The End of Faith – a book review

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.


At the library in the suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, where I live, there are at least four copies of this title.  All are constantly on loan.  Finally, several weeks after putting on a hold, I was able to check-out a copy. 

I wanted to read it after discovering its premise while browsing in a book store – our reluctance to discuss the perniciousness of religious faith can no longer be supported.

That this should sound so… shocking indicates one of the author’s primary points.  “On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse.”

Harris graduated in philosophy from Stanford University and is completing his doctorate in neuroscience.  This book won the 2005 PEN Award for Non-Fiction.  Philosophically, he is a rationalist, but not a materialist or reductionist.  He acknowledges the importance of the spiritual.

My own bias, before I outline the book’s arguments, is that of an agnostic Buddhist-Taoist Transcendentalist pagan.  I was brought up, for awhile, in one of the more obscure Christian sects.  Friends and people I respect have taken refuge in religious faiths of one sort or another.

Harris outlines two major reasons why religious faith is sheltered from criticism.

1) Most people believe that people get good things from religious belief, and

2) Many believe that terrible things done in the name of religion are the products not of faith but of greed, hatred, and fear for which religious belief is the best remedy.

His thesis is that the sheer irrationality of religious belief outweighs the imagined good; the good is there without requiring that Jesus was born of a virgin or that the Koran is the word of God.

He says these unsubstantiated beliefs about the world and technology do not mix well.  Somebody with a nuclear bomb or a novel strain of a virulent disease who lives with categories like the blessed and the damned or believers and non-believers is truly dangerous.

The unfortunate truth for religious moderates is that they are always in a weak position within their faith to oppose more fundamentalist forces, whether in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or other religions.  The fundamentalists are fierce in their faith, and their holy texts support them.

The central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are repositories of error, Harris says.  Once a person really believes that certain ideas lead to eternal happiness or to its opposite, “he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers.”

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance or indifference, Harris contends. The religious texts themselves are unequivocal and unquestionable within the framework of faith.

“Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word ‘God’ as though we knew what we were talking about.”

He goes on: “Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question – i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us, religious moderation has nothing to offer.”

Harris cites many recent conflicts with religious differences at or near the core: Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists).  This is only to mention a few, unfortunately.

“Give people divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after death, and then oblige them to live together with limited resources. …There is something that most Americans share with Osama bin Laden, the nineteen hijackers and much of the Muslim world.  We, too, cherish the idea that certain fantastic propositions can be believed without evidence.”

He notes that the dimension in which Muslim extremists are extreme is in their faith.  Faith is the mother of hatred here, as it is wherever people define their moral identities in religious terms.  The only important difference between Muslims and non-Muslims is that the latter have not proclaimed their faith in Allah, and in Mohammed as his prophet.

The Koran obliges its most devoted believers to make war on unbelievers, and Islam does not distinguish between religious and civil authority.

Harris adds that Islam is not alone here: Many people believe that magic words like Jesus, Allah, Ram make the difference between eternal torment and eternal bliss.  Many of us occasionally find it necessary to murder other human beings for using the wrong magic words, or the right ones for the wrong reasons.

“The belief that certain books were written by God (who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself) leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict, past and present.”

He suggests a couple of thought experiments.  Imagine a world in which generations of human beings came to believe that certain films were made by God.  Or that specific software was coded by him.

Another is to see how much Christian derived culture partakes of this kind of irrationality: substitute your favorite Olympian for “God” whenever the word appears in public discourse.  For instance, when US President George Bush addresses the National Prayer Breakfast, he might as well say: “Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus.”

Harris is strong about how imperative it is to speak plainly about the absurdity of our religious beliefs.

However, to strengthen his argument about religious faith, he finds it necessary to downplay other factors in such arenas as the Muslim conflict with the West.  There are obvious economic, social, and politicial reasons which come into play.  Harris is distressingly naive about the role of U.S. hegemony and economic imperialism in provoking many peoples of the world, not just Muslims.

But it cannot be denied that because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous.

“Tell a devout Christian that … frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else. … 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 every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”

I have to agree: “The world is ablaze with bad ideas. … Nothing is more sacred than the facts.”

And finally: “The test for reasonableness is obvious: anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence.”


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7 Comments on “The End of Faith – a book review”

  1. smokey Says:

    Your review is outstanding. I hope a lot of people read it. Have you also seen Harris’ presentation that was capured on TV by CSPAN2 TV Books at a New York Ethics forum? It’s great to see him speak–very articulate and compelling and tolerant, though clearly passionate about the danger of fundamentalist Islam in a WMD world. As you note, his new point about the complaceny of the religious moderates is what is important, as well. (A video copy of the Harris CSPAN talk is easy to get for about $29 from their web site. If you have trouble finding it, let me know.) In talking to people about the Koran and the call to kill infidels, I always get this response that, no it really doesn’t say that or if it does, it was written and added later, and furthermore that isn’t really true and current Islam. I think that needs a good discussion and clarification. Though, the main point as Harris says is simply that moderates need to confront themselves and fundamentalists on the danger of fundamentalism.

    There are a couple other TV or DVD sources that have appeared recently that are good compliments to Harris. One is the Living the Questions series that can be accessed by that name on the web. It is Christian -focused with mostly modern scholars, like Jack Spong and Marcus Borg who are trying to get the Christian church to shape up (Change or Die, as Spong’s book says). The series is closely aligned with The Center For Progressive Christianity. Both of these efforts are clearly trying to do what Harris exhorts– get the reiligious moderates to be concerned about fundamentalist religion. It’s an encouraging sign.

