The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The sea of faith and violence

Johann Hari
Friday 11 February 2005 01:00 GMT

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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 the Jewish Settlers to Jerry Falwell - but they ensure this happens within tight parameters.

Fanatics must be damned for "perverting" or "distorting" the "otherwise peaceful" religions they follow. Anybody like Richard Dawkins who points out that, on the contrary, these extremists are simply obeying the clear commands of their respective 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 - for a simple reason. Before long, technological advances will make weaponry of mass destruction fairly easily available to any group of private individuals. If this technology combines with a religious group that believes death is actually better than life - whether it is the evangelical Christians who pine for the Rapture or jihadists who brag about how much they love death - then it is, at the very least, hard to see a happy outcome. So Harris argues, "Given the power of our technologyÉ we have simply lost the right to our myths and to our mythic identities." So now is the time for to dismantle the religious idea that human action can be justified with reference to afterlives, mystical realms and magical Gods - before those ideas are turned once again on humanity. "Words like 'God' or 'Allah' must go the way of 'Apollo' and 'Baal', or they will unmake our world."

It's a bold and oddly exhilarating thesis, and for the first 50 pages Harris runs with it. He believes the core problem with religion resides in the nature of faith as a way of understanding the world. Faith is - by definition - a process that bypasses any need for evidence; it is a psychological mechanism based solely on personal instinct. After briefly noting the bloody paths this has led humanity along - such as the Spanish Inquisition - he notes dryly, "If history reveals any categorical truth, it is that an insufficient taste for evidence regularly brings out the worst in us."

Human reason can only ever reveal partial truths, because our perspectives are partial and nobody knows everything. But faith cannot reveal anything about our world at all. This can be seen in the difference in effectiveness between scientific medicine - based on a process of testing reality - and faith-based medicine, based on guesswork and delusion.

Yet a strange partition has emerged between how we think about religion and how we think about every other aspect of our lives. Harris puts this well when he notes, "Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its incredible dream, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." We would not accept 'faith' as a reason to convict somebody in a trial, or to go to war, or even to pick out which kind of pizza we order. So why do we accept so calmly that most of our fellow human beings use it as their rationale for life itself? It sounds simple to suggest that we must subject our spiritual beliefs to the same criterion as everything else - but such a demand requires us to remake the world.

For this reason, Harris declares, "It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs." As the great American atheist H.L. Mencken showed, the best way to discredit religion is often to simply quote from its central texts, or to summarise them in straightforward language. So he notes the Catholic belief that "Jesus Christ - who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily to the heavens - can now be eaten in the form of a cracker." Or - given that 46% of Americans take a literalist view of creation - that "the big bang [took place] 2500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer."

Harris' quotations from religious texts can be 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 deathÉ You must stone him." Thus, Harris explains, "A literal reading of the New Testament not only permits but require heretics to be put to death." Nor are followers of the Old Testament let off the hook: Jesus Christ demanded that his believers fulfil every "jot" and "tittle" of the Old Testament.

Just as bad, in Koran 9:73, it says, "make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate." This is just one of five whole pages of quotations directly from the Koran demanding war on unbelievers. True, there is one (much-quoted) line in the Koran that tells believers, "Do not destroy yourselves" - but it comes in the middle of fire-breathing calls to war against "the friends of Satan".

At this point, many people would respond to Harris: Only religious extremists take these passages seriously. Surely the solution is to encourage religious moderation? Harris believes 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 principles forces driving us towards the abyss." He believes it is religious moderates who are keeping the whole edifice of religion from crumbling, because they protect the core religious ideas of faith and 'respect' for a person's beliefs from criticism. They even give them a friendly sheen, and encourage the sceptical to conclude that faith isn't so bad after all.

Religious moderates are only moderate if they choose to ignore great slabs of their own holy texts. Few Christians today would seek to stone adulterers or execute gay people - but that's no thanks to religion. "The only reason anyone is 'moderate' in matters of faith these days is if he has assimilated some of [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. "The problem that religious moderation poses for us all is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism" he explains. "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."

Thus Harris comes to the core problem we atheists have when looking at the religious moderates. The hard truth is that, whatever theological contortions well-meaning moderates put themselves through, religious extremists are simply straightforwardly obeying the commands of God as laid out in the Bible, Koran and Torah. "This is the problem for 'moderation' in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of divine law," Harris notes. He later says, "Religious moderation is a product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance." That's why atheism is the only full answer to religious fundamentalism.

But 'The End of Faith' then takes a strange and disturbing turn. Harris says starkly, "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." Really? Who is this 'we'? In the context of the chapter, he is clearly talking not about atheists but about the United States. But surely this is the country he has already identified as pickled in superstition, a nation where more people believe in the Virgin Birth than Darwinism? Why are 'we' automatically on the side of an evangelical Christian President against (in his formulation) even the most moderate of Muslims?

Harris' answer is patchy, and draws on some pretty dubious hard-right sources - Alan Dershowitz, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington, for example. He crosses a line here from condemning all religions for their gross delusions to claiming that Islam is a uniquely poisonous and evil system. "Islam is undeniably a religion of conquestÉ more than any other religion human beings have devised, [it] has all the makings of a thorough-going cult of death," he writes.

