391 of 432 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bravo!-- Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.
Author Sam Harris has a problem with the world's major organized religions. His thesis, in particular, is that while the foibles of religious fundamentalism (of various brands, though always essentially bespeaking the same mentality) may appear to be more or less harmless, they are in fact a gravely dangerous phenomenon that threatens humankind itself with...
Published on January 21, 2006 by Donald R. Burleson
116 of 140 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile read but uneven pace and padded content
After I read an excerpt in the LA Times, I couldn't believe that the paper was publishing Harris' views. Two of my students were working on essays exploring the concepts of jihad and holy wars, so I recommended they check out Harris' argument. I've just finished the book myself, and it feels like an author's first work, with all of the energy and passion on one hand, and...
Published on October 25, 2004 by John L Murphy
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391 of 432 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bravo!-- Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.,
This review is from: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Paperback)
Author Sam Harris has a problem with the world's major organized religions. His thesis, in particular, is that while the foibles of religious fundamentalism (of various brands, though always essentially bespeaking the same mentality) may appear to be more or less harmless, they are in fact a gravely dangerous phenomenon that threatens humankind itself with extinction.
The problem is that with the more rabid varieties of religious fundamentalism we are no longer looking just at the ravings of those halfwit television evangelists who run the credit card icons across the bottom of the screen for the ensnaring of the gullible. Now, on the contrary, we have entered an age- nothing similar to which has been seen since the Spanish Inquisition- in which whole hordes of religious zealots view themselves as being commanded by the "will of God" (whatever in the world that means) to torture, multilate, and brutally kill the rest of us. It is this unreasoning willingness to commit acts of atrocity for "God" (under whatever name), based upon belief systems that are not only of undemonstrated validity but of absolutely undemonstrable validity, that bothers Sam Harris, and he does a truly eloquent job of explaining why, in terms of radical Islam, Christianity, and other belief systems.
While Mr. Harris takes on Islam with considerable fervor, he certainly does not neglect the sordid side of religion in the West. He argues, with regard to both the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, that it is only by selectively ignoring parts of the so-called sacred texts that many people, eschewing the more radical views of these belief systems, can function even as religious "moderates." He points out, for example, that in the Bible's book of Deuteronomy, one is compelled to murder anyone who "serves other gods"-specifically, "You must stone him to death" (Deut. 13:7-11). (In what circumstances, one may ask, is one "serving other gods"? There was a time when Protestants and Catholics turned this principle upon each other, as in fact they still sometimes do in Northern Ireland.) Likewise Harris points out places in scripture where the death penalty, in no uncertain terms, is prescribed for such offenses as "taking the Lord's name in vain" (Leviticus 24:16), working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15), cursing one's father or mother (Exodus 21:17), and adultery (Leviticus 20:10). It is not that most people subscribing to this belief system would actually kill anyone for, say, working the Sunday shift at Burger King- but in order to refrain from doing so, such "believers" must selectively tune out the textual command to do so.
In the West, we have largely (thank God, one is tempted to say) separated religion out of public life. The Founding Fathers were careful, in the Constitution, to disallow establishment of a national religion, even though certain modern Presidents have trampled upon this founding wisdom to the extent of using such lunatics as Pat Robertson as advisors on matters of international relations and nuclear proliferation. (How's that for scary?) But in Islamic countries, no such separation of church and state has ever taken place. One can make a fairly long list of countries in which the clergy and the police are the same people. And here again, the willingness to kill whole populations of people failing to share one's own religious beliefs is founded upon systems of "thought"(the desire to fulfil the will of Allah) for which there is no proof of validity. Sam Harris devotes several pages to quotations from the Koran that demand that the believer murder the unbeliever. And of course the terrible thing nowadays is that this phenomenon is the mindset of whole cultures, bent upon subjugating or destroying the rest of the world "on account," as Harris puts it, "of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone, and unicorns." Harris minces no words: "We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so." He points out that the purveyors of this world-view are so narrow as to have no reasoning ability left to them. Like the Nazis (Hitler, after all, having been a devout Christian who saw himself as obeying "God's will," as Mein Kampt makes abundantly clear), the radical Islamists have no basis for rational comparison or judgment. Harris points out: "Spain translates as many books into Spanish every year as the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century." Needless to say, this situation is appalling- and dangerous, in a world in which those deranged enough to think that some "god" is whispering murderous instructions to them can command nuclear arsenals capable of ending all life on the planet. We can't afford this any more.
