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R. K. Morgan (Glasgow UK)

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The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover

91 of 109 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars shrill, messy and a bit too impressed with himself, 15 Feb. 2005
Being a writer myself, I'm not in the habit of posting reviews either on amazon or elsewhere, but this needs saying: this is not the book I or its author Sam Harris would like it to be. It will upset plenty of religious idiots (and that's fun, I suppose, in a rather ignoble bear-baiting fashion), but it isn't going to win anyone of any religious stripe over to a humanist viewpoint. And if, like me, you're already there as a humanist atheist, it isn't going to provide you with anything more than a few flushes of the aforementioned rather ignoble "take that, you bigoted swine" satisfaction. The lambasting of religious idiocy is fun for the first few chapters, but that's all it is. And the knowing, self congratulatory style doesn't help. (At one point, we're treated to a gratuitous and self-serving account of how Harris cunningly rescued a young woman from violence in Prague - this is used ostensibly to point up an argument against pacifism but it's actually a fairly clumsy way to do it and only marginally relevant to the point Harris wants to make. Really, one feels, what the the author wants you to do is to stop and admire his selflessness - and great cleverness - while he modestly murmurs "no, no, it was nothing, really". This would be okay in a pub, but in the middle of an intellectual treatise, like a lot of Harris's style, it grates.)
What Harris DOESN'T successfully provide at any point in the book is a coherent argument as to how rational humanism might move forward against the sea of idiot faith that threatens to swamp it - and that's a shame because, drawn by the publisher's blurbs and promises, that's what I was hoping for here. Instead, I found myself increasingly irritated and not a little unnerved by the almost redneck outlook on which this supposedly rational and humanistic treatise is based. Mr Harris seems to believe, with the same fervour as any southern baptist or taliban mullah, in pre-existing ethical laws analagous to and as set in stone as the laws of physics - in his view, some things just simply ARE right or wrong in the same way that two and two simply DOES equal four. Alongside this, a poorly explained "rational mysticism" is then invoked as the path to happiness, but this seems in the end to be little more than thinly disguised Budhhism. There is no attempt to examine right and wrong within the context of evolutionary biology and pyschology, social theory or the philosophy of law. And this failure to engage with the mechanics of the real world is coupled with a terrifying political naivete - Harris examines religious faith shorn of any political, social or economic context. He believes (against most current intelligent political analysis) that Al Qaeda is a formal global organisation masterminded by Osama bin Laden and that this is in itself only the cutting edge of a vast Muslim enterprise to dominate the whole globe. He briefly acknowledges the repressive misadventures of western political policy, then goes on to discount them as a factor in the rise of fundamentalism. He argues that the US has deeply theocratic tendencies, then claims that western culture is in a death struggle against Islam for a rational humanist future. He misrepresents the Salman Rushdie case, claiming that the Khomeini fatwah was broadly endorsed by the Muslim world (and offering the ravings of Cat Stevens as evidence) while conveniently omitting the fact that said fatwah was outlawed as unIslamic by spokesmen for forty eight out of forty nine Islamic nations (see Karen Armstrong's Short History of Islam p. 148/9). I am no advocate of religion, Islam least of all, but this is either poor scholarship or deliberate deceit on Harris's part.
In the end, the End of Faith has the rather unpleasant taste of pandering. That it (initially) panders to a world view I hold broad sympathies for does not lessen that taste. In these times, it is vital that intelligent humanists make the argument for secular society and the rational rule of law, but Harris, with his sudden conviction that it may be acceptable to torture Islamic terror suspects, bomb the living daylights out of theocratic nations, and simply execute people whose beliefs qualify (to someone, somewhere) as "too dangerous", is not making that argument and should not be included in that company. The End of Faith, in its pandering, dishonours the intellectual company to which it aspires.

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