424 of 470 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
121 of 147 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
Most Helpful First | Newest First
424 of 470 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 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!
1,631 of 1,851 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.
1,514 of 1,739 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 137 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.
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!,
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.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can we survive Faith?,
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.
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!
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At Last, Common Sense on Faith,
Finally, a clear and unbiased overview of the present dangers of faith-based belief in a world where religious ideologies are clashing in a large scale arena strewn with weapons of catastrophic proportions. As Sam Harris points out, all instances of local conflicts, massacres and genocide are the results of the adherents of two or more religious doctrines attempting to destroy each other. People who rely on blind faith to ground their beliefs are incapable of true rational thought and the results of these belief systems are recorded in our brutal and vicious recent history. In a world becoming smaller by the year we are witnessing that same clash in a global sense as the adherents of Islam attempt to destroy the "infidels" (the Christians and the Jews in this case).
Harris makes a powerful case for the complete irradication of faith based belief from our intellectual and cultural discourse. He first shows convincingly that the human actions taken on behalf of these types of belief systems are overwhelmingly atrocious and continue to be so (suicide bombers). Harris also gives us alternatives with a glimpse into a possible source of ethics that would serve us better and has no cultural biases.
I particularly agreed with how Harris leaves no room for moderate Christian or Islamic believers, because ultimately his critique rests on the shortcomings of faith based irrationality, which even the moderates espouse. Harris dismisses Pacifism as a way to deal with religious fundamentalism and even goes so far as to suggest that some forms of torture are (unfortunately) the only way to realistically deal with irrational people. I found this position a bit too extreme, but I also agree with Harris in that there is no other possible way to have a logical and reasonable discussion with people who believe in an afterlife. People who are convinced that they are going to Heaven/Paradise are not able to comprehend reasonable arguments of any kind.
All in all "The End of Faith" is a book that marks our present- day dilemmas with an unequivocal insight that is more revealing than Baron d'Holbach's "Ecce Homo!" (an Eighteenth Century rational examination of the life of Jesus). Harris joins the select group of clear thinkers from our past such as Galileo, Swift, The French Philosophes, Whitman and other atheists who have contributed greatly to rational human discourse. What makes this book all the more relevant is that it speaks to today's issues in the clear and heartfelt light of reason.
Highly recommended to skeptics and to believers alike.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cry for reason in an irrational world,
I was struck today by a classic case of cognitive (and temporal) dissonance the author would surely appreciate: The barbarity of beheadings posted by the barbarians themselves on the Internet.
Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, speaks of how we almost have a time portal to the Dark Ages in this kind of barbarism in the modern day. Sam is, if nothing else, an iconoclast who left political correctness far behind, with no apologies. He is also a lucid and fearless thinker. I'm sure, given the sacred cows he slays in this book, that reviews run the gamut from effusive praise to bitter invective. Exactly what one might expect.
I found the book to be almost two books intermingled. On the one hand he analyzes and mercilessly exposes organized religion and its manifold effects on our society, particularly in regard to our politics. The chapters and chapter sections dealing with these issues stand on their own as models of frankness and insight. Other sections of the book get much more esoteric, exploring the nature of belief, consciousness, and brain/soul concepts. Some will find the revelation at the end of the book that the author is (or has been) a practitioner of meditation modeled on what sounds like Zen or the like to be a convenient excuse to dismiss earlier material which may have made them decidedly uncomfortable. He does, after all, rake religious moderates somewhat mercilessly over the coals.
I suppose I may have found this book more perspicacious than many other readers might because I not only deeply investigated Christianity subsequent to my Catholic upbringing, but also read extensively on mysticism (including Christian mysticism) and Buddhism. And like Sam, I also practiced Zen meditation for a considerable length of time. One thing he fails to mention in arguing that this is not a religion per se but simply a technique is that Zen monks have been giving lessons in meditation for many years now to Christian monastic communities, ever since Thomas Merton broke the ice and revealed the value of such techniques to would-be mystics of all stripes. While admitting that many of the world's Buddhists are no more mystics than your run-of-the-mill Christian, he correctly points out that the readily accessible portions of Buddhism which focus on meditation are in a completely different category than the organized religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (and Hinduism, which he mentions more or less in passing).
There is a great critique of the War on Drugs about halfway through the book, which one hopes will be reprinted for a much wider audience. He makes the point that our nation's collection of victimless crimes are, in fact, political manifestations of the urge to stamp out sin, despite the fact that many of them cannot by any sane person be construed to contribute to the detriment of society. And by those which our society accepts and condones we uncharacteristically admit his thesis, slapping what are commonly called "sin taxes" on them (cigarettes, alcohol, etc.)
Harris takes moralists to task with well-deserved condemnation of the self-righteous notion that ethical behavior can spring only from religious fervor. Indeed, he has two chapters on the history of Islam and Christianity which clearly show that unbelievable amounts of wildly unethical behavior have sprung from just such fervor, and continue to do so today. His urgent contention is that religious extremism is incredibly dangerous in the world of modern weaponry, and that the very concept of irrational faith must be replaced by rationalism if we are to survive as a species.
The touchy-feely notion that religion should be off limits to pointed criticism, and that all religions are, at their core, inspirational and tolerant, is brought crashing to the ground by Harris' sublime reasoning and mountains of evidence. I kept wanting to underline passages to share with friends and family, such as when he's discussing the idea of beliefs based on nothing more solid than other people's beliefs, with no concrete evidence whatsoever. He points out that if such beliefs were held by a small number of people they would certainly be considered delusional, but since they are held by millions they're instead respected as sacred. "There is sanity in numbers," he writes.
Indeed, it's been a pet peeve of mine for ages that people justify unfounded belief based on nothing but the number of other deluded souls who believe the same thing they do. Is it not glaringly obvious that such appeals to a belief's validity based on the number of believers can be used by a vast body of other believers who believe something at odds with that? "Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility." Tell it like it is, Sam.
One cannot, alas, come away from this book with an optimistic glow. Hopefully the reader will be bold enough to confront his or her own beliefs in the light of reason, and admit of irrational belief and behavior in their own past and/or present. There is certainly ample material here to promote self-examination. The very idea that billions of people will question their faith to this point, however, is beyond the realm of possibility. Sam Harris is dropping a much-needed pebble of reason into the pool of irrational certitude, and one can only hope that the ripples might be noticed and propagated by countless others.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The End of Faith by Sam Harris (CD-ROM - November 1, 2006)
Out of stock