"As long as it is acceptable," Harris says, "for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths." In the past sixty seconds, someone has no doubt died this way.
Harris makes it clear that he is by no means opposed to the individual human urge toward spirituality- toward a sense of wanting to relate oneself to the universe- and makes it equally clear that he accepts the reality of the essential difference between right and wrong, in a primal sense not dependent upon undemonstrable religious belief systems. Morality and ethics, he says, can be developed as a science. And must be. "No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do in fact love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish." In short, we must learn to be good to each other because we want to, not because of religious dogma. For this reviewer's money, he is absolutely right. Humankind must outgrow the barbarisms of an ignorant and stultifying past and move on toward a vision of harmony inspired not by meanness of spirit but by clear and courageous thinking. Bravo, Mr. Harris!
1,623 of 1,842 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time to start questioning people's religious beliefs,
This is an important book. It delves into the rightness of religious belief, supernaturalism in particular. It shows an ugly scene - religious extremism is widespread and much of our world's hurt can be traced directly to it. The author shows that religion is not a benign force - so often it is detrimental to world peace and happiness. The author's observations do not just apply to Osama Bin Laden and his ilk, but also to President Bush and like-minded evangelical Christians.
What took me aback is the position that Harris is advocating - that it is okay to subject religion to careful scrutiny, in fact, it is desirable as religion is having such a negative impact on us all. He's talking about a change in social norms, attitudes, what is considered mannerly... he's saying that we can no longer afford to be respectful and tolerant of others' religious beliefs when those beliefs could do us all in. He suggests that we ask: What is the evidence for your God?
I learnt that a person's religious beliefs are his own private business - every person has to work out his own salvation - and it was not for me to question these beliefs. I learned that it is behavior that counts - how we treat others and the world we live in. But in America this has flipped. Now many people talk about their beliefs, the one-on-one they have with Christ, while they indulge in the most hateful and unchristian behavior. Worse, they think their beliefs call for such behavior. Harris suggests that it is time for us to grab this nettle and challenge religion's hold on so many people.
I have been researching a book on Middle East peace. I was startled to learn the role that Bible prophecy is playing in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The US's policy, under President Bush, has more to do with laying the groundwork for Christ's Second Coming than a careful search for justice and peace.
It is amazing to me that in this day and age that Biblical writings are playing such a role in our lives. One of the factors that brought on the Dark Ages was the rise of the Christian church, the aggressive way it persecuted those who disagreed with even its most ridiculous notions. I ask if we are on the verge of a new Dark Age? Prophecy, creationism, the Bible taken literally, fear of hell fire, 2,000 year old notions on how we should live... This book helps us address this urgent question.
This is also a courageous book. It is courageous as an important component of the identity, sense of self, of so many millions of people is tied to such religion. The author will no doubt endure a lot of anger from many of these people. I am thankful that he is taking this stand.
1,503 of 1,726 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars DESPITE WISHING AND WANTING,
It is both odd and a mistake to refer to this book as "ineffectual". Mr. Harris points out something which, one hopes, we all already know. And that is, despite its ability to blind us emotionally, despite the fact that in most cases people come to embrace religion through some form of indoctrination, or in the case of President Bush, come to it as a substitute for other forms of intoxication, religion as an artifact of human thought has long outlived its usefulness. We are no longer tribes squatting in huts teaching our children that the world is flat and if the weather turns it's because some god is angry about the clothes we wear. Problem being that today, in place of sticks and rocks we have big, powerful and easily portable weapons.
What is effective about this book is that it finally opens the door to this virtually taboo observation: Middle east or West, by being treated as infallible and unquestionable, religion quantifiably does more harm than good. Mr. Harris points out just how utterly antiquated and basically wrong so many religious tracts are by using the tracts themselves. Proof enough that religions no longer hold the key to human happiness is demonstrated by the convenient "editing" of some tenets of faith by none other than the faithful who, in our culture, get closer to god by picking and choosing those aspects of the word of god which best suits the starkly more secular and practical aspects of their lives. Is everybody comfy? Good.
It is even more important and highly effective to point out how faith continues to divert our society from coming to terms with the objective facts which define the issues facing us today in favor of consistently relying on belief. The dangers of this practice in our daily social and political life are being felt in innumerable ways, and the danger continues to grow. By connecting the way in which religious beliefs affect our world, our interaction with others and with a more objective reality, Mr. Harris has helped begin the only conversation that really matters.
