Mum always insisted; "Don't discuss politics or religion!" These days the two are too thoroughly intertwined to avoid discussing one without the other. Sam Harris thinks so, and is emphatic that we need to recognise that. He doesn't like religion - there are too many illogical and inconsistent expressions of it. He's particularly concerned about how religions manifest themselves in politics. In this challenging and provocative book, he urges us all to be aware about what the "faithful" learn about their gods, and how they express that learning. He finds the situation dangerous, threatening enough that immediate action is overdue to correct the peril we face. This cry of alarm must be heeded, and Harris has done a thorough job of explaining why we must act.
In the West, he notes how religious tolerance, after a long struggle to gain acceptance, poses a conundrum. Tolerance means acceptance, but the faithful in the three extensive monotheistic religions, preclude tolerance. "The Book", accepted if not admired universally, demands the diminution, if not the destruction of "heresy". He's particularly scathing of Islam's own "Book", the Qur'an in its insistence on rooting out infidels. Thus, there is no "border" to the Islamic world short of the planet itself. This, he argues, is a tangible threat. We've experienced one of its most diabolically conceived acts in the destruction of the Twin Towers. This, he argues, is but the first of a series of acts that will grow increasingly severe with the passage of time. Those in the West stressing that the suicide bombers are "fanatics" and "fundamentalists" are deluding themselves. It is clear, Harris says, that Islam "must find a way to revise itself".
Harris recapitulates the history of the Christian churches, with their extensive campaigns of expunging their own heretics and the Jews. With both religions driven by divine commands, as expressed in the "Books", the gods insist on obedience by all people. Those "chosen" to carry out that dictation are, of course, the faithful. Those insisting on "tolerance" are reading the "Books" selectively. To Harris, this is a shortsighted approach. Others see The Books as divine ordinances that must be obeyed. Christianity's long, bloody record is vividly presented, from the Inquisition through baptising Indian children before immediately executing them, the hunting of witches and other obscenities. Nazism, often portrayed as the mindless expression of a few adherents, Harris argues, is simply another form of mainstream religion. It certainly had the tacit approval of the Papacy. The injunction to "purify" is still with us in many guises - even if only at the level of banning "Harry Potter" as endorsing witchcraft and wizardry, expressly condemned in Christianity's "Book". Our enemy, Harris notes, is faith itself.
As a neuroscientist, Harris arrives at an unexpected solution to the ills of a religious societies. To Harris, the bizarre logic of Christianity - you can mutter a few words over your favourite Burgundy to render it into "Christ's blood" - must be shelved. So, too, must be the religion that claims to be the "chosen" of a desert deity. One that can condemn a man to death for writing fiction is morbidly irrational. Since all these concepts are but symptoms of "normal people embracing madness as something holy" a fresh means must be found. He's studied the various ideas of consciousness and discovered our notion of it can be abandoned. Harris argues that the Eastern mystics provide the solution. By abandoning the old faiths and learning the lessons mystics have acquired, the need for eliminating other humans for their derelictions of faith would evaporate. Although a rational recommendation, it remains difficult to envision how such transformation would be effected. The current technique of using "smart bombs" and imposed cultures is clearly inadequate, not to say unreasonable.
Harris's book is a must read for everyone. How else could the issues be confronted? His history is sweeping, if necessarily brief. His denunciation of religions is fully justified for their past and present practices, let alone the flawed foundations on which they rest. What is needed is a campaign strategy - the only shortcoming this book exhibits. Read it and make one of your own. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]