on 4 February 2013
Review: The End of Faith by Sam Harris
Sam Harris book illustrates the irrationality of "religious faith" based on "beliefs" of unsubstantiated facts and yet such myths have been sheltered from criticism from every corner. I have rated it with 5 stars because the book is contemporary, very readable, credible and timely and most of all fearless of "political correctness."
The book illustrates that anti-Semitism is integral to both Christianity and Islam and shows the barbarity of Christian who, butchered thousands in the name of God in the Inquisition and the Holocaust. That tribalism, exclusion, racism and savagery is laced throughout the scriptures of all the Abrahamic faiths.
Fundamentalist Christian scriptures were protected from inquiry with harsh and uncompromising diktats like that from Pope Pius X in 1907 who declared modernism a heresy. In Islam, it is also heretic to question the Quran or the hadiths. Thus intelligent inquiry into both the Bible and the Quran were stifled for many centuries in Christianity and still does in Islam. Hence the rejection of the modern scientific theories and hypothesis of the 20th and 21st centuries into Abrahamic faith considerations. Such stifling of intellectual exegesis from the highest authorities of the Abrahamic religions has prevented the evolution of modern religious doctrines.
Harris' intimate knowledge of Islam also allows him to express his views on the rigidity of the Islamic faith and to express his views on Islam's conflicts with that of Christianity without being hog-bound with `political correctness,' is a bold step in modern 21st century literature.
Harris also openly discusses the political correctness in the assessment of our conflicts with Islam. Let me quote his words,
"We are 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. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been "hijacked" by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet. A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do. Such a transformation is by no means guaranteed to occur, however, given the tenets of Islam."
Written with such frankness, it is a stimulating book, and well worth reading
on 24 April 2006
To call this book provocative is something of an understatement - it's an attack on ideals held very dear by many, from the sanctity of religious faith through to the desirability of religious tolerance. It's also highly persuasive, and a timely wake-up call to anyone who dislikes religion but believes that private beliefs should go unchallenged.
Harris's key concern is pragmatic: there are religious fundamentalists happy to kill both themselves and others on the basis of their faith in particular holy books, and we must find the best way of stopping them. Harris's view is that the way to do so is to undermine all religion, not just that of the fundamentalists.
He notes that "religious tolerance", the liberal consensus which minimises conflict between believers and non-believers, and between moderates and radicals, allows fundamentalism to flourish because it creates a climate where only actions can be challenged, not the beliefs that cause them. Harris (with some tendency to exaggeration) downplays the political causes of terrorism which other writers focus on, and concentrates on the central absurdity that makes acts like suicide bombing possible - belief in reward in the afterlife.
Harris rarely minces words. The book is filled with quotable invective, which depending on your perspective you'll either find inspiring or apalling. As a rant, it's highly articulate and very well-argued.
Harris pours scorn particularly on Islam and Christianity, enumerating the false beliefs to be found in their holy books and devoting a chapter each to their flaws. Judaism gets off more lightly, and he clearly has more sympathy for Israel than its neighbours. Eastern mysticism such as Buddhism gets off most lightly of all, on the grounds that it is to some extent a tradition of empirical investigation, not just a compendium of antiquated superstitions.
There are very interesting chapters that discuss the philosophical arguments against faith - one on the nature of belief and another on ethics. Many of his arguments (e.g. in favour of torture under certain circumstances) are initially repellent, and some of his ideas are unfairly contradictory (particularly a support for Western bombing of civilians while criticising Islamic support for the same - although his grounds are reasonable, if you accept his argument that the West would avoid "collateral damage" if it could, while Islamic terrorists actively seek it out, he remains far from even-handed).
The flaws are hardly relevant, as there's no need to agree with everything here to get the main point - that only by challenging all irrational religious views can we hope to create a future free from murderous extremists.
on 13 August 2015
I've just finished reading 'The End of Faith' and I would recommend it to anyone whois interested in religion and its impact on the world, especially in the light, or should I say gloom, of the State of the Middle East. In the past I have thought that Sam Harris often took too hard a line and I've not always agreed, but this book has explained to me how he feels about religion and why. Now I couldn't agree with him more. I was especially interested in the sections discussing pacifism, war and torture, which are topics often questioned but rarely finding answers. At least I feel I have clear and comfortable views on these now, in so far as anyone can.
I've seen reviews that criticise Mr Harris's hostility to people who hold religious views. My impression has always been that his hostility is to those views and the holding of them, not to the persons. But such people would do well to read this book and then reflect on their beliefs.
End of Faith is one of the most important books of the decade. Read this book and start thinking. And please don't stop thinking, otherwise you'll miss the point of it. For this is a book to inspire thought about how the world has come to have so many problems, so many of which are directly or indirectly attributable to religion. Even some laws which make no rational sense are in existence because of a moral tradition which is directly attributable to religious belief. Belief, in other words, which is not based on any scientific proof.