118 of 138 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dangers Of Faith-Based Beliefs And Organized Religion,
This is a brilliant book and the author had to have a lot of courage to write it. This is the author's first book. Sam Harris, the author, is now working on his doctorate in neuroscience. He has studied Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of spiritual disciplines for twenty years. Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world and identifies religious beliefs as the core of many of the human atrocities throughout history. He argues that our willingness to ignore reason and scientific facts as we maintain our beliefs, not based on sound science and reason, will lead the world into more peril because these beliefs not only legitimize intolerance, but they have also invaded most aspects of political and secular life and threaten to become apocalyptic in a world with weapons of mass destruction.
The author believes that all religions are harmful, not just extremist & terrorist religions, which are obviously harmful. He sees those who practice moderate religion as a bigger part of the problem than some people think because they provide a foundation of unreason that radicals, fundamentalists and religious terrorists build upon.
What is a belief? A belief is a powerful force that once it is internalized moves almost everything else in a person's life. Beliefs define one's vision of the world, one's behavior and one's emotional responses. Beliefs are principles of action. It is through beliefs that we predict events and consider the likely consequences of our actions and therefore guide our behavior. The power beliefs have over our emotional lives is total because for every emotion we are capable of feeling, there is a belief that evokes it.
What is faith? The Bible defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It seems to say that faith is entirely self-justifying. Religious faith is unjustified belief in the most important matters that we have been convinced we don't need to justify.
The terrorists who committed the atrocities on September 11 have been described as men of profound (extremist) religious faith. There were serious reports that they expected to receive the very best rewards in heaven for their efforts. This is just one example of the dangers that we all face when persons do not base their actions on reason. Another example is the Inquisition which began in the year 1184 and continued in parts of the world until 1834. In the name of God, countless innocents were tortured and murdered for heresy. All the perpetrators of these atrocities were men of God including popes, bishops, friars and priests.
Seeking more knowledge in our world is in a way the opposite of faith. Faith relies on unquestioned, closed mindedness. Wanting to know more about our world leaves us vulnerable to new evidence. The thing that will permit human beings to work together with open minds in making a better world is our willingness to have our beliefs modified by reasoned facts.
What does religion offer? There is a clear difference between religious moderates and religious extremists. However, both pose a danger to reason. This is because moderates underestimate the effect that faith has had on man's inhumanity to man, and they wrongly advocate the belief that faith is an essential component of human life. There is a myth that moderation is far superior to more extremist religious faith. It is not moderate to believe in the Bible and the God of organized religion because these beliefs are not in line with reason and there is no evidence to support these beliefs.
It is interesting to note that moderates have had to make the decision to ignore or loosely interpret the bible in order to live coherently in the modern world. Living in a world where a single world leader can annihilate millions based on faith, it must be argued that we no longer have a right to our myths.
Spirituality, of course, is not a myth. There are degrees of human experiences of meaningfulness, selflessness, awareness and heightened emotions that go beyond our current understanding of the mind. Spirituality is the range of experiences that exceed our ordinary-everyday limits of subjectivity and include exploring new and changed emotions as well as cognitive and conceptual new awarenesses. Spirituality respects the fact healthy skepticism is important, and that skepticism does not in any way diminish spirituality.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can we survive Faith?,
This review is from: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Paperback)
This is an outstanding book that calls for a new spirituality. He attacks the monotheist religions as they represent beliefs inconsistent with known scientific facts. Also, our civilization may not survive the deadly combination of chronic conflicts ignited by religious fervor with current weapons technology. Thus, per Harris either faith will end or we will.
He states that the US is a Theocracy. Based on PEW's research 72% of us believe in angels, 44% believe Jesus will physically come back to Earth, 65% believe in Satan. Not surprisingly, only 28% get the theory of Evolution. And, 70% want presidential candidates who are "strongly religious." Our religiousness has a profound influence on our ethics, and domestic and foreign policies.
Harris expands on the painful history of Christianity. This includes the Crusades, witch hunting (Salem trial), the Spanish Inquisition, and even the Holocaust who may have not occurred if not for a documented hatred of the Jewish community among Christian Germans a full century before the onset of the Third Reich. Hitler had a waiting audience.
Harris indicates that with the passage of time, Christianity has moderated its zeal. We look back with horror at the cruel excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. We have learned to interpret the Bible so as to not immediately threaten our survival. Unlike liberals such as Noam Chomsky, he makes a distinction between collateral damage and terrorism. In a conflict, we invariably cause collateral damage. But, the accidental killing of civilians is something we abhor. Instead, terrorists main intention is to kill civilian innocents. For Chomsky, there is no difference. For Harris, the intent makes all the difference.
