Book Review: The End of Faith/Letter to a Christian Nation

The End of Faith

Summary: An incendiary polemic against unjustified belief. Many strong points, strongly made – but what on earth is that endorsement of psychic powers doing in there?

With the 2004 publication of his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris has probably become one of the best-known and most influential atheists in public discourse today. In this review, I will briefly summarize this book and then offer some remarks.

Chapter 1, “Reason in Exile,” talks about the pervasiveness of faith in our world and the way in which it has been considered above criticism, which Harris shows to be a suicidally irrational decision. A great number of terrible wars, atrocities and dictatorial societies have come about because of faith – not in spite of faith, but because of it – and our peril is now worse than it has ever been, as adherents to a medieval, death-welcoming theology do now possess or may soon possess planet-destroying weapons. There is plenty of blame to go around for this situation, and Harris distributes it fairly: not just the fundamentalists on all sides who consider obedience to dogma more important than life, but also the religious liberals and moderates who, while not participating in religious atrocities, nevertheless make them possible by insisting that people’s faith is a private choice that should not be criticized. (This is a novel and important argument for atheists to make, and I believe credit goes to Harris for first proposing it.) He argues to the contrary that faith must end if humanity is to survive.

The second chapter concerns what a belief is, how beliefs are formed, and how they should be justified. Harris’ background in neuroscience shows as he discusses the biological basis of belief, then defines faith and shows how it differs from mere belief in specifically being an unjustified belief about the world. He discusses why faith appeals to people, but also how it is dangerous and maladaptive in insulating incorrect beliefs from investigation and encouraging people to make decisions on a bad basis, such as the claims of a religious authority.

Chapter 3 concerns the Inquisition and the Holocaust, two of the most infamous eras of the Western world. Harris goes into gruesome detail regarding the torture techniques and other evils that were invented during these periods, and how both arose directly from religious belief. The Holocaust, for example, had its roots in centuries of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, including accusing Jews of ludicrous crimes such as “host-nailing”, supposedly stealing consecrated communion wafers and driving nails through them to crucify Jesus again, and the “blood libel” that Jews kidnapped Christian children and drained their blood for use in religious ceremonies. The latter accusation is still made regularly in the Muslim world.

Chapter 4, “The Problem with Islam”, could fairly be called the centerpiece of the book. Harris argues forcefully that Islam is an intrinsically violent and despotic religion, and that Muslims will become more radical and dangerous to the precise degree in which they believe in it and take its claims seriously. He asserts that the West is “at war with Islam”, whose scriptures plainly teach the desirability of martyrdom and the moral imperative for Islam to conquer the world. He cites a disturbing study that found that a majority or plurality of Muslims in numerous countries regard suicide terrorism that specifically targets civilians as justifiable, whereas America and other Western nations, though they have committed many outrages upon people in other countries, do not specifically intend to harm or kill the innocent and punish those who do, whereas most Muslim countries celebrate such an outcome.

Chapter 5, “West of Eden”, shows that the influence of Christianity in the modern world is not benign either. In particular, Harris points to the worldview of the Christian religious right which hopes fervently for Armageddon – in other words, the destruction of the world – and not just welcomes but actively encourages such an outcome. He discusses Christianity-inspired laws that criminalize and harshly punish harmless private behavior because that behavior produces pleasure of a sort that Christianity has always considered sinful to experience. Finally, he discusses stem-cell research and how irrational religious opposition to it is prolonging the suffering of millions.

Chapter 6 concerns the nature and basis of morality. Harris’ views are very much in line with my own. Contrary to the stereotype of atheist as moral relativist, he asserts as I do that there are objectively correct and objectively incorrect moral values, and that these can be discovered by investigation of the world and our relationship to each other. Some readers may dispute two of his more controversial points, the immorality of pacifism and the moral equivalence of torture and wartime collateral damage, but his arguments are serious and deserve serious consideration.

The final chapter discusses “experiments in consciousness”. This is the part of the book many atheist readers may find the strangest. There is no doubt that Harris is an atheist, but he is strongly influenced by thinking from Eastern traditions (as he says himself). He recommends meditation as a way to develop one’s consciousness and become awakened to the artificiality of the sense of self and the falsehood that there is a distinction between the perceiver and the object perceived. Although Harris does not make any supernatural claims for the efficacy of meditation, his endorsement of mysticism (he uses the word himself) left me wary, despite his insistence that what he means by this is a rational project of improving mindfulness through concentration.

Harris’ flirtations with mysticism will be one of the two most likely points of major contention in this book. The other is his often incendiary tone, especially when it comes to Islam. Harris takes no prisoners when it comes to the irrationality of faith. This is not necessarily a bad thing: there are many pithy phrases scattered through the book that made me laugh (I liked it when he calls religious beliefs “uncontaminated by evidence” and “a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance”). There are also some genuinely insightful passages, such as when he observed that religious moderation has sprung from better understanding of the world and not better understanding of the texts that inspired that belief, summing it up with the phrase: “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside.” He also makes the insightful point that an unfalsifiable belief is not actually a belief about the world at all, since it is unrelated to any real or hypothetical way the world might possibly be.

