The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
New York: W.W. Norton, 2004
336 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
Sam Harris’s book is a passionate manifesto for a religion of reason. Faith—here defined as unevidenced belief in propositions about the world here and hereafter—has brought us, in its salvific ardor, to the brink of annihilation. We must end the irrational cruelties of the monotheistic religions, among them terrorism, murderous sexist oppression, missionary genocide, and invasions of individual liberty. The transition could be accomplished in one generation, Harris says, if we insisted on testing religious propositions as we do any empirical claim. Harris would like to establish the new order on the pillars of neuroscience and meditation. While marshaling interesting historical and scientific material in the text itself and in voluminous endnotes, he writes with the vigor and self-assurance of a science fiction hero—Ayn Rand’s John Galt, for example—or of a fourteen-year-old.
Surprisingly, advocates of religious tolerance come in for harsh criticism, because they enable fundamentalists to continue the suicidal plunge. This is a novel position, convincingly argued. In the matter of Iraq, Harris winds up on the side of the militarists. By his lights, Islam is such a perfidious doctrine (Judaism and Christianity are close seconds) that reasonable Westerners are morally obliged to combat it. Further, it would be unempirical, of course, to disallow a priori the use of torture, which Harris considers to be morally equivalent to “collateral damage.”
A meditator himself, Harris expresses appreciation for the epistemological and methodological insights of Eastern meditative traditions; nevertheless, when it comes to the matter of their pacifism, Harris is silent—he has his own opinions and arguments about that, tired ones, it’s true, but not without force: pacifism, he reasons, is evil since it allows evil to persist. In a way, this is laudable; he is not influenced by the authority of, say, Buddha any more than he would have us be influenced by any other authority. Still, Harris’s consideration of pacifism is thin and strident. Half of the four pages he spends refuting pacifism are devoted to a personal anecdote of dubious conclusion. Despite his ardor and occasional insight, it is quite beyond this aggressively academic thinker to plumb the spiritual basis of the radical pacifism of a meditator like Buddha, or, taken on his own, pre-Paulist terms, of a Jesus.
Harris is at great pains to prove that doctrinal faith, rather than economic or social conditions, is a root cause of violence. But the opposing arguments he cites—of Islamists or Marxists, for example—are more convincing than his own. Why, after all, since each holy doctrine is unchanging, does murderous zealotry wax and wane through history? Whence the periods of cooperation and trust? This is a plain case of evidence—in effect, a controlled experiment—and the science does not favor Harris.
To say that this work is sophomoric is not to say that it is without merit. The sophomore, after all, is both sage and fool. In this precise sense, The End of Faith is a sophomoric book. That Harris brings the matter of meditative practice into the center of the political discourse on religion and the fate of the earth is heartening, but his tone is unhelpful. His arguments, though seldom novel, are harsh, categorical, and often derisive, characterizing the opposition by its leastconvincing argument. Having defined his ethics as a science of consciousness and happiness, he seems to feel that the heavy lifting is done and the rest is mere detail—an Idealist’s absurdity. This book smacks of the academy, a rarified world in which, too often, it is deemed more important to prevail than to understand. Harris makes no attempt to understand religion except in his own narrow terms—as sets of unevidenced propositions. Mark Twain made wonderful, humanly revealing comedy with this strategy; Jonathan Swift did too. Thinkers as diverse as Bertrand Russell and Gore Vidal made many of Harris’s arguments before Harris was born, but never without a sigh and a wink.
Harris’s rhetorical excesses, alas, are nowhere redeemed by a sense of humor, which is to say—deep humanity. The actual motivation behind dogmatic attitudes, the underlying mythologies and archetypes, are wholly outside Harris’s consideration, if not his understanding. This is a monumental case of the logical fallacy of Straw Man. In an online interview, Harris expressed some surprise at a Christian radio broadcaster who gave a detailed explication of Harris’s positions with no attempt at refutation. He needn’t be surprised. There is nothing genuinely challenging in Harris’s book, because it never engages the enemy, which is not unevidenced propositions, but the dark side of the human heart.
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