Harris addresses "The Problem with Islam" in a specific chapter. He studied the Koran in exhaustive detail; and he notes that the Koran preaches violence against non-Muslim. He quotes from the Koran tens of such damning passages. Analyzing current events, he considers that the West attempt at Democratic and Economic reform of the Middle East is futile. Terrorists are often the best educated and capable members of the Islamic community. Thus, terrorism is not inversely correlated to education, income or job opportunities. Osama bin Laden does not do what he does out of economic frustration. He does it by revering the scriptures of the Koran. He finds it a sublime insult that Islam was finally ousted out of Spain and the entire remainder of Western Europe in the 12th century. That's his frame of reference. He also strongly believes in the Islamic division of the world between the "House of Islam" and the "House of War." He and his followers show no sign of resting (in their terrorists efforts) until the House of Islam has entirely overtaken the House of War. He defends his position in inspiring speeches with frequent quotes from the Koran. Within the Muslim community, it is not the extremists or terrorists that are on the defensive it is the few moderates because the Koran scriptures is not on their side. Per a PEW survey, a majority of Muslims support suicide bombings. Per a CNN poll, 61% of Muslims believe that 9/11 was not conducted by Muslims. The other 39% believe it was and give them credit for a job well done. Harris also adds that the Koran is the equivalent of a death cult manifesto as it promises such reward in the after life for whoever defends Islam. Given that, Harris states that mutual nuclear deterrence with a Muslim country will not work. He adds that Islam has also many other problems as he refers to Sharya Law that demands "honor killings" from fathers (or brothers) of daughters who have been raped. Yet, some of us deem such behavior as acceptable from a politically correct and cultural diversity framework. Harris considers Islam a culture and religion in a state of arrested development in the 14th century. Spain translates more book in a year than the entire Arab Islamic world has translated in Arabic since 900 AD. Mixing a 14th century religion with 21st century weapons is a deadly combination for our civilization.
He does not offer ready foreign policy solutions for the above dilemma. He just clearly explains why externally imposed reform policies are failing. He believes that ultimately Islam may have to reform itself from within. But, if it has not reformed itself since 600 AD when can we expect it to do so? In the meantime, we will have to manage chronic conflicts. He also indicates that nuclear armament of a Muslim country should be prevented at all cost for the mentioned reason.
In his last chapter, he advocates a substitute to religion. It consists in a spirituality and experimental study of consciousness. This consists in meditation, self-awareness, mindfulness, and similar means of reaching a state of consciousness where the duality of the self and the whole is eliminated. On this topic, his book concludes by stating: "Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith."
If you enjoy this book, I also strongly recommend "Under the Banner of Heaven" by John Krakauer and "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.
52 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good start on a long suppressed conversation,
"For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" I Cor. 14:8.
As if coached by the apostle Paul, Sam Harris sounds his call to battle with a ringing panache. If over the coming century religious fanatics take out a few major cities, or destroy civilization altogether, we can't say he didn't warn us. His bold thesis here is that the threat does not come only from fanatics. Just as terrorists thrive only when they are sustained by a critical mass of sympahtizers who are not themselves actively violent, so fanatics thrive only because they are nourished by the swamp of religious moderates. It is there that every pestilent superstition and every archaic barbarism is coddled in its larval form, and Harris is here to tell us that the time has come to drain the swamp.
The publishing world has given us a plethora of books cheerfully marketed as "guaranteed to offend everyone". In reality, they are being touted to demographics that pride themselves on not being PC, or not being easily offended, and such books are full of cynical wiseacring and formulaic humor. But here's a book that really does have something in it to offend nearly everyone -- (Are you a biblical literalist? You're equated to Al Qaeda. A moderate mainline believer? You're the real problem. A liberal? You have made an idol of toleration that will be the death of us all. A secularist? You ignore peoples' vital spiritual aspirations. A conservative? You make excuses for the barbarisms of war.) -- and it's refreshingly earnest. I found its sincerity endearing.
The central idea is that, although religion has always given rise to horrors, the magnified powers of destruction that modern technology puts into the hands of individuals and small groups means that we can no longer treat "My God is better than your God" as a silly game that we can allow the children to go on playing. The hour has come to eliminate "faith" altogether, for the good of everyone. It is not enough to eliminate extreme versions of religion. Moderate versions must also go, because by their very presence, and adherence to the same fanciful notions, they lend an air of legitimacy to the extremists.
