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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Freeyourmind

    I’ve read Letter to a Christian Nation twice since I received it last week from Amazon and you’re review is spot on. Concise yet strong; it’s a fantastic little book.

    I have The End of Faith awaiting me now but I’m currently reading the The God Delusion first (which is excellent so far).

  • http://patwhalenaustin.rr.com Boelf

    I think it is important to emphasise that faith is the real problem here. Religion is just one of the symptoms. There are other “symptoms”.

    Hitler believed in the mastery of the Aryan race. Pol Pot believed in “an isolated and totally self-sufficient Maoist agrarian state”. Both notions can not stand up to the slightest scholarship but millions died because the beliefs of Hitler and Pol Pot were above reason, faith in other words.

  • Alex Weaver

    Yeah, but the beliefs of Hitler and Pol Pot are not regarded as being above criticism in the world in general and Western society in particular, and are in fact almost universally perceived as the monstrosity they are. Religious faith, on the other hand, is perceived as being in most cases not merely benign but beneficial, and in any case, above criticism.

  • Alex Weaver

    Let me clarify: the beliefs of Hitler and Pol Pot were indeed treated by the holders as above criticism, an attitude their subjects were forced to indulge by the formation of brutal police states, but were reviled by the world at large and (in the case of Hitler, at least) are presently reviled by the inhabitants of the nations they once dominated. Religious faith, on the other hand, is protected from criticism not by guns and secret police (in Western society, anyway) but by convention, taboo, and custom, and its defenders include not only the wingnuts who want to see their beliefs enshrined in law and forced on the rest of the population and the crybabies who perceive any voiced dissent from or critique of their positions as a personal attack but also the real-life “bliss ninnies” whose vacuous platitudes implicitly equate criticism of anyone’s opinion with a denial of that person’s right to hold it, the misguided atheists and agnostics referenced in other posts who believe that atheist should avoid offending people at various maximum costs the plethora of ostensibly secular public figures who habitually call for more faith and prayer as a panacea for social ills, and the millions of people who happily participate in rituals and ceremonies that implicitly or explicitly exclude and denigrate non-believers (“pledge of allegiance,” anyone?).

  • Archi Medez

    Ebonmuse writes [citing Harris]: “(in an endnote) to admit that the Hindu Tamil Tigers have actually carried out more suicide bombings than any other group!”

    I guess that depends on the time period and how we are defining “group.” For modern times (say, last 50 years), I am not sure of the figures, but I believe that Tamil Tiger data is (mostly if not entirely) pre-Sept.11 2001, and certainly pre-Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

  • TK

    Finally, he discusses stem-cell research and how irrational religious opposition to it is prolonging the suffering of millions.

    It’s my understanding that embryonic stem-cell research is completely legal; that while elements of the government do not endorse public funding of it, neither is private capital rushing to support it as is usually the case with any promising discovery; and that the suffering of many (if not millions) is currently being alleviated through some 70-odd lines of adult stem-cell therapy. Anyone to shed further light here?

  • http://danielmorgan.blogspot.com/ Daniel Morgan

    Ebon,

    I’m glad someone agrees with me that people like Harris and Dawkins deserve at least some criticism. I don’t like the way the freethought community drops its skeptical bent and critical appraisal of arguments when they review the writing of some of the modern-day “heroes” in the culture wars. Sycophantic praise for these guys (and Dennett too, but it is much harder to point out flaws with his writing, as he is much more cautious and credible generally) is the antithesis of the values we freethinkers stand for. Plus, Dawkins and Harris can be superficial in their approach to religion, ignoring serious rebuttals and hand-waving when they could get serious and deep.

    TK,

    You’re right that it’s legal in the US (so far), but many states are actually seeking some sorts of restrictions, plus the restrictions passed by Congress on things like cloning and “fetal farming”.

    But, the point is valid that religious opposition is the reason that federal funding is completely absent from the research program. And, inarguably, the otherwise-present, crucial millions of dollars that are being witheld would speed up the discoveries and cures that are, instead, impeded by ancient dogmas.

  • Alex Weaver

    Not to mention that the promise and utility of adult stem cells seems to be greatly exaggerated by opponents of embryonic stem cell research, and there are apparently serious doubts as to their efficacy and the broadness of their applicability. I don’t, unfortunately, have time to dig up references…

  • TK

    Alex, far be it from me to debate the author of one of the most cogent pieces I’ve
    ever seen (“11 Questions”) — I just thought that adult stem cell therapies were not in the “doubt” or “efficacy” or “exaggerated” stage, but in fact are currently being applied as real treatments for real conditions, whereas embryonics is still in its infancy. I am NOT an opponent of embryonics for the same reason I’m not opposed to heart transplants…just wondering about the facts. (21st Century Science & Technology Magazine, Winter 2001-02)

  • Alex Weaver

    Ah. Let me clarify: I believe you’re correct that adult stem cells have been shown to be effective for treating some conditions, but my reading has led me to believe there is fairly serious doubt among researchers as to whether they will be effective for the full range of conditions potentially treatable by emryonic stem cells, and there is reason to believe that they are not as flexible as emyronic stem cells.

  • Alex Weaver

    Hit enter too soon. By exaggerated, I mean that some opponents of embryonic stem cell research have been making the claim that adult stem cells can in fact do everything embryonic stem cells can, and that therefore embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary as well as (allegedly) immoral.

    Oh. And thanks. ^.^

  • http://nes-ramblings.blogspot.com/ Nes

    As I understand it, the claims that ASC have treated 70-odd diseases are… exaggerated. Assuming that those guys are right about it, anyway.

