A holy alliance of the religious right and the multicultural left has erected a taboo at the heart of our culture. At a crucial moment in the history of fanaticism, they have ring-fenced the edifice of religion from criticism. True, they permit condemnation of the manias of religious literalists - from Osama Bin Laden to Jerry Falwell - but ensure this happens within tight parameters.
Fanatics must be damned for "perverting" or "distorting" the "otherwise peaceful" religions they follow. Anybody who, like Richard Dawkins, points out that, on the contrary, these extremists are simply obeying the clear commands of their religious texts is damned as "offensive" or "an Ayatollah of atheism."
Sam Harris - a Californian neuroscientist - does not just attack this taboo. He launches a sustained nuclear assault on it. He argues that there has never been a more important time for a campaigning, aggressive atheism - and for a simple reason. Before long, technological advances will make weaponry of mass destruction fairly easily available to any group. If this technology combines with a religious group that believes death is better than life - whether the evangelical Christians who pine for the Rapture or jihadists who brag about how much they love death - then it is, at least, hard to see a happy outcome. So Harris argues, "Given the power of our technology... Words like `God' or `Allah' must go the way of `Apollo' and `Baal', or they will unmake our world."
It's a bold and exhilarating thesis, and for the first 50 pages Harris runs with it. His quotations are startling. In Deuteronomy 13:7-11, God declares that, "if your son or daughter" or "your most intimate friend" even suggests worshipping other Gods, "You must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death". Just as bad, Koran 9:73 says, "make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate."
Many people would respond that only religious extremists take these passages seriously. Surely the solution is to encourage moderation? Harris believes that this is a profound mistake, arguing: "The very ideal of religious tolerance - born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God - is one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss." He believes it is religious moderates who keep the whole edifice of religion from crumbling, because they protect the core ideas of faith and "respect" for belief from criticism.
Religious moderates are only moderate because they choose to ignore great slabs of their own holy texts. "The only reason anyone is `moderate' in matters of faith these days is if he has assimilated some of the [non- religious] fruits of the last two thousand years. The doors leading out of spiritual literalism do not open from the inside," Harris explains. Indeed, if we accept religious moderation as an acceptable status quo, we end up in a trap: "We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us."
Whatever theological contortions well-meaning moderates put themselves through, the religious extremists are often straightforwardly obeying the commands of God in the Bible, Koran and Torah. "Religious moderation is a product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance," Harris says. This is why atheism is the only full answer to the tide of religious fundamentalism across the world.
The End of Faith is a brave, pugilistic attempt to demolish the walls that currently insulate religious people from criticism. It is urgent reading over the next few months, as our politicians prepare to pass a grotesque law banning "incitement to religious hatred". Every MP considering this legislation should be slapped with the question Harris asks: "When will we realise that the concessions we have made to faith in our political discourse prevent us from even speaking about, much less uprooting, the most prolific source of violence in our history?"
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