The case is presented with pith and rhetorical flourish. It is to Harris's credit that he is willing to tackle themes we are accustomed to tiptoeing around, and strictly as a manifesto, the book succeeds. Those aspects of religion which encourage barbarism, and there is no denying that they exist, and are in part encoded in the various creeds' core texts, do pose a real and growing danger. Unfortunately, the quality and clarity of Harris's argumentation is not up to the same standard as the quality of his preaching.
There are three main problems. First, Harris paints such a lopsidedly hostile portrait of Islam that it serves to undercut his valid point: that however impolite it may be to say so, there are real differences in the ease with which the various religions can be subverted to violent ends, and that of the major faiths, Islam offers its moderates the flimsiest ammunition in the battle against such subversion.
Second, he is fatally fuzzy about the identity of the enemy. When he is sharpest, what he has in his sights is the foolish and dangerous notion that there is a special virtue in "faith", in the sense of believing certain propositions without evidence, which somehow becomes even more virtuous when you believe it in the teeth of the evidence. "Faith" in that sense must be named as an inexcusable vice. But he equivocates, and dissipates his aim, by making all religious belief, that is, belief in gods and miracles, his target. The most deadly 20th century instances of "faith" - fascism and Leninism - were not religous at all; and numerous religious moderates make no virtue out of ignoring evidence.
This second flaw is critical when you consider what exactly he is asking the moderate believers in his readership to do.
That moderates are mysteriously passive in confronting the evils of extremism within their ranks is an important observation. But if it is the presence of any religious beliefs whatsoever that constitute the enemy, rather than the refusal to adjust those beliefs to align with facts, then all Harris can be asking of the moderates is that they abandon their religion entirely. Perhaps that's what he expects them to do, but it's a utopian expectation. A more careful analysis might provide a feasible program for action, but what we get is a first class marching band without a street to march it down.
And therein lies the third flaw. The only solution Harris has to offer is itself utopian: replace religion as we know it with a rational, empirically based spiritual practice of meditation. Since meditation practices have been around for millenia, without generating sufficient appeal to satisfy the spiritual yearnings of the vast majority of people, he has to pin his hopes here on breakthroughs in neurology that will make mystical experience more reliably and readily accessible to all. Much as those advances may be possible, the daunting complexity of the brain suggests that we will probably have to wait more than a century for any such secular-spiritual dawn. It gives us no blueprint for dealing with the excesses of blind faith in the meantime. Harris himself realizes that this hope is a bit of a Hail Mary pass: he closes his first chapter with the admission, "what follows is written very much in the spirit of prayer."
These disappointments with Harris's answers do not negate the value and importance of the questions he raises. No matter who you are, you will disagree strongly with some of what he has to say. But you will be stimulated to think outside your usual box.
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Needs to be said!,
This review is from: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Paperback)
Sam Harris, who was a graduate student in neuroscience when he wrote this book, goes after organized religion with hammer and tong. Early on he states his premise: we can no longer tolerate religions that advocate martyrdom and the murder of innocents in honor of their god, nor can we tolerate a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. The world is too dangerous: these same people now have access to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Harris blames religion for the murder of millions upon millions of people. Early on, he points to The Inquisition, which was officially sanctioned by the Church in 1215 during the Lateran Council. It had been extant since the Fourth Century. Harris shows how the church worked hand-in-hand with secular powers to deprive "heretics" of their land and wealth. Harris blames faith itself. He says, "Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence . . . he becomes capable of anything." None of the great doctors of the church go unscathed. St. Augustine supposedly sanctioned torture to punish those who broke the laws of God. Matthew the Evangelist puts words in the mouths of the Jews who called for Jesus's execution rather than Barabbas's. Those words, "His blood be on us and on our children," would be the impetus for the Holocaust.
Harris does admit that man has a spiritual side, but he turns to meditation and what sounds like Buddhism as an alternative to religious faith. Harris's meditation leads him to a state of selflessness. Besides religion, Harris blames envy, jealousy and hatred---all resulting from selfishness---for the evils in the word. Like Buddhism he stresses compassion and love.