I must echo what another said, as it is totally right to say:
If you have an open, intelligent and enquiring mind - Read it.
If you want a better understanding of why the world is in such a mess - Read it
If you are interested in ethics, moral identity and politics - Read it.
If you are intrigued by the nature of belief - Read it
Harris makes a most brilliant and compelling treatise on why religion is so disturbingly destructive in so many ways; and is all the more so when it is followed with blind allegiance. He also demonstrates with the most logical fluidity and rational reasoning how its effects affect all of us - whether we are religious or not. And he develops, most compellingly, the argument that this is wrong. In short, read this book and wake up! And please give this book to others who are influential in this world, as this book is far too important to ignore. An unquestionable must read, which has divided many people and accordingly does not have the mark of greatness here on Amazon that is so thoroughly deserves.
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]
on 21 December 2005
Sam Harris's book was just the tonic I needed. As an ex born-again christian who has seen at first hand the havoc and damage that unfounded and unquestioning belief masquerading as righteous faith can wreak, I welcome both the book and more importantly the opportunity for dialogue that it creates. For those who may have issues with the minutiae of the book, I would suggest that these be overlooked when compared with the books overall focus and its broad appeal. It provides a long-overdue and meaningful platform for dialogue that is not restricted to the ranks of the intelligents; great stuff!
on 4 August 2007
So many of the reviews here focus on specific aspects of Harris' work that present a particular religion, or sect, in a negative light. Certainly, the book does contain a large number of specific criticisms, but these are used to illustrate the central point of the book - that FAITH itself is the problem; FAITH in all its forms. Of course, for a great many of the global population this means the particular religion that they choose to subscribe to... but it is much more than this - it is the willingness to accept any doctrine at face value, without requiring evidence or accepting critical analysis.
The book makes an eloquant case for individuals challenging the beliefs which they carry, and those that they are asked to accept by any other individual or organisation - including those imposed by the state.
Too many Amazon reviewers seem to have been offended by statements that criticise part of their belief system. This is the point of the book!! Uncritical faith leads to blind acceptance of myths, press releases and all other forms of story. The resultant differences in opinion escalate into "denial of 'facts'" and lead eventually to the murderous and genocidal incidents described in the book.
Incidentally, those reading with an open mind will see a critique of unthinking in every form - including unthinking atheists who accept the word of any other atheist (e.g. Dawkins, who is repeatedly blamed for 'fundamental' atheism, despite his continued insistence on evidence and critical analysis!). Unthinking atheism is just another form of FAITH!
Read with an open mind, bearing in mind the core message that "uncritical faith is irrational, unthinking and unsound", and you will enjoy and benefit from this book.
on 13 January 2007
Ouch! I thought I'd read it all in the science/religion fracas and then I picked up Harris's book. I've never seen an opinion quite like this, it is truly unique-- as some other reviewers note, it's hard to classify. It's just pure Sam. There are few things one cannot really deny about this book:
1. Just about anyone will find something here they are shocked by. [The Buddhist stuff at the end came out of left field, although I kinda liked it still, and I was amazed that he could support the Iraq War]
2. You'll disagree with at least one point in the book, and get angry at some points (even atheists will!), but that will vary depending on your personal bias. [I'm amazed Harris managed to pull off his argument without contradicting himself; he has reasoned himself into a unique niche.]
3. It is incredibly well written and passionate; almost every page has a well-crafted quotable phrase or two. Swift reading too. A roller coaster ride through Harris's personal views, fears, and his quest to find solutions. [A few phrases left me in fits of giggles, a few others I wished I could commit to memory to use later, and a few others had my jaw drop in amazement that he dared to say them in today's volatile political climate-- I suppose he's not on the radar of the fundies quite enough yet for death fatwas and such]
4. People should read this regardless of how they feel about the state of the world today. It's an crucial book that raises important questions, and to deny the importance of debate about these issues would show more about your own bias and dogmatism than anything else.
Fiery and clad in the armor of reason, yet not afraid to be very human and even flawed, this book in some ways is better than anything Dawkins, Dennett, or Wolpert have put out recently. Massively original, very personal and honest, and a real page-turner. I had a hard time putting it down. I rarely give books a second read but now, a few weeks later, I'm thinking of diving back in.
on 1 August 2006
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris passionately argues against faith (not just religion) and wants reason and rationality to govern virtually all human decisions. His principle problem with faith is that of evidence, contending that there is no evidence for God, and that the Bible or Koran or any other scripture whose tenets derive from revelation and are corrupted by inaccuracy, time and translation cannot possibly be vessels for truth - they are, to Harris, unjustified.