    Even if ESC won’t treat anything, I think they’re worth investigating anyway… you never know what you’ll learn. Many things were invented or discovered pseudo-serendipitously.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    My problem with the last chapter of End of Faith was that (a) he never convinced me that the annihilation of the “I” was possible without psychosis – not for any appreciable length of time at any rate – and (b) if it is, he never explained exactly why he thinks it is desirable. He talked as though he had, and as though I were following him along the path he was taking, but he hadn’t. And I wasn’t.

  • http://vishnuvyas.wordpress.com Vishnu Vyas

    Err.. Hindu Tamil Tigers? With a catholic spokesman, a marxist leadear and a mixed hindu/christian millita, its most famous refugee an evangelical? Its an armed response to ethinic cleansing, not a religious conflict at all.

    Though not all of their methods can be really apporoved of, their problems are much more complicated (primarily political, linguistic and partly ethinic), But its anything but religion.

  • lpetrich

    The Tamil Tigers are essentially secular; I recall from somewhere that their construction on suicide bombing is that it represents the ultimate test of devotion to the cause — whether one is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.

    And I wonder if some of them consider a suicide-bomber death to be more dignified than dying of defeat in battle. It must be said that the Tamil Tigers are under siege by the Sri Lankan Army; they may have a desperado component in them.

    The Japanese “kamikaze” airplane-as-cruise-missile attackers were much the same way. That strategy was reluctantly accepted out of a lack of better alternatives, and it was very controversial in the Japanese military. It was more popular in the Navy than in the Army, because while the Army was holding on to its part of China, the Navy was losing very badly in the War of the Pacific — consistent with it being a desperado strategy.

    There was even an American who was posthumously celebrated for doing that: Captain Richard Fleming. After the Battle of Midway, he and some fellow bomber pilots chased some Japanese ships to bomb them. But his plane got attacked and he decided to make the best of what little life he likely had left. So he flew his plane into one of the Japanese ships, and leaking gasoline from it caused a humongous fire that disabled the ship.

    By comparison, Islamists seem almost swinishly hedonistic, looking forward to having harems of lovely ladies in the next world.

  • O. Wolcott

    Daniel Morgan, I was wondering in what instances “Dawkins and Harris can be superficial in their approach to religion, ignoring serious rebuttals and hand-waving when they could get serious and deep”? I ask because having read both of Harris’ books as well as several of Dawkins including ‘The God Delusion’, I do not think they are superficial in their approach. In fact, the rigor with which they both dismantle religious arguments – the need/benefits of religion, faith and belief in God – are all too serious and evidentially justified. Both Harris and Dawkins’ wry wit emerge from the pages of their books no doubt (Dawkins’ books can be dripping in it); though that is not to say that their reproval stands devoid of evidence. Those “superficial” comments or undertakings are intended for non-believers who share the same sense of shock and bewilderment at the absurdity of religion and its pernicious effects in the world today. Certainly religious believers, having been one myself, will not be swayed by humorous anecdotes; both Harris and Dawkins know that and as I said that is not why they’re interspersed throughout their books.

    Neither Harris or Dawkins are immune to criticism, as ebonmuse properly pointed out. To the best of my knowledge however, there is not a single serious agrument put forth by religous adherents (particularly and specifically the Abrahamic traditions) that has not been addressed with due diligence by Harris and or Dawkins. All that being said I would be more than happy to amend my statements if guided to specific instances or areas of religious scholarship either of them dismiss prior to investigation. At the very least I might then have an excuse to re-read their laudable works.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Comment by TK:

    It’s my understanding that embryonic stem-cell research is completely legal; that while elements of the government do not endorse public funding of it, neither is private capital rushing to support it as is usually the case with any promising discovery; and that the suffering of many (if not millions) is currently being alleviated through some 70-odd lines of adult stem-cell therapy. Anyone to shed further light here?

    Embryonic stem-cell research is not banned by the federal government, but there are some U.S. states in which it is indeed outlawed (see this USA Today article). And the federal ban on funding, if not on research, of ESCs is still incredibly restrictive, to the point where researchers cannot even study the subject in buildings built with federal assistance (source). Also, the vaunted 70 lines are turning out to be a bust for research, because they were grown on layers of “feeder cells” from mouse and fetal calf serum. It turns out that the stem cells have picked up a non-human molecule from those feeder cells which they now express on their own surfaces, which would provoke a dangerous immune reaction if these cells were ever transplanted into humnan beings (source).

    Regarding the Tamil Tigers, I don’t know much about that group. Harris characterizes them as a predominantly Hindu organization and I took his word for that; if that statement is incorrect, I’ll certainly withdraw it. In any case, the point is still valid that fundamentalist Muslims are not the only or even the most frequent users of suicide terrorism, though they are certainly the most spectacularly evil in their use of it.

    Also, addressing Daniel Morgan’s comment:

    I don’t like the way the freethought community drops its skeptical bent and critical appraisal of arguments when they review the writing of some of the modern-day “heroes” in the culture wars.

    What distressed me the most was that, despite Harris’ foray into bizarre mysticism, he says so much that I agree with wholeheartedly. That makes it very difficult to dismiss him, and I hope I made the line sufficiently clear between applauding much of what he says while expressing reservations on some parts. I wouldn’t say, however, that either he or Dawkins has a superficial approach to religious criticism. At worst, they could be accused of playing to the crowd, but there’s no sin in that when we’re trying to win people over to our side. As many have pointed out, it is not the airy, sophisticated, far-distant from reality beliefs of the theologians that Dawkins and Harris are attacking. They are attacking the average, largely literal religious views held by the “man on the street”, for the simple reason that the latter view is far more common and poses a far greater danger.

  • O. Wolcott

    Well put Ebonmuse.


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