Harris ends with some modern offenses done in the name of religion: Pope John Paul I's opposition of condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa; Muslim rioting over a report that U.S. Interrogators defiled the Koran, and the fact that twenty states would like to have their schools teach Creationism alongside evolution. Ronald Reagan was so convinced that the apocalypse was at hand that he included Jerry Falwell in his national security briefings. Harris provides some statistics: Only 28% of Americans believe in evolution; 72% believe in angels.
The fact that Sam Harris would not allow his book to translated into Arabic says it all. He was worried that the translators would be held accountable for what he said.
53 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suspend religion, not reason!,
What is a fundamentalist, evangelical, pentecostal preacher doing reading this book? Rethinking his faith, that's what. I have been (secretly) reading books on faith & reason for several years now, this book by Sam Harris has been the best I've read to date. Questions and concerns of mine were better articulated and better answered by Mr. Harris than other books on the subject. A word of warning from a member (soon to be former member) of the religious right: Don't read this book if you're not ready to question your faith and "faith" in general. After reading Sam's book, I now realize that suspending reason in favor of religion is not a benign practice, it propagates a belief system that hurts everyone. We would all be better off if religion could be suspended, not reason!
46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Religious Emperor has no Clothers,
This review is from: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Paperback)
Sam Harris, in this well thought out broadside against religion has touched a deep and sensitive nerve in American culture, which, arguably, along with violence, racism, and repressed sexuality, religion makes up the fourth leg of a matrix that defines the substrate of the American way of life. Unlike the others however, and despite a long history of hypocrisy, religion nevertheless is the only one of the four that remains a "sacred cow." So Mr. Harris gets three stars for bravery alone.
In demonstrating conclusively that the religious Emperor has no clothes (at least no rational ones), Harris unleashes a fuselage at religious mythology, iconography, the illogic and inanity of most of its cannons, its hypocrisy, and most importantly of all, the lack of any discernable positive impact on our collective morality. And, this is after nearly 3000 years of continuous organized religious teachings and practices.
Citing a litany that includes the Crusades, burnings at the stake, the role religion has played in enabling and maintaining slavery, and a Century of Apartheid in both the U.S. and South Africa -- one wonders from Harris' rendition how much better off the world might have been had there been no religion at all. According to him, religion has even been implicated in enabling and failing to intervene in Hitler's industrialized massacre of European Jews, the Colonialism imposed on most of the Third World, and the ejection of Arabs from the Holy land.
Add to this list, the recent religious scandals such as the U.S. Catholic pedophile escapades; the fights over abortion rights; the resistance to new developments in biotechnology and ethics; and the openly condoned hypocrisy of the likes of America's favorite televangelists -- Pat Robinson, Jimmy Baker, Jerry Falwell and Jim Jones. And then throw into this concoction the very real threat of nuclear war on the South Asian Peninsula between Muslims and Hindu, the new wave of suicidal terrorists, the fourth war in Lebanon, the genocide in Yugoslavia and Sudan, and one is inclined to take seriously Harris' claim that religion remains more a moral scourge than a source of moral enlightenment in the contemporary world.
Even today, the oath that one must swear to, as part of the Baptism ceremony in most Christian denominations (Do you believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost?), is the same oath that would have gotten you burned at the stake or beheaded just two centuries ago.
Harris' strongest argument however is not just this bleak historical track-record. It rests also on the fact that the beliefs that define our current worldview are based on outmoded religious and moral ideas two millennia old; were developed by people who knew less about the world they lived in than today's elementary school kids know about theirs. Yet, it is these 2000-year old anachronistic views that define our moral vision of the World, anchor our contemporary worldview, and still dictate how we 21st Century people think, feel and behave.
According to him, most people of the world continue to believe, through their religious teachings, that there is a creator who has written a book containing "the infallible words of god" and that only THEIR god is the true god; and only THEIR book contains the true and final word - a word by which all "right thinking" people of the world must live. They also believe that through faith rather than through historical facts, reason and logic, everything about their god (myths about His life, the content of His books, and their interpretations), must be taken as the infallible gospel truth. And above all else, they believe that if one lives a life strictly according to "the book" at worst he will be rewarded in the afterlife (72 virgins, immorality and an everlasting life, a land of milk and honey, etc.). Many believe that doing so may even postpone or eliminate death altogether, or at the very least, make their journey beyond "this life" easier. Of course, doing the opposite, of not embracing the "correct god" is punishable by burning forever in hell, and worse.
The problem that Harris spells out for us in this volume is that these competing conceptions of god, and the competing books that are spawn by them, are conceived of in ways that make them mutually incompatible and thus serve to divide us in ways, that so far in our history, have led us to kill each other in brutal ways and on a massive scale.