Harris also wheels out the old atheist argument that religion is responsible for a unique amount of suffering and death in the world, citing everything from The Crusades to modern Islamic Jihad in support of his case. He picks out passages from Deuteronomy and Koranic verses which instruct the believer to kill infidels, and on this basis riles against the seemingly unjustified and bizarre conduct of those who believe in the truth or even morality of it. The traditional counter-argument (in fact mentioned by one of the other reviewers here) that Stalinism and Maoism, both atheistic movements, were responsible for countless atrocities and mass murder proves violence is human, not religious, is dismissed by Harris with relative ease, and not without justification: "although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion." (p.79)
Harris' principle aim is to demonstrate the destructive nature of unjustified belief, of which the major religions are the most virulent forms, and that if people were rational, considered evidence and did not merely accept fanciful, supernaturalistic explanations from authority for the way the world works, things would be better all round. It is clear that Harris believes ridding the world of religion would be of benefit, and his motive is to make the world a more humane place.
To make his thesis comprehensive, Harris attempts to show that religion (and unjustified beliefs in general) have impacted on the world in a multitude of ways, and his book spans topics as diverse as the legalisation of drugs, abortion, politics in the middle east, spirituality and even some epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge); he argues against relativism and pragmatism (a long footnote at the back of the book has a hack at Rorty, for example).
Harris also covers some scientific theories and tries to demonstrate that they are preferable to the completely inaccurate and half-baked testimony found in religious texts. As he puts it: "the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man."
But this book is not hard to read. Although it is dense with discussion, it reads like a well-oiled polemic in the tradition of Bertrand Russell; a sort of pop-philosophy, designed with the layman in mind, and far more interested in conveying the seriousness and gravity of the situation than with intricate philosophical detail (although his footnotes sometimes manage it).
It is obvious that Harris is a very clever man.
However, there are some very deep problems with his book. Harris is, at root, a mild (perhaps medium) reductionist, seeking out ways in which to highlight religion's blame for various human travesties, sometimes to the point where he neglects at all to accept alternative ideas or even to consider them. Politically, his stance is that fundamentalism, being chiefly a product of the middle-eastern Islamic faith, is largely if not wholly responsible for the upheaval in that region. He rejects outright alternative theories, such as that western imperial campaigns have resulted in both increased fanatic militancy and a deterioration in economic (amongst other) conditions in the middle-east. Harris makes a point of attacking Noam Chomsky, the veteran American political gadfly, by trying to show flaws in his moral calculus. Specifically, Harris takes the example of a pharmaceutical plant struck by US bombers in Sudan in 1998. The official US administration position was that the plant was taken to be a chemical weapons factory. In fact, the blow killed innocent workers and depleated the supply of vital drugs in the region. Chomsky, who sees this as an example of the moral callousness of western tactics (see his little book "9/11"), equates such crimes with those whom are called "terrorists" over here. But Harris argues that the strike was justifiable, perhaps in part, as part of a campaign to eliminate Islamist madmen bent on destroying democracy. They were, of course, motivated solely by their fundamentalist religious precepts, and not, as other more balanced analysis suggests, also a factor of foreign aggression.
Harris is therefore a blend, politically speaking. He sounds hawkish and determined to strike the irrational fundamentalists by force, if necessary: "all reasonable men and women have a common enemy...Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself...the West must either win the argument or win the war." (p.131) On the other hand, he rages against the Christian right in the US, against the illegalisation of marijuana, abortion and euthanasia (in certain situations). He is not easily categorized in traditional left vs right terms.
Further problems with his book is his idea of truth, which he posits can only come by rationally comparing data about the world "out there" with hypotheses - he would like a scientific approach to everything, it would seem. This deep dependence on rationality makes one uneasy, however. Particularly so since Harris is almost willing to be militant about it (pacifism is another position he tries to argue against - although for some reason he criticizes only Gandhi, rather than pacifism as a whole). The unchecked acceptance of reason in all walks of life have deep problems (see Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" for a brilliant discussion of this). Harris, therefore, in my view, edges very close to a position he is arguing against: fundamentalism. He seems to me to be nearly a rationalistic fundamentalist, and his book doesn't explain some deeply important problems. Harris does discuss spirituality to some extent, and puts forward ideas about how it could be pursued, especially along the lines of meditation. But his limited approach to the topic did not satisfy me that he had considered all of the ramifications of rejecting irrationality without exception. For instance, his description of love is also stunted, expressed in terms of mutual benefits for people who share their lives - but what of the irrational, maddening, kind of love in the romantic, sensuous, heart-fluttering sense? That is not rational in the Harris sense, yet he omits to mention experiences as important as this very often.
In part the problem with this book is that it tries to do too much all at once. Harris should probably have published far more detailed analyses of the individual topics he discusses. As it is, his effort is not bad, and very hypnotic: but it suffers from trying to stretch across too many disciplines without enough detail. I think this is a function of the audience Harris is aiming at, but this book in the end may have the converse effect to Harris' intention; it may give people "a little knowledge", which as we know is a "dangerous thing".
