Review: The End of Faith

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
Sam Harris
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004

Review Copyright © 2013 Garret Wilson — 16 June 2013

Sam Harris, positioning himself as an intellectual, asks a question: in this age of tolerance, are some believe systems so inherently incorrect and moreover, dangerous, that we should not hesitate to denounce them categorically? Harris answers with a resounding "yes", but his response goes beyond resounding and turns into a screaming rant. Harris proposes that religious faith, besides being absurd, is by the admissions of its own teachings intolerant and the source of much violence. Harris proposes that whatever positive things are brought about by spirituality can be replaced by some ambiguous spiritual experiences Harris attempts to reconstitute in scientific terms. While any of these points could stimulate legitimate intellectual inquiries, in The End of Faith Harris instead falls victim to the knee-jerk reactionism prevalent after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Primarily targeting Muslims, he plays the armchair dictator and manages to create a Secular Religion of Intolerance that provides its own witch hunt against the faithful.

"Witch" Belief System?

Witch hunts, in fact, is an appropriate subject as any to start examining Harris' ideas. His main point (although at times he completely loses his main point and doesn't pick it up again until the Epliogue) is that the religious faiths in our society of tolerance have been sheltered from criticism. Harris claims that faith, besides being absurdly false from an objective standpoint, is also objectively dangerous in its teachings, and is the cause of much of the violence in our society. As one example, he spends a large part of a chapter providing colorful descriptions of the hysterical persecutions against supposed "witches" carried out by the Christian Church in centuries past. The following is typical of what Harris recounts:

In 1595, an old woman residing in a village near Constance, angry at not being invited to share the sports of the country people on a day of public rejoicing, was heard to mutter something to herself, and was afterwards seen to proceed through the fields towards a hill, where she was lost sight of. A violent thunderstorm arose about two hours afterwards, which wet the dancers to the skin, and did considerable damage to the plantations. This woman, suspected before of witchcraft, was seized and imprisoned, and accused of having raised the storm, by filling a hole with wine, and stirring it about with a stick. She was tortured till she confessed, and burned alive the next evening. (88)

After reading some of these horrific actions, a couple of questions would seem to present themselves:

I present these questions, not because Harris raises them, but because they seem legitimate questions which follow naturally from the atrocities described. They moreover become relevant to Harris' discussion. But Harris does not raise these questions; he is too busy on his rant that is picking up steam to be bothered with details.

More Wars

His next shining example of how the teachings of major religions directly cause violence is… the Holocaust. I am not kidding. Harris claims Nazi Germany's hatred of Jews and therefore their extermination of them "was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity". To make this mind-twisting leap of logic, however, Harris has to abandon the idea of a direct cause which he previously seemed to be arguing (that is, the religious faithful are violent because they follow rules in their religious text) and switches to some amorphous indirect influence: a tradition of violence, brought down through culture from religious practices centuries earlier, which may have at one time been derived from something in a religious book.

Intellectually this is the same sort of dishonesty that creationists use when they try to sell the idea that the Nazis and their ideas of a perfectly evolved race were simply marching to the tune of Darwin, and it's disappointing that Harris uses such a cheap trick and obvious play on the emotions. But unfortunately such non-sequiters are by no means rare. Early on in the book (26), Harris presents a long list of recent conflicts and wars around the world that are ostensibly motivated by religion. Notably absent from this list is the genocide in Rwanda, which for a while was killing people faster than the Holocaust, and which was based, not upon religion, but upon politically-instigated tribalism.

Continuing through Harris' list of conflicts, the extent of his selectivity of arguments starts to shine through when he tries to blame the Indian Partition solely on the incompatibility of religious belief systems, completely ignoring politics and economics. "Indeed," he exclaims, "the only reason India and Pakistan are different countries is that the beliefs of Islam cannot be reconciled with those of Hinduism." (27) He somehow "forgets" that Pakistan, the Muslim country of the partition, later had its own war and itself split into two countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh—both Muslim countries.

Only Religion?

Now I will be the first to say that faith-based religions that contradict physical facts, imagine non-existent entities, and denounce other equally absurd belief systems as false; are pure foolishness. In one blog entry I point out that, if religious people took their sacred texts seriously, they would find situations in which inviting a mob to rape their daughters could be justified. I presented that essay to illustrate the absurdity of belief systems such as Christianity based on faith and personal experience.

