From the archives: Re-reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith

I linked to this post the other day. It inspired a good discussion thread when originally posted; here’s hoping it does so again. PS my comment about Seoul is really weird to re-read now that I live a half-hour’s drive from the city.

Sam Harris seems to catch a special kind of flak among atheists. Unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t just have people of the Chris Mooney variety complaining that he shouldn’t criticize religion, ever. And unlike Christopher Hitchens, it isn’t really about specific political positions Harris has taken, because Harris hasn’t actually said very much about specific political issues.

Rather, it’s… well, it’s stuff like this post by Taner Edis, which says

I think the popularity of Harris should be embarrassing for nonbelievers. This mainly because a common response to public criticism of religion is is that the critic has misunderstood religion in general, or is ignorant of the specific traditions criticized. In Harris’s case, the accusations are correct. And since Harris is in a position where he legitimately represents the attitudes of many nonbelievers in the US, it may well be fair to say that American nonbelief often proceeds from a misunderstanding of religion……I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask fellow academics not to dismiss what I call science-minded nonbelief out of hand, just because its most public representatives include very visible scholarly disasters such as Harris.)

So, let me revisit the case where Harris annoys me the most—when he portrays Islam as an essentially violent religion by quoting violent passages from the Quran.

First of all, even trying something like this betrays unfamiliarity with the scientific and scholarly literature on religion in general….

When I first started reading Edis’ criticisms of Harris regarding Islam, I was inclined to take them seriously. After all, Edis was born in Turkey, and has had a lot more first-hand experience with Islam than I have. But after hearing a lot of this and similarly-flavored criticism of Harris, it occurred to me that it might actually be worth reading the offending passages of The End of Faith. Now that I’ve re-read large chunks of the book, I’m convinced that this sort of criticism is mostly reading things into the text that aren’t there.

As far as I can tell, Harris’ big points in The End of Faith are first, that because it’s normal to base your actions on your beliefs, it’s really important for people’s beliefs to be grounded in reality, and second, that if you want to be a “moderate” Christian, Jew, or Muslim, you’re going to have to ignore significant chunks of what you’re holy book says. What Harris doesn’t do, though, is make the sort of claim Edis is criticizing him for, that any religion is “essentially” anything.

This is an important point. Edis makes a big deal about how the relationship between the text of the Quran and what actual Muslims believe is complicated. Harris never says otherwise. Harris isn’t saying that there are no moderate Muslims, but that moderate Muslims have to ignore some of what the Quran says, and can’t legitimately claim to represent “true” Islam. That actually requires relationship between text and beliefs to be at least a bit complicated. Furthermore, my impression is that Edis denies there is a “true” Islam. So it’s not clear that Edis and Harris disagree about anything.

When it comes to many of the things Harris has caught flak for from liberals–war, torture, and so on–I think the problem is that Harris provides an unusually frank discussion of questions where he fears we have no good options. As Harris himself notes, it’s quite likely that our brains just didn’t evolve to think well about many of these questions. So no surprise that Harris’ frankness would make some people uncomfortable, and mistake “all the options may be horrible” for “Yay! Let’s do something horrible!”

I do think, though, that Harris says one incredibly foolish thing in this area, when he says that “We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.” Counter-intuitive though this may be, we are actually living in a world that sometimes must tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.

For example, from what I can tell a lot of experts think war with North Korea would mean a lot of dead civilians in Seoul. To be charitable to Harris, maybe a war with North Korea wouldn’t be as bad as I think, or maybe there’s an interpretation of Harris’ statement that doesn’t require that war. But I’m skeptical that there’s a reading of Harris’ statement that wouldn’t require us to do something catastrophically foolish in some not-too-far-out situation.

Other than that, the biggest complaint I had on re-reading The End of Faith is that in a few places, Harris will carelessly use muddle-headed tropes that are easily turned back on him. In particular, there’s this quote:

Once a person believes–really believes–that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves my be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one.

Harris gets something importantly right here, that the belief that infidels are damned is very dangerous. But the way says it is just begging to have believers complaining about atheists being so certain and intolerant.

The right response to this sort of criticism is that it’s the content of the beliefs that matters, not the level of certainty with which they’re held. Better to be certain the Earth revolves around the Sun, than think that God probably wants you to kill infidels. And “tolerance,” sadly, has become a meaningless feel-good word that Harris would’ve been wise to avoid.

Consider this an open thread, especially for airing your likes/dislikes of The End of Faith.

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