Gods it seems do not suffer competing gods lightly. Yet, despite these deep and important differences across religious faiths, somehow devout people find ways to exclude religious incompatibilities and to excuse religious practices as being responsible for most of the slaughter ravishing the world across vast stretches of history, and including even today.
According to Harris. at least within the moderate religious community, there exists an unrealistic modus vivendi: to ignore, yet tolerate other gods and incompatible religious ideas. The author sees this feigned civility as unrealistic because the truth is that certainty about the meaning of one's own faith makes tolerance of another's impossible. The religiously inclined generally, and religious moderates in particular, seem to miss the point that self-imposed silence and a refusal to engage in rational discourse about theological differences is a poor excuse for, and is not quite the same thing as, tolerance. This false tolerance is the kind of passive-aggressive accommodation with outmoded religious ideas that Harris thinks is leading us down the path to a future of even more religious strife.
Thus, it could be argued that there is nothing new in "The End of Faith" that cannot also be found in Bertrand Russell's "Why I am not a Christian." It is true that Harris has updated the arguments made by Russell and has added his own philosophical twist, and has put it all together in one tidy easy to read package; and like Russell, he has done so without apologies, and without pulling any politically correct punches.
Harris' most telling point is that newer and morally more complex technological times bring with them new moral imperatives. When this need for a new morality is combined with the meager positive impact of religion compared with its much larger negative impact, the author argues convincingly that there is no longer any reason that can justify acquiescing to or even tolerating archaic, illogical, and rather useless religious ideas that are today's mainstay.
This is powerful medicine and paints an ugly but deserving picture of religion as it continues to be practiced. His point that we do so at our own peril must be given a great deal of weight and respect. However, Harris' message is not as flawless as at first sight it might seem. There are other aspects of "The End of Faith," that must be looked at rather more carefully.
For instance, because there is so much data supporting his case, it is easy enough for the author to attack the illogic of religion and the reliance on blind faith by its radical elements as the bogeyman of our modern existence. However, it is quite another matter and requires quite a more sophisticated analysis to argue that the moderate and the more nuanced faith practiced by most of the world's religious adherents would have the same or similar devastating effects.
Harris asserts that a world of logic and reason (or towards the end of the book a religion of logic and reason), as opposed to one based entirely on blind faith and religious doctrine, would not have the same negative effects and would lead us into a more enlightened, less problematic, more morally evolved, and thus a more civilized world. But these remain just that, assertions; and even when examined on his own favorite turf, logic and reason, Harris' assertions though plausible are nowhere near overwhelmingly convincing.
The difficulty with Harris' argument is two-fold and I believe rather obvious. A couple of religious reviewers have alluded to one of them. First, he fails to admit that there is very little at bottom that does not rest on a foundation of faith. Even with his more logical, and more avowedly scientific approach, it can be safely argued, in the end, that this too is just another "faith-based" analysis.
An equal concern -- whether one's analysis is based solely on "religious faith" or "scientific faith" -- is his failure to ask and answer the question about the utility of such faith: to what service is the faith actually being put? I believe this question is prior to that of whether or not the faith is factually based.
It seems to me that Mr. Harris stakes his claim on the much easier target: the irrationality of blind faith by religious radicals, the illogic of religious doctrine and the narratives upon which this irrationality and these doctrines are often based - most of which, as he correctly claims are no more believable than most children's fairy tales.
Yet, inasmuch as this may all be true, Karen Armstrong, a respected scholar of religious history makes a reasonable, though again not an altogether persuasive case, that it is not just the discrete facts of myths and parables of religious faith, that matter. She argues quite correctly that man is a symbolizing animal, who demands that his narratives transcend logic in his attempt to organize and then to lend a sense of wholeness to the meanings they impute to the world.
At some level, it cannot be easily denied or dismissed that religion is as much about how humans are connected to the larger universe as it is about validly grounded facts. Thus, recurring religious stories that at times seem childish, always seem to have meanings that transcend and go beyond mere logic and reason. Professor Armstrong's ideas are not just tantalizing, they demand a respect and a hearing in the same market place that suggest that logic and reason are "the end all and be all" of man's intelligence. As Godel's Incompleteness Theorem suggests, we may yet discover that logic and reason may not be at the end of our intelligence, but perhaps at its very beginning.