But in real life Christians don't advocate gang-raping their daughters. They don't go out torturing witches and burning them on the stake. They do lots of stupid things based upon their unsupportable beliefs, but the village atrocities just don't happen in the modern world. Well, actually, crimes based upon accusations of witches still occurs in some parts of Africa, but not in the United States. So we return to the question: why? If religious-based violence stems directly and solely from rules laid out in texts held holy by the religious masses, why did those texts result in atrocities centuries ago but not today? Why do they promote atrocities in Africa but not in the United States? Harris acknowledges that, "While Christianity has few living inquisitors today, Islam has many." (106-107). He even compares the mindset of present-day Muslims living under dictators to that of Fourteenth Century Christians." (132) But he never asks, "Why?"

One would think that this question would be the most obvious and central question: if faith causes violence, why is does the distribution and type of violence so varied around the religious world and across the centuries? Do politics come into play? What role does culture play? Is this really not about religion, but about power struggles? And does the education of the masses play a role in how susceptible they are to frenzied violence with just the seed of a sentence in some outdated book, egged on by their politically-motivated leaders?

One would expect that a question of such importance would be analyzed in depth by Harris. Instead, he not only dismisses the question itself, but ridicules anyone who would raise it. "Anyone who can read passages [in the Quran] and still not see a link between Muslim faith and Muslim violence should probably consult a neurologist." (123) He brushes off suggestions of other causes, saying that it is "self-evident" that "ordinary people" don't turn into blood-thirsty mobs unless they are religious (31), and that it is "self-evident" that the rationale behind suicide bombers "has ceased to be merely political." (137) And when Zakira wisely points out that, "The trouble with thundering declarations about 'Islam's nature' is that Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it but what people make it," Harris offhandedly says, "There may be some truth to this," but then fails to explore any such possible truths and instead hurries back to his rant. Even in the Afterword, when presented with "other confounding variables" such as "state sponsorship of terrorism", he doesn't investigate these variables but merely admonishes the reader not to be "blinded" by such trivialities. (234)

Harris is so intent on damning the faithful, and especially Muslims, that he flies over little telltale signs that should have clued him in to the external factors that might influence whether faith-based belief turns into something dangerous. Almost answering our earlier question about the cause of witch hysteria, he acknowledges, "Occult beliefs of this sort are clearly an inheritance from our primitive, magic-minded ancestors." (89) And when discussing antisemitic beliefs, he notes, without realizing it, that other forces besides Christian teaching were at work: "The blood libel totters on shoulders of other giant misconceptions, of course, especially the notion, widely accepted at the time, that the various constituents of the human body possess magical and medicinal power." (99)

Harris gets so close to the right question, but never finds it. He asks us to "admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development" (143), but never bothers to explain what he means by "moral development", what makes up such development, and if religion is the only cause to violence then why would this "development" have anything to do with it? He even stumbles across the answer at one point: "The pervasive idea that religion is somehow the source of our deepest ethical intuitions is absurd" (171), he cries, without realizing that this lances his central argument that faith begets violence and other causes can safely be ignored.

Beliefs Are Tools

What Harris wants us to believe is that religious beliefs are absurd; that religious books are intolerant and advocate violence; that the faithful commit violence solely by following these religious texts; and that by doing away with religious belief will go a long way to stopping the violence we see in the world today.

The fly in the ointment is that the world doesn't work that way! Yes, religious beliefs are absurd. Yes, religious books are intolerant. Yes, many statements in religious texts can be construed as calling for violence. But religious people don't blindly follow rules in a rule-book, even if they profess to do so. Different time periods and different cultures seem to have made a huge difference in whether people use religion as a pretext for violence, or whether they compartmentalize these religious beliefs as "sort of real but relevant only ages ago". Zakaria was on to something when he said that, "…Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it but what people make it." (148)

What are those external forces that lead people to make one thing or another of their religious beliefs? Is it culture? Is it political leadership? Is it economic integration? Is it the educational level of the population in general? Is it all of these? Because if there is something or a bundle of things between "religious belief" and "violent action", Harris may find that we merely trample out absurd belief systems and still be left with violence stemming from political power struggles, lack of education, poor economic conditions, and tribal jockeying that may inevitably find some other motivation to lead their respective population into conflict with another. Unfortunately Harris is either so naive or so careless as to think that if faith goes away, society's problems will disappear with it. "Whether we call the beliefs that inspire [social violence such as honor killings] 'tribal' or 'religious' is immaterial", he says, and in a few words he again dismisses any source of human ill other than the unfounded belief in the supernatural.

