Reading Sam Harris’s The End of Faith

Having been reading Sam Harris’s The End of Faith I had the curious experience of entirely agreeing with a book’s conclusion, and applauding its tone, while entirely disagreeing with many of the arguments.

He doesn’t pull any punches:

Jesus Christ – who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens – can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad. The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in any way that all others must, civilization is still beseiged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible? (p. 73)

The book makes the very powerful point that while religion has not moved on, at least in Islam and the Catholic Church, since the 14th century (you might say Protestantism benefits from another century or so of relatively limited improvements in knowledge), our knowledge and understanding in every other field has moved on enormously, exponentially. If we met a 14th-century person, we would find they were both astonishingly ignorant and astonishingly wrongheaded. Yet because of the way we’ve constructed religion, it can’t move on.

So far so good. But it is when he gets into modern specifics that I divurge from Harris. Specifically, he claims that there is something fundamental about Islam that makes it even more dangerous than Christianity. On that, I don’t agree. The forms of Islam now dominant, or at least strong, are dangerously comprehensive and all-enveloping in claiming authority over all aspects of society, from women’s clothes to jokes in cartoons, but that’s just one form of Islam, and there have been and are forms of Christianity that are just as bad. It is a mixture of historical accident and functionalism that determines which form of a religion is likely to be dominant in any society at a particular time.

More, he blames pretty well all of the wars, all of the suicide attacks in the world on religion, claiming for example that the Tamil Tigers, while not explicitly religious in their orientation, are powered by their beliefs to these self-destructive actions. But I fear that even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and get rid of all religious beliefs, while the world would be greatly improved in many ways, this would not solve Sri Lanka’s civil war, or indeed the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, or indeed between Protestant and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Religion is part of these, but there are also very strong tribal/community elements in these conflicts, and the simple contest to control scarce, valuable resources. And there is something about human nature that in societies under extreme pressure, suicide bombers could still emerge, even without religion.

Harris writes from very much an American perspective, and therefore I’ll partially excuse him on my final main disagreement – over his pessimism. He sees religion growing stronger, its tentacles more widespread. That’s very much a US perspective. Here in Europe, the view is much more optimistic – take the recent figures on UK church attendance. For native Britons at least, the figure is sliding satisfying close to insignificant. Britain is, to nearly all practical purposes, a secular society, and a lot of the rest of Europe isn’t far behind.

So religion can be banished, and although I don’t agree with a lot of what Harris says, every book like this, which tackles it head-on, is to be applauded.

6 Comments

  • September 20, 2006 - 10:52 am | Permalink

    Really interesting critique. You’re right – religion is much more prevalent in US society. The big question is – will the European trend towards secularism spread to the US – or will the opposite happen?

  • September 20, 2006 - 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I think all of the evidence is that European secularism is growing – particularly in places where the church has been very powerful – Ireland, Spain, even Italy.

  • September 21, 2006 - 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the review. I’ll try to read the book.

    I am an optimist when it comes to these matters. I see the apparent power of religion in the U.S. more as a manifestation of its “death struggle”.

  • david ware
    September 22, 2006 - 4:53 am | Permalink

    I, too, will put Harris’s book on my short list, but I am not really an “optimist” in the sense that you or Aydin are. I do not see signs of a death struggle on the part of authoritarian Christianity here in the states, save in the urban and relatively-urbane population centers where secular education, pluralism and sheer cultural diversity keep religious themes and issues from dominating public discourse. No, the Church Resistential in its many if somewhat deceptive flavors seems to be doing very well, thank you. In the semi-hinterlands (neither cores nor quite peripheries) of suburban America there has been in recent years a real advance of devotionalism in the home and in semi-public places, now informed by a defiant righteousness that was largely absent fifty years ago when few thought or dared to suggest that the odd Jew, Muslim or atheistic parlor pink might object to the rewritten Pledge of Allegiance or saying the Paternoster in a public classroom. I’m out in the thick of it as a civil servant with a good bit of contact with the public; I may be simply being worn down but I no longer involuntarily twitch when a constituent with whom I’ve been dealing over the phone rings off with “have a blessed day!”–have learned to take it as a friendly valediction from someone who assumes that I would wish him the same, were I not working for the government. And in the end I am grateful for it, since good wishes from the public are not the usual lot of civil servants here or, I suspect, there.

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  • April 10, 2013 - 4:01 am | Permalink

    Presence is more than just being there. -Malcolm S. Forbes

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