The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason
W.W. Norton & Company
REVIEW BY MICHAEL PATRICK HUGHES
Ask any number of Americans what the greatest danger facing society is, and you’re bound to get a fairly unified answer—terrorism. Ask those same Americans what the most important response to that danger is, and you are not likely to hear the one suggested by Sam Harris in his important and sure-to-be controversial new book. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Harris argues for the elimination of all faith-based religion from any kind of substantive role in human affairs. Calling religious faith a relic from the mythical past, he states:
“At best, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about their deepest concerns, at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence.”
Throughout, Harris argues forcefully against faith, scripture, and the violence he claims it brings. He points out that in an age of modern technology, with the weapons systems currently available to almost anyone with the will to acquire them, the intolerance that all religious faiths have for each other makes them potentially destructive of civilization itself. “The contest between religions is zero-sum,” he says and implicates the moderates of each religion as being as complicit in the danger as the extremists. In Harris’ view, religious moderates offer no protection against religious extremism and terrorism. In the view of extreme literalists, moderates are simply poor practitioners of their faith at best, or apostates who belong in hell with other infidels at worst. The reality, he notes, is that extremists tend to know their own scriptures and to actually practice what is stated in them better than the moderates, and he states that being moderate requires the dismissal of major portions of the texts themselves.
According to Harris, another contributing danger is that criticizing religious faith is unacceptable in all parts of our culture. In no other sphere of modern human knowledge or endeavor is there such an opposition to any kind of rational dialogue or empirical inquiry, or such evidentiary falsification. Not only is it a taboo to question someone’s faith, our politicians are constantly defined by their own adherence to faith. Hence, someone like Tom DeLay can say that the Columbine shootings were caused by the teaching of evolution in the Colorado schools and no one demands his removal from office. Harris points out an entire range of fundamentalist religious influence in government, from John Ashcroft, a religious extremist, being named Attorney General to Antonin Scalia and his speech on the death penalty at the Chicago Divinity School in January 2002. There is a chilling cynicism in Fundamentalist Christian support for the state of Israel that is based entirely on the anticipation it brings them of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The settlement of the Holy Land by the Jews and the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple on the Temple Mount—something hoped for by Christian Fundamentalists—will supposedly hasten Revelations and the destruction of the Jews.
Harris is unsparing of any religious sentiment. He points out that the God of the Bible and Koran is not a loving deity:
“…the creator who purports to be beyond human judgment is consistently ruled by human passions—jealousy, wrath, suspicion and the lust to dominate. A close study of our holy books reveals that the God of Abraham is a ridiculous fellow—capricious, petulant, and cruel—and one with whom a covenant is little guarantee of health or happiness.”
The basis of all religious hatred, intolerance, and extreme terrorist violence resides in the religious texts themselves, as Harris points out through innumerable quotes. All faith-based religions have several concepts in common: the idea of its adherents as a chosen people or group; the concept of divine election (where the faithful go to an afterlife reserved only for them); and the idea of an eschatological resolution to the world, an apocalypse. Harris takes all the children of Abraham to task: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He devotes considerable time to an examination of the Inquisition and the Christian basis for anti-Semitism. It is a reality check to be reminded that the Catholic Church did not ban torture until 1816, the Spanish Inquisition lasted until 1834, and the last “auto-da-fe” in Mexico was in 1850.
But Harris’ main claim is that the most dangerous religion in the world today is Islam. To those who argue that Islam is a religion of peace and that suicide is proscribed by the Koran he counters that there is one “single, unambiguous line” against suicide: “Do not destroy yourselves” (Koran 4:29). He follows that with the observation that “on almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non believers.” He goes on to list five pages of direct quotes from the Koran, and says himself that it all becomes “desperately tedious.” It is tedious reading, and sobering.
Certainly not tedious but rather frightening is the possibility he raises of a future nuclear war with Islam. Harris asserts that for Muslims the world is divided into “The realm of Islam” and “The realm of War.” Citing Bernard Lewis’ observation that “for Muslims, no piece of land once added to the realm of Islam can ever be renounced,” he adds “or no mind either.” He claims there can be no possibility of a cold war with a nuclear-armed Muslim state, saying that deterrence is based on the desire to live—not on the glorification of martyrdom. (Whether Fundamentalist Christians hoping for the apocalypse are less likely to start Armageddon he doesn’t say.) Finally, Harris counters arguments that poverty and political injustice give rise to terrorism by pointing out that the leaders of organizations like Hamas and Al Qaeda are highly educated (often in technical fields) and from middle class backgrounds—in Osama Bin Laden’s case, extreme wealth.
Harris has a doctorate in philosophy and is completing one in neuroscience, bringing both disciplines to his arguments on the natures of belief and ethics, and to his quest for a rational answer to the human need for spirituality. He suggests a possible biological basis for ethics, noting studies that demonstrate monkeys will undergo “extreme privations” to avoid causing harm to their own species. Contending that “concern for others was not the invention of any prophet,” he suggests rather that natural law plays a significant role and that ethical concerns are based in “understanding that others experience happiness and suffering.”
Conversely, Harris’ coldly rational argument for torture seems particularly casuistic. Cynically making an extended “ethical” equivalence between torture and acceptance of “collateral damage,” he boasts that he “successfully argue[d] for the use of torture,” then quickly retracts. “[P]aradoxically, this…has not made the practice of torture…any more acceptable to me, nor for most readers.” The recent Pentagon memo on the Geneva Accords, and the subsequent abuses at Abu Ghraib, point to the utter inhumanity of a justification of torture.
His suggestion for a modern answer to man’s need for spirituality is a “non-dualistic empirical mysticism.” Basically a secular form of Buddhism and meditative practice, it does not seem likely to make believers from Kansas or Pakistan give up their texts anytime soon. In his conclusion, Harris states,
“Mysticism is rational, religion is not. [C]learly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This is the end of faith.”
Harris does open a dialogue about a subject too long held taboo. There has been an abundance of books on theology and religion on the bestseller lists lately. They have ranged all across the spectrum between faith and doubt None has attacked religion as explicitly or persuasively. Harris’ point is that if we are to survive as a civilization we must begin to discuss religion from a rational point of view. His book is certainly a start.