The Danger of a Secular Religion

The impetus for Harris' vitriol almost seems to be a nostalgia for the pogroms and persecutions of the past—he wants to have a modern rational, enlightenment cake and still wants to eat with the zeal of an extremist religious fundamentalist. Harris knows that the same enlightenment program that tried to banish the thought police and provide laws based rather on actions, not only protects those who have rational beliefs but also those whose beliefs are ludicrous, and Harris extremely uncomfortable with this notion, pun intended. The outcome of modern rationalism is a suspicion of final knowledge never to be questioned, and a promotion of the free sharing of all ideas. There are some ideas that Harris does not want shared, and he goes to great lengths to establish a pseudo-religious framework through which he can rescue the feeling of ontological security religious belief brings.

In just a few pages Harris claims to reach into some Eastern mystical ideas and extract a new non-faith base for spiritualism for the modern world. Proclaiming the idea of "self" is a social creation (213), he claims that meditation can "[b]reak the spell of thought" so that "the duality of subject and object will vanish" and banish the "the fundamental difference between conventional states of happiness and suffering." (218) He constructs what he feels is a complete and testable theory of morality based upon the link between one's one happiness and the happiness of others (192), and somehow Harris feels he is so novel and clever that he can create this theory by only mentioning the name "Kant" in two paragraphs in the main text of the book (only mentioning "categorical imperative" as if it were a title and not a thesis).

And it is in this new theory of morality and spirituality that Harris reaches the height of his absurdity and hypocrisy. "In thinking about Islam, and about the risk it now poses to the West", he says:

What constitutes a civil society? At minimum, it is a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without the risk of physical violence. If you live in a land where certain things cannot be said about the king, or about an imaginary being, or about certain books, because such utterances carry the penalty of death, torture, or imprisonment, you do not live in a civil society. (150)

Somehow Harris does not see the irony that his own "scientific" moral and spiritual framework allows that there could be a justification for an action that "… guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children" (194) in order to save others, and especially to torture suspected terrorists for information. (He goes on to say torture's appearing ethically wrong is an illusion in the same way a rising moon seems larger. (198)) And in Harris' eyes, by a casual listing of a few opinion polls, even in the best case, hundreds of millions of Muslims are "avowed supporters of terrorism" (126). Harris berates even "freedom of religious belief," (77) deciding that, "Perhaps it is time we demanded that our fellow human beings had better reasons for maintaining their religious differences …" (78). Finally Harris just comes out with it: there may come a time, he declares, that "the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own" on an Islamist regime, killing "tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day" (129). In Harris' eyes, every Muslim is a walking time-bomb, and it may be that one day we'll just have to blow them off the face of the earth.

"Wait, wait, wait!" you may be exclaiming. At this point you may start to accuse me of misinterpreting Harris' point, and you may attempt to educate me on the subtleties of hypothetical situations and academic rhetoric. But before you continue, let me point you to Harris' own words about interpreting texts:

[T]exts like the Koran and the Bible must be appreciated, and criticized, for any possible interpretations to which they are susceptible—and to which they will be subjected, with varying emphases and elisions. (34)

Following his own rules, if my interpretation is possible from his text, it is a legitimate criticism of his work. It is hopefully clear at this point that such an assertion is just nonsense. Obviously any text can be bent to mean anything by at least someone. The 1.5 billion Muslims in the world should not be subjected to persecution and deprived of their civil and legal rights simply because of their faith in a centuries old text, however irrational that belief may be. As I have tried to point out, religious texts have historically been merely pretexts for campaigns of violence, supported and even commanded by other political factions within society. Creating official policies to quash belief systems and sects, or even to circulate alarmist preconceptions of groups, is to commit the same error of the Inquisitions of old.

Insofar as Harris is promoting a skepticism in society that prevents an environment of freedom of expression from chilling a rational analysis of beliefs, he will find in me an intellectual ally. But Harris can take his alarmist, reactionary, and totalitarian persecutions found in his new Secular Religion back to the age of witch hunts and Inquisitions. I'm sure he will feel right at home there.