In summary the book is ambitious, provocative, easy to read but intelligently written, enjoyable, spans a wide range of topics, doesn't have enough detail, makes an ultimately reductionist argument, contains a mixture of political opinions, reserves special levels of vitriol for Islam (which some may be offended by), and probably qualifies as a very important argument to consider. (Of its 336 pages, only 227 is the actual main text, the rest is footnotes). It is worth buying, but not necessarily buying into - be cautious about how Harris rejects certain ideas and how much evidence HE gives, and what in turn he fails to consider!
on 22 December 2007
It is a peculiar fact that the quickest way for an atheist to rile a person of faith is to take an interest in their holy book. Simply quoting a few passages from the Bible, for example the ones dealing with burning witches or selling daughters into slavery, will be enough to label you "militant" or "fundamentalist", and you will be accused of "reading out of context", something the believer, of course, never does. In this brilliant and important book, Sam Harris not only quotes chapter and verse to highlight some of the terrible things the Bible and the Koran actually say, he gets to the heart of what faith is (it's "what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse") and why it is dangerous and should no longer be held in high esteem ("while it has never been difficult to meet your maker, in fifty years it will simply be too easy to drag everyone else along to meet him with you").
It's an uphill task. Having a strong faith in one or other of the many gods on offer (apart from the ones, like the flying spaghetti monster, that "obviously" do not exist) is often seen as a good thing, even by those who are not themselves particularly religious. Religion is widely assumed to be the ultimate source of justice, decency, morality, discipline, and meaning in life. In the wake of a suicide bombing, however, "extremist" replaces "pious" as the adjective of choice by politicians and clerics, who assert that theirs is a religion of "peace" and "community" and in no way responsible for acts of violence or sectarianism. So reflexive is this response that it may well constitute a sincere belief. Harris has an important message for anyone who takes comfort in such platitudes. One of the central themes of his book "is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others." These same religious moderates, "by failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do... betray faith and reason equally."
Sooner or later in any debate involving the devout, they will demand that their unfounded religious beliefs are tolerated and respected, but what they really want is for these beliefs to be privileged and put beyond criticism. Any adverse comment is quickly labelled an "insult" and therefore to be neither tolerated nor respected. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie was a high-profile example of this widespread double standard, and it is a chilling fact that "the justice of killing apostates is a matter of mainstream acceptance, if not practice," among Muslims (better wait until Sharia law is in force before gathering the stones). "If a Muslim renounces Islam, even if a new convert reverts to his previous faith, the penalty is death." Respect? Tolerance? The clue to Islam's real attitude is in the meaning of the word: submission.
Any religious person requesting that their beliefs be tolerated is guilty of hypocrisy, since intolerance is "intrinsic to every creed": all other traditions "are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete." In what sense does a Muslim respect or tolerate the Christian belief in the resurrection? In what sense does a Christian respect or tolerate the Muslim belief that "Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse"? Respect and tolerance are secular, not religious, values.
On the science versus religion (or reason versus faith) debate, Harris is in no doubt which wins when it comes to advancing knowledge. While religion passes down ancient ignorance as though it contained primordial truths, science "represents our most committed effort to verify that our statements about the world are true". The attitude of an authoritarian church toward science is well-known, and Harris reminds us that "Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992". Less well-known is the incredible fact that "not a single leader of the Third Reich - not even Hitler himself - was ever excommunicated". "This inversion of priorities" - the Catholic church turning a blind eye to genocide while getting its theological knickers in a twist over sex - "falsifies our ethics".
It's easy to see how science has replaced religion in explaining why the world is the way it is (notwithstanding the depressing numbers of creationists who still roam the planet, foaming at the mouth). It takes a little more effort to see how "a rational approach to ethics" can replace the moralizing and sanctions-based stance of religion (such an approach "becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures"). Most intriguing of all, however, is the possibility that faith and religion are in fact obstacles to a spiritual life and to mysticism. To the surprise of some, perhaps, Harris admits that "there is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life."
The word "spirituality", however, has become debased in our culture. It's what "cretins have in place of imagination" as Charlie Brooker puts it, and Harris agrees that the term has "many connotations that are, frankly, embarrassing." But, after two hundred pages exposing the preposterous claims of religion and debunking faith, he's not about to jeopardize his atheist credentials. It must be possible, he argues, to reclaim spirituality from the confusions of faith, "to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world."
"Claiming to know things we manifestly do not know" is never justified. "Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence... he becomes capable of anything." Dostoyevsky and his poputchiks are wrong: when you stop believing in God, you are likely to become more, not less, discriminating in your beliefs.