    Another, which you have probably noticed, is Bill Moyers’ new series on PBS, which has already had two sessions (weekly). The first two had 1)Salmon Rushdie (atheist) and 2) Mary Gordon (Catholic, her book, Pearl), and Colin McGinn (atheist). The ideas and voices of these three are stunning in their tolerance, insight, and wisdom. They all bend over backward almost excusing their own beliefs as well as acknowleging beliefs of others. But they are also passionate in their calls for communciation, understanding, as well as tolerance, etc. This series is also available as DVD on the web.

    I am going to start study groups of people to watch and discuss Moyers’ series. I already have church groups looking at Living the Questions.

    Thank you for your review and providing an opportunity for comment and dialogue. I think I share your belief characteristics–agnostic, Buddhist, etc.
    I’m a poet and retired physicist in No. California. (smokey is a name I use replying to various other wordpress blog’s like Bloglily, who has an inspiring and scintillating site and speaks profoundly, I think, to the cause of human togetherness through her everyday observations; and to Slice, whose haiku crack me up. )I’m not blogging yet but if I do, and I am tempted greatly, it will include a section on How to Stop War Forever, for which I have written a draft format and five ideas for study groups to engage. And a poem now and then.
    George S.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi George (smokey),

    Thanks a lot for your thoughtful response.

    I haven’t had a chance to see Harris in any other forum. That would be interesting.

    It is difficult for faith-based people to see the necessary structural consequences of their belief system… especially when it had been good for them in some ways, including how it gives the world meaning and ties their community together.

    I will look at that Living the Questions site that you mention. Interested to know what goes on there, although for myself I have left the Christian point of view behind.

    I recall in Harris’s book he had some criticism of Moyers who I’ve always enjoyed and found to be fair minded on many subjects. I will look for that series as well.

    Yes, Bloglily and Slice… the two reasons this blog-writing experience has become so enjoyable.

    Hope you start blogging soon… it sounds like you have a lot of valuable things to say and to write about. And poems too! More poetry is good.

    Mike (fencer)

  3. qazse Says:

    I was raised in the Catholic tradition and was educated by religious professionals such as Marist Brothers and Jesuits. I was required to study theology and philosophy. I have encountered many warm and humble people along the way. I have also encountered many free thinkers who challenged us to question our faith. I also suffered many a mind-bully threatening people with eternal damnation and excommunication. I also tolerated many a parrot warning me to believe what they were told to believe.

    Some of the thinkers who have impressed me are: Rollo May, Albert Camus, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thich Nhat Hanh, Kahlil Gibran, Abraham H. Maslow, and Robert E. Ornstein, among others.

    I have chosen to believe in a metaphysical reality – based on myriad unexplainable phenomenon and my own intuition. Beyond this general notion I know little if anything.

    But what I do think I know is: treating others with respect , tolerance, and as one of our own -unconditionally – is the way to peace. And peace, to me, is the only rational goal; whether you believe in a God or not.

    I speak specifics to the tradition I know best (RC) and I think others ( who have little practical knowledge of other religions) should do likewise or involve themselves in a dialogue (vs critique). I believe the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control to be absurd and criminal. The suffering in this world is, in large part, due to over population. However, I agree with their position on abortion but disagree with their interfering with a woman’s right to obtain one. I have an opinion but have no right to force it on you unless it personally, directly, an imminently harms me. I admire that they are consistent in their stand against the death penalty.

    Further, I object to their obsession with the abortion issue in this country while the world (not Rome) is burning. If you are the Pope, take off the robes and gold, get your ass to Jerusalem and don’t leave until their is peace. Oh, I forgot, ours is the one true religion and divisiveness serves our purpose.

    As far as the whole jihad thing: first, I believe extremism begets extremism. Secondly, who knows what Mohammed actually wrote. All religious books have been handed down through the centuries by the literate minority who stood to gain by manipulating the manuscripts. I could go on but I must get going.

    Thanks fencer for anther sterling and provocative post. I appreciate your time and effort.

    PS I think it is curious that Jesus of Nazareth did not write anything himself, or so we are told. Why not? Could it be that by the “Word” becoming life (“flesh”) what you do is more important than what you believe?

    PPS Did anyone of you ever see the movie The Black Robe (1991). It is a stunning film about religion? I recommend it highly.

  4. qazse Says:

    Sorry about the misplace question mark on the last line?

  5. fencer Says:

    Thank you, qazse, for your comments and explaining your own background… In many ways I admire your education as a Catholic for it sounds like it had a lot of intellectual depth or at least led you to that.

    The question of human overpopulation to me is the elephant in the room that everyone ignores. What is sustainable for a region? What is the carrying capacity of the land? Most of the environmentally sensitive talk of sustainability rarely recognizes that human population cannot increase indefinitely. And mix in religious dogmas of one sort or another? Oy vey!

    I have seen the movie The Black Robe in the video store and passed over it, but now I will take a look. Thanks for that recommendation.

    On the question mark… it is annoying isn’t it that you can’t edit a comment (or at least I think you can’t.)

  6. qazse Says:

    It occurs to me that if corporate (vs socially responsible regionally focused free enterprise) success is predicated upon sizeable growth year after year quarter after quarter, does it follow that population growth ultimately serves corporate interest?

  7. fencer Says:

    I think it’s true that the two are linked: constant economic expansion, and increasing population. And linked in the minds of those who run and influence the economy as well. Any business wants more customers.

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