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Customer Review

on 20 November 2006
Harris makes many powerful arguments for the malignant influence of religion on daily life, politics and international relations. His plea for 'intolerance' towards religion - to remove its artificially protected status - is convincing. This is a much needed counterblast to religious extremists and the more insidious effects of religious moderates.

But it's a highly flawed book. Its emphasis on the evils of Islam comes across as unbalanced, particularly as Harris conflates Islam with middle-eastern Islam (with no acknowledgement that most Muslims are not to be found in the Middle East). Some of the arguments are weak - describing Nazism and Stalinism as effectively religious systems simply doesn't fly and badly undermines the genuine things he has to say about religion leading to evil acts. He seems to be desperate to blame everything malignant on religion and is reluctant to admit that people can do evil things, even create evil systems, without it.

He is also curiously easy on Judaism. While Islam is portrayed as the key menace to peace and civility, with fundamentalist Christianity running it a poor second, Judaism gets off very lightly. There are only passing mentions of Israel - once to praise its government and troops for restraint, once to blame its creation on fundamentalist Christians and a mention of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. This is all somewhat bizarre. If you want an example of a religiously inspired phenomenon that has caused huge and continued bloodshed and is a major danger to world peace, the existence of Israel would have to be high on the list. Harris' avoidance of this issue does somewhat suggest an unspoken agenda. Of course, support for Israel is a key element of neoconservatist policy. What's more, secular neocons will find much else to admire in this book, besides Harris' demonising of Islam: you could read it as an apologia for Gitmo, the war in Iraq and general US arrogance. All this creates a distinctly fishy smell about the whole enterprise and leaves one feeling that the book is less than entirely honest.

The book also completely loses the plot towards the end. There's a dreary chapter on ethics. Unlike previous chapters that very effectively examined the practical effects of religion on everyday life, this pseudo-philosophical section reads as little more than intellectual showing off, as Harris wallows in abstract concepts until finally disappearing up his own fundament.

And the final chapter is a boringly self-indulgent piece of proseletysing for Harris' hobby of meditation. His affection for Eastern-style spiritualism while attacking the world's three main organised religions feels like an attempt to have his cake and eat it. Again, it weakens the credibility of the whole work and will provide material for those who wish to attack the book for being little more than a right-wing, imperialist, anti-Muslim tirade.

It's a shame that a book that has so many important things to say should be marred by such self-indulgence and hubris. It's also extremely smug in places (particularly the last chapter) where Harris' style is put down most people in the west for not having the education, intelligence or imagination to see things his way.

But in spite of all of this, I still feel it was worth buying and there is much worhtwhile material to be picked out of it.
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