- Sam Harris discusses his controversial book in depth in our exclusive interview.
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The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Paperback – September 17, 2005
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Sam Harris cranks out blunt, hard-hitting chapters to make his case for why faith itself is the most dangerous element of modern life. And if the devil's in the details, then you'll find Satan waiting at the back of the book in the very substantial notes section where Harris saves his more esoteric discussions to avoid sidetracking the urgency of his message.
Interestingly, Harris is not just focused on debunking religious faith, though he makes his compelling arguments with verve and intellectual clarity. The End of Faith is also a bit of a philosophical Swiss Army knife. Once he has presented his arguments on why, in an age of Weapons of Mass Destruction, belief is now a hazard of great proportions, he focuses on proposing alternate approaches to the mysteries of life. Harris recognizes the truth of the human condition, that we fear death, and we often crave "something more" we cannot easily define, and which is not met by accumulating more material possessions. But by attempting to provide the cure for the ills it defines, the book bites off a bit more than it can comfortably chew in its modest page count (however the rich Bibliography provides more than enough background for an intrigued reader to follow up for months on any particular strand of the author' musings.)
Harris' heart is not as much in the latter chapters, though, but in presenting his main premise. Simply stated, any belief system that speaks with assurance about the hereafter has the potential to place far less value on the here and now. And thus the corollary -- when death is simply a door translating us from one existence to another, it loses its sting and finality. Harris pointedly asks us to consider that those who do not fear death for themselves, and who also revere ancient scriptures instructing them to mete it out generously to others, may soon have these weapons in their own hands. If thoughts along the same line haunt you, this is your book.--Ed Dobeas --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
From Publishers Weekly
In this sometimes simplistic and misguided book, Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Not only does such faith lack a rational base, he argues, but even the urge for religious toleration allows a too-easy acceptance of the motives of religious fundamentalists. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Moreover, innumerable acts of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. But Harris overstates his case by misunderstanding religious faith, as when he makes the audaciously naïve statement that "mysticism is a rational enterprise; religion is not." As William James ably demonstrated, mysticism is far from a rational enterprise, while religion might often require rationality in order to function properly. On balance, Harris's book generalizes so much about both religion and reason that it is ineffectual.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
Top Customer Reviews
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!
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.