It is at this point that a crucial flaw in Harris' argument becomes clear. Although he does not state it explicitly, part of him clearly believes that religious moderates are as bad as fanatics; that there is little real difference, and even the most democratic and moderate of believers is "capable of anything". Militant atheist though I am, I can't follow him into this bog.

The world is not currently experiencing a war between Islam and non-Muslims. No; what we are currently witnessing is a war within Islam between Muslim fanatics and Muslim moderates that is sometimes spilling across into the non-Muslim world. Bin Laden attacked America not because he wants to conquer the United States, but because he wants to topple the US-backed regimes that he sees as being in the corrupt, moderate Islamic camp. Since Harris does not really believe that religious moderation exists, he cannot see this. He clearly regards all believing Muslims as essentially insane and prone to suicide-murder - whereas I would say that the fanatics are insane and the moderates are merely horribly misguided.

Harris argues for a one-stage intellectual war to replace Islam with atheism. I believe this is both wildly impractical and a recipe for failure. Defining every single Muslim as a de facto al-Quaida supporter is not a recipe for the erosion of faith but for its inflammation. No; I believe we (meaning all the potential victims of jihadism, both in Muslim countries and in the West) must embark on a two-stage battle. The first step is to replace fanatical Islam with moderate Islam. This would, in itself, be a massive achievement, and it is currently a distant goal. The second step - and this is the work of centuries - is to persuade moderate Muslims of the case for atheism. Harris disregards moderate Islam as an essential intermediary stage because he cannot see how moderate religion would be any better. This has lead him to write a chapter on Islam that is itself quite crazed, and even veers into bizarre speculation about circumstances in which a nuclear first strike would be acceptable against jihadists with a nuclear weapon.

And then the book takes another strange turn. Having savaged the idea of religion for over a hundred pages, Harris suddenly announces that he wants to craft an atheist brand of "spirituality". He praises "the great philosopher mystics of the East" including the Buddha - and says that "spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind." At this point - as somebody who feels no hunger for a 'spiritual' dimension to my life at all - I began to choke. Didn't the Buddha peddle notions just as absurd as the Christianity Harris has mocked? Didn't he say that we have lived before as insects, and may live again as goats? Where is Harris' tide of scorn now?

Harris tries to define this atheist spirituality as consisting of moments of "loss of self", explaining, "This experience of characterized by a sudden loss of subject/object perception: the continuum of experience remains, but one no longer feels that there is a knower standing apart from the known. Thoughts may arise, but the feeling that one is the thinker of those thoughts has vanished." There is a clear overlap with Eastern practices like meditation.

He tries to argue that this can be explored rationally and without falling back on faith, explaining, "The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. There is no question that experiments of this sort can be conducted in a rational manner."

And yes, it is true that we can rationally investigate how people feel when, say, they don't eat for thirty days. But Harris then makes an unacceptable leap - one might call it a leap of faith - to argue that these altered mental states reveal something substantive about the nature of the universe, rather than simply revealing something about the set of chemical processes that occur in a body deprived of food. He says these "mystical" experiences "reveal a far deeper connection between ourselves and the universe than is suggested by the ordinary confines of our subjectivity" - but where is the evidence for this? Isn't he committing precisely the irrational leaps he condemned earlier? Where is the critique of the layers of superstition and irrationality that coat Eastern religions just as surely as their Western cousins?

Harris plainly does not accept something I see as a basic tenet of contemporary atheism: that we live in a purely material world, and all human action must be justified within these terms. He flirts with the idea that we can connect with non-material realms (at one point, he eccentrically claims there is evidence for "psychic phenomena") - which hardly seems to be a rational atheist case.

So ultimately, this provocative, occasionally brilliant book did not persuade me. True, he has some great lines; my favourite his description of faith as "what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse." But the book is wildly uneven, and veers off into entertaining but irrelevant discussion about pacifism, 'collateral damage' and the follies of drug prohibition. I agree with him on all three, but they are quite a long way from any discussion of faith, and this is only a short book. Once he begins to digress from already-long digressions, you wonder if he is padding the book.

There are also some sloppy errors: he claims that "millions" of Iraqi Shiites chose to "flagellate themselves" until "blood poured from their scalps and backs" as soon as they were liberated. In fact, this is the behaviour of a small slice of the Iraqi Shia not numbering more than the tens of thousands. He later condemns the Catholic Church for failing to excommunicate "a single senior Nazi, not even Adolf Hitler" - but how could they excommunicate people who had never been part of their church? It's like condemning the Labour Party for not throwing any Nazis off their membership lists.

But for all its flaws, we need more pugilist attempts to demolish the walls that currently insulate religious people from criticism. 'The End of Faith' is badly needed in a twenty-first century America where the religious right is swelling once more and even feeding off the rise of Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East. It is also urgent reading in Britain, where we are about to pass a grotesque law banning "incitement to religious hatred". Every MP considering voting for this legislation should be slapped with the question Harris ask at the heart of this book: "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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