other thugs Bush has recently been compared to by the extreme Left). Would Bush use the weapon the same way as any of them? Harris does not appear to be someone who likely supported Bush in either election but concludes that anyone who would suggest that Bush would use this perfect weapon in the same way as any of these war criminals are not being honest. Does anyone really think that Bush would target civilians with such a weapon? How about Hitler, Hussein, or Bin Laden? Had the Hussein invaded Washington D.C. (instead of coalition forces invading Baghdad) would he have taken the same measures to limit civilian casualties? We know the answers to these questions, therefore; America is not equal to these rouge regimes (p. 142-143).

Can mankind continue to survive with such strong religious differences in the nuclear age? Harris closes his book with the following conclusion: “The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of our civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this.” But can we truthfully live without faith and rely solely on reason? Will we miss our gods of the past? I believe we can live without faith and no, I do not believe we would miss our gods of the past no more than we miss Zeus or Poseidon. No god, whether real or imagined, deserves our praise who would have us persecute or kill others who do no believe. Faith has thwarted man’s advancement to a better world for far too long; an end to faith is way overdue.

12 Comments:

Blogger Robert said...

While I largely agree with the thrust of your post, I don’t accept your premise:

”No god, whether real or imagined, deserves our praise who would have us persecute or kill others who do no believe. Faith has thwarted man’s advancement to a better world for far too long; an end to faith is way overdue.”

The violence and other evil acts of unscrupulous individuals—in the name of “faith”—is a product of gross misunderstanding. That said, instead of trying to condense my response into a comment, I’ll shamelessly plug one my posts on belief.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Stephen Littau said...

Hey, its great to hear from you again Robert! Feel free to plug your posts any time.

I am not saying that if all faith magically disappeared all the world's problems would be solved. Many of the problems we have now would still exist. However, if a larger percentage of the population embraced reason (as Tom Paine writes in 'The Age of Reason'), we could earnestly begin to solve these problems.

I encourage you to read this book. Harris lays out the case much better than I did. If you agree with most of this post I think you would enjoy the book. I was expecting it to have more of a leftist tilt but he is very fair.

I'll be sure to re-read your post when I have a chance.

10:45 PM  
Anonymous RiddleOfSteel said...

Thanks for the review - the book sounds interesting.

I would have to read the arguments of the author, but would probably take issue with the assertion of there being no rational basis outside of religion for regulating things such as drugs, embryonic research, etc. Certainly though it is high time someone stood up for the legitimacy of critiquing religious beliefs in the same way other opinions and ideas are discussed.

Also to Robert, when examples of misdeeds of a religious nature are pointed out, it is often claimed that the perpetrators are misunderstanding or misusing religion. But these instances of evil acts committed in the name of religion are so prevalent throughout history and today, one has to wonder if the acts are in fact intrinsic to what is religion.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

I highly recommend this book. Sam Harris constructs lucid arguments for each premis and backs them up with plenty of references. I was a bit surprised when I reached the "end" of the book as I still had plenty of pages to go. The remainder were loaded with references and footnotes aplenty.

One of the most personally challenging sections was with regards to torture, in wartime, for - uh - informational purposes. His well laid argument was that the moral value of the torture of a single individual for information, with all the possibilities of mistaken identity thrown in the bag, was the equivalent of a war-time action in which collateral or innocent casualties/maimings were acceptable.

Both scenarios are personally repulsive, but I accept the founding premise that pacifism is equally unacceptable given the potentially unbounded barbarism. Issues like these stress the severe need for level headed and intelligent - oh, and also intelligent - decision making in today's world; something many human groups seem to be lacking in abundance at a critical point in time.

This is a great book and I eagerly anticipate reading his future materials.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now consider how this perfect weapon might be used in the hands of George W. Bush vs. Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden (or any of these other thugs Bush has recently been compared to by the extreme Left). Would Bush use the weapon the same way as any of them? Harris does not appear to be someone who likely supported Bush in either election but concludes that anyone who would suggest that Bush would use this perfect weapon in the same way as any of these war criminals are not being honest.

I strongly disagree. The problem isn't (necessarily) that Bush is immoral - it's that his morality causes him to see things that aren't there. His actions in office - things like jailing people indefinitely with no trial for years on end - prove that he is incapable of making those types of moral decisions wisely. So while he probably wouldn't make the same decisions as those dispicible leaders mentioned, he would probably make decisions that were just barely less bad.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...

With regards to the suicide bomber, did you read the footnote? Pat

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Cat Faber said...

In an earlier comment Kyle said:
One of the most personally challenging sections was with regards to torture, in wartime, for - uh - informational purposes.

This one brought me up short too. I accept the book's assertion that there would be scenarios (the book used something like "huge time bomb ticking away in city; bomber captured; refuses to reveal location") where even normally moral people would be willing to use torture. I don't accept the book's (apparent) assertion that this proves torture is moral; it only proves that when the stakes are high enough, even good, decent people can be tempted to do immoral things.

I really liked most of the book, though. It warmed my heart to see someone defending reason with the same enthusiasm normally used to promote religion.

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