There are several other examples in the scientific world that seem to resonate with Armstrong's suggestion: The notion of Symmetry in both mathematics and physics, and the notion of Simultaneity in Particle physics for instance, or the whole world of Quantum Physics, as well as David Bohm's idea of an "Implicate Order" are just a few very sobering examples of non-religious ideas of wholeness that do not yet fully yield to the logic and reason of discrete facts or even to our best designed scientific experiments.
Although my sympathies lie fully in the Harris camp, successfully defeating arguments that take these aspects of religious illogic fully into account is a lot trickier than simply attacking its lack of any discernable factual basis, or demonizing its radical elements. More to this point, if one reads between the lines even of T.S. Kuhn's The Nature of Scientific Revolutions, we see that many scientific revolutions were in fact equally inspired by dreams, myths and other non-scientific modalities of conceptions --including most importantly religious ideas and myths. All of these might have been dismissed by Mr. Harris as nonsense or childish.
But in the end, let us admit it, all of this philosophical sparring and shadow boxing about religious fact or fiction is mere window dressing for the main event which incredibly and somewhat unconscionably Harris skirts altogether. There is a prior question begging to be asked. It deals with the issue of what is important about these stories, and myths? About religious books and cannons generally? About religion as a whole? And of course it gets right down to the bottom line, about GW Bush's faith-based initiatives for instance?
Arguably, the answer is this: that religion, whether based on true or false stories, whether manifested as good or evil, whether about the New or Old Testament, the Torah, or the Talmud, is not just morality tales of fact or fiction, only about heaven or hell; but is about an issue Harris neglected altogether: social control.
Most religions use their rapidly dwindling moral currency and authority in order to subtlely shape and maintain a particular kind of non-religious social order. Therein lies the rub: and need I say, the true nature of the evil of most religions. At bottom, our religions, whatever else they may be, are primarily dogmatic secularized ideological instruments of social and political control. They are used to help install and maintain the social and political orthodoxy of the day. They are nothing if not reliable instruments of the status quo, and little more.
That is the real reason the religious Emperor has no clothes. His nakedness has little or nothing at all to do with logic and reason, but everything to do with being a tool and an arm of evil governments.
Controlling what and how people think, feel and act is what religions do. That is their basic terrain; it is their primary utility. That is why in the U.S., most racists are also profoundly religious. It is why the Taliban worries about the length of women dresses in the West. It is also why religion is invoked when soldiers go to war; why kids are forced to go to Sunday school, etc. It is also why pseudo-religiosity and pseudo-patriotism go hand-in-hand.
Religion trains people to fear the unknown in socially sanctioned, proscribed and permitted ways, and it trains them how to respond to cues in coordinated non-thinking, automatic, and often non-logical (i.e., emotional) lemming-like ways.
In the U.S. at least, for the most part religion is nothing but a "cash-and-carry" secularized ideology of social control, a package of status quo orthodoxy masquerading as a spiritual institution supposedly being driven by higher appeals to other-worldliness and faith. But of course the proof is in the pudding: No religion within the U.S. would dare be judged only by its deeds. Only its propaganda and empty appeals to piety are given full expression. The word in the book is not about doing good, it is about feeling good about oneself for a few hours.
The control function of religion alone explains why religion has been impotent morally and why it remains the handmaiden of so much worldly evil. Small wonder that it should have so little effect on the morality of the nations in which it is practiced. Control, through a tyrannically imposed morality is its primary purpose and its primary modus operandi. At least the Europeans have gotten smart and have virtually given it up altogether.
Except for these minor flaws, this is a very good book. Five stars.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read,
It is really incredible to see this book reviewed negatively by people who admit that they haven't read it. Amazing! It might be useful for such people to know that they can read part of the first chapter for free on the author's website ([...] which is what convinced me to buy this book myself. Harris is going straight up against every taboo that surrounds our discussion of religion and values in this country. Which is why he'll be drawing a lot of fire from people who are eager to dismiss his argument without even considering it. Harris might be right in what he says at the end of the first chapter:
"It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity
of most of our religious beliefs. I fear, however, that the time has
not yet arrived. In this sense, what follows is written very much in
the spirit of a prayer. I pray that we may one day think clearly
enough about these matters to render our children incapable of
killing themselves over their books. If not our children, then I suspect
it could well be too late for us, because while it has never been
difficult to meet your maker, in fifty years it will simply be too easy
to drag everyone else along to meet him with you."
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The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (Paperback - September 17, 2005)