The End of Faith

I’ve been holding off writing this entry, but now seems like the right time. I have been reading (almost finished now) Sam Harris‘s book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. It’s a frequently heavy-handed but nonetheless vital treatise on why religion is a black hole which will suck all of us to our eventual destruction unless we can rid ourselves of it.

Actually, it is a little more suble than that. The book’s real target is faith, which I would define as belief in an idea in the absence of (or even in opposition to) evidence. Harris, perhaps a little boldly, pinpoints faith as the cause of every major human conflict, including secular faiths such as Naziism and Stalinism. He also finds remnants of religion worth saving, in particular he has a lot of time for mysticism and exploration of the inner-self.

I’m frustrated that Harris frequently takes such a deliberately confrontational stance. I’m reminded of something Zaid told me a few years back, an impression he formed during a trip to America that for many Americans it’s not enough to be on the right side, to really win big you have to do your best to belittle and bludgeon your “opponents”. Of course this trait is not exclusively American, nor is it common to every American, but it does have a ring of truth to it and it’s certainly the case where Harris is concerned.

But… this book certainly provided me with plenty of quotes from religious texts on how our gods like us to smite the unbeliever, some shocking teachings which nowadays most Jews, Christians and Moslems choose to ignore or, sometimes rather torturously, read as metaphor (in the case of Islam, Harris gets rather carried away with himself, providing five tedious pages of quotes from the Koran telling us how Allah likes to treat unbelievers). You can see how easily a literal mind could find instructions in these millennia-old works of literature which would lead them to perpetrate acts such as yesterday’s bombings (and as a result I have spent the day listening in frustration to various pundits saying “this will not help the terrorists’ cause”, without apparently entertaining the simple thought that perhaps this is the terrorists’ cause?)

Anyway, below is the review I’ve just written for Amazon. I’ve also talked about this book at length on the Empty Space Reading Group, starting here.

I agree largely with Richard Morgan’s review, although I have given the book a higher rating because I believe that most of the fundamental arguments are correct and it is for the most part a good and very informative read.

The big shame, for me, was that Harris’s “pugilistic” stance is only likely to win him fans among the already-converted (which I confess I am. Goodness… “converted”, “confess”… this religion business really is quite pervasive, isn’t it?), but this book deals with such important topics that it needs to be made more palatable to those of more neutral persuasion, and to the religions moderates who Harris demonises. He frequently makes uneccesarily snidey side-swipes which do nothing to bolster his main argument, and for somebody so convinced of the importance of evidence-based rational discourse, he is irritatingly fond of the phrase “needless to say”.

I am not familiar enough with all of the sources quoted by Harris to know whether he always does a good job of representing them, but from the one or two examples (as quoted by Richard Morgan) where he doesn’t, and from his general (dare I say rather American-confrontational) “I’m gonna get you religion” attitude, I am left wondering about the reliability of some of his evidence.

And, yes, he doesn’t offer much in the way of a solution. This is ultimately a very depressing book: religious nuts are out there, they’re violent (because their god tells them to be) and sooner or later they will get hold of weapons of mass destruction.

But all that said, this is a fascinating book which tries, and sometimes succeeds, to get to the heart of a topic which is absolutely vital to our times.