Regarding Islam, I do not think Harris is on a “lunatic right-wing anti-Islamic jihad”, as he has been accused of (source). His criticisms of Islam are harsh, but then again, the acts being committed around the world in the name of Islam are truly and unconscionably evil, and he is absolutely right to call attention to that and to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. He is similarly right to point out that many other oppressed and disenfranchised groups have not given rise to persistent terrorism, and that many Islamic terrorists (including the 9/11 hijackers) were actually comfortable and well-educated. Their actions indisputably came from their beliefs, not from their economic circumstances.

That said, I do think several of his arguments overplay the situation. For example, he presents the hypothetical case of a suicide bomber on a crowded bus and claims that it is “trivially easy” to guess that person’s religion – and then goes in (in an endnote) to admit that the Hindu Tamil Tigers have actually carried out more suicide bombings than any other group! Although he takes pains to address this fact, the truth remains that it seriously undercuts the entire point of his example, and he would have been better off modifying the argument or eliminating it entirely.

I also do not think that the conflict between Islam and the West is as absolute or as inexorable as Harris portrays it. Christianity, after all, has many of the same teachings about waging war on nonbelievers and the paradise promised to faithful martyrs, and yet whatever harms it does cause, it has not given rise to terrorism the way Islam has. The reason for this is that the Christian world passed through a period of Enlightenment that established memes of reason, democracy and human rights to counter excessive dogmatism. Clearly, what we need is to provoke a similar renaissance in the Muslim world. Granted, this may be a more difficult task considering the self-protecting memes that have seemingly gained a firm foothold among Islam, but I think for the most part it has not even been tried yet. We cannot gauge the possibility of such a project until we have made a sustained effort.

There is one other suggestion I must make, which is that this book could have stood some more editing. My copy has about 230 pages of text and about 130 pages of endnotes, containing not just citations, but long, discursive arguments on matters tangentially related to the main text. This digressive material is better in the endnotes than in the body, but it was still annoying to have to keep flipping back and forth, and I think it would have been even better to eliminate much of it entirely, as most of it does not substantially add to the strength of the argument.

I do have another, more serious objection. Although Harris’ mysticism strikes me as odd, he takes pains to state that by using this word he means the development of a calm and mindful state through practice, nothing supernatural. That is fine with me. However, I must register a complaint about this sentence from chapter 1:

“There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.”

The citation is to books by Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, two notorious pseudoscientists, and even approvingly cites some books that claim to prove the reality of reincarnation! This is a distressing foray into unreason in an otherwise good book. I still recommend The End of Faith, but I hope Harris will take his own advice on the primacy of reason and come to his senses in this matter, and I would advise readers to take him with just a pinch of salt in the meantime.

Letter to a Christian Nation

Summary: Now that’s how you do it. A compact, concise distillation of the atheist position that loses none of its rhetorical force or persuasive value.

Written as a reply to the flood of religious feedback he received after publishing The End of Faith, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation is a point-by-point response to his critics. As the title suggests, it is addressed primarily to American Christians (the book is written in the second person), and presents the reasons why Harris and many other atheists consider religious beliefs not just false but dangerous, and why atheism is a moral imperative in the face of the religious chaos and hatred that is dividing our world. Topics covered include the immorality of verses in the Bible, the harm caused by imposition of fundamentalist beliefs, the failure of religion to cause good social effects, and how religious moderates are unwittingly providing fertile ground for violence by promoting the idea that faith is a respectable method of decision-making that should not be criticized.

This is well-traveled ground, and Harris does not add anything that a knowledgeable atheist will not be aware of. However, there are millions of religious people to whom this material will be brand-new. And Harris’ presentation is just right: concise, eloquent, forceful, passionate, citing evidence where appropriate without cluttering the flow of the text, omitting extraneous detail without diminishing the force of his arguments in the slightest. His criticisms are strong but fair, and I think less inflammatory than they are in The End of Faith. The mysticism that sullied the former text is also not present here, and his argument is thoroughly grounded in reason and in real-world concerns.

One of the most notable aspects of Letter to a Christian Nation is its brevity. It is almost more of a pamphlet than a book. My copy is about ninety pages of large type in a small book, and could easily be read in an hour. This is not a criticism, however. On the contrary, I think it is an excellent idea, because this book is short enough that a religious person might realistically read the whole thing if it was given to them. Many of my reviews have praised the excellent argumentation put forth by atheist authors while lamenting that the religious people who most need to hear it will probably never read it, but with this book I think there is a plausible chance that that will actually happen. I have said that there are very few books I would wholeheartedly recommend as a believer’s introduction to atheism, but this book is one of the rare few that I think is suitable for that important purpose, and that should be viewed as high praise indeed.

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