The End of Faith –a review

In The End of Faith, zealous anti-religionist Sam Harris takes on the world religions (especially Christianity and Islam) with six guns a blazing. The book is characterized by a consistent “I am right and you are not” charm. Here’s the organization of my comments:

Opening thoughts: What’s Harris’ end game?
The Political Model
The Social Model
The Religious Model
Other Ideas
Closing thought

Let’s begin with the rub. In The End of Faith, Harris deals with the very real, very big, and very urgent issue of religious violence in the world today. He wrote the book in the wake of 9-11. The urgency of his topic is magnified by the growing accessibility of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, we live in a world in which we either rid ourselves of the false belief systems that drive the world religions or become victim to a disastrous attack that ends civilization as we know it (227).

The real problem in the world today is not the fundamentalist who radicalizes the religious message. The problem for Harris is you. You endorse a scripture that legitimizes violence in the world. You are the one who glosses over the dark portions of scripture. Wake up. Admit these texts are false and evil. Humanity must shift from ignorant trust in dangerous texts to reason, evidence, and science.

I read the book with a view to understanding his end game. His epistemological arguments or his religious presuppositions were of less interest to me than his political model. What would Harris suggest we do about the threat of terror in our world? Since his basic program of ridding the world of religion is so wildly impractical as to be useless, I wondered what his “real world” suggestions would be for the here and now. Here are the bottom lines of Harris’ model of the world.

Harris comes across as a hawk. He writes:

There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad… We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas” (53, and see also 151).

I find this remarkably clear thinking for an academic elite. In this surprising twist, Harris stands shoulder to shoulder with many conservatives on how to deal with terrorism. Harris himself explains how secularists/rationalists do not and cannot understand the way the world is because of their disconnection to the world of religious faith. He is not a fan of religion, of course. He despises it. He sees in religion the root of the world’s violence. But he understands that he and the elites of his tribe are clueless about one of the most fundamental realities of humanity and history. His own awakening to reality happened in the wake of 9-11.

Religious faith cannot be rightly and strongly enough critiqued in modern western culture. Thus religionists throughout the world (even in America) live in a world of unchallenged superstition and unsubstantiated dogma that threatens to end civilization as we know it.

Harris insists this must change. He longs for an ethos in which the faithful would feel shame if unable to adequately answer the questions of their secular inquisitors. The urgency of the matter makes this necessary. The growing accessibility to technology (biological and nuclear weapons) makes a catastrophic attack against the US imminent. Thus, for Harris (and for me) the threat is big, real and urgent. It is imperative that we oppose the irrationality of the religious and unseat them from places of influence in people’s lives.

Harris’ solution? Get religion up against the ropes and batter it’s scientifically unsubstantiated claims to smithereens. Second, find approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that make no appeal to faith. Third, broadcast this knowledge to everyone.

Harris challenges Christians who gloss over the horrific texts in the Bible and pretend that the Bible’s truth is self evident. The Old Testament tells us that God commanded genocide including the killing of women and children, gave instructions on how to buy and sell slaves, and prescribed the death penalty for adultery, blasphemy, etc. In these ways, the God of the Bible is indistinguishable from the God of the Jihadists.

Harris is right. This should bother us. But most people who adhere to Judaism or Christianity explain these away, or ignore them, while at the same time condemning these kinds of texts in the Qu’ran and the corresponding actions by Islamic fundamentalists. Those of us who treasure the scriptures should be fair in our judgments. Their scripture is not innocent. Neither is ours.

Harris believes, in light of what we are learning through the science, that the days of religion are numbered. In the meantime, Harris reminds us that evil can wear the robes of holy men, and religion has become an oppressive and dominating system that legitimizes beliefs that dehumanize the world. He demands an exposé of the foundations for religious beliefs and their founding documents. I fully and without equivocation agree with Harris here and hope this kind of critique motivates us to take the scriptures at least as seriously as he does.

OTHER IDEAS: Religious Violence and Human Violence; Reason and Revelation
I agree with Harris that nothing is a greater danger in the near term than Islam with biological or nuclear weapons. But Harris seems to have awakened to this reality only in the wake of 9-11. Millions of people understood the nature of the world well before 9-11 both through experience and through a careful reading of the same scriptures Harris profoundly dislikes. Harris seems to gloss over the fact that the world as described by scripture is closer to the real world than the world as understood by he and his tribe of academic elites through their rationalism. If we all had been ignorant of the scripture’s take on the world in which we live, as Harris and his tribe seem to have been, I suppose we would all have been as “deer in the headlights” too.

At the end of the book, I asked myself, “Ok, so what?” The fact that “religious” violence would diminish if the religions disappeared is as true as it is useless. Of course “religious” violence would disappear if “religions” went away. Human violence, however, would remain. Harris anticipates this retort and includes even secular violence (Stalin, Mao) under the banner of religious violence (79), but, regardless of Harris’ tactics, human evil is like email in the google mail program. You might delete the “religious evil” folder but the email messages that were in that folder don’t go away. They will still be in your inbox. Waiting. Waiting to be organized again into a folder by any other name.

Since for Harris “ignorance” is almost a synonym for “religious faith”, it is hard to find anything to object to in his argument. We’re all against ignorance. Muslims want to convert the ignorant. Harris wants to shame the ignorant. Christians want to educate the ignorant. Jesus wants to transform the ignorant. The difference would be that Harris would argue that ignorance of “facts” is the problem and many would argue that ignorance of God and the scriptures is the problem.

Still, violence and the evil that motivates it do not reside in the ignorant only. Is anyone gullible enough to believe that rationalists, secularists, and scientists are the new saints? They would not act on their inhumane impulses, would they? They are immune to the tribalism –is there no tribe of rationalists, secularists or scientists to exert pressure on its members?– of the religious, aren’t they? Moreover, can the tribe of rationalists really “get” the world we live in without the insight into the reality of evil that the scriptures give. Perhaps. The daily news confirms the nature of humanity as described by the scriptures. Reality, it seems, can also be a teacher.

The idea that violence is rooted in ignorance or “religious faith” is contrary to what we know about the world. Violence is birthed early in the human experience. School yard bullies push the weak around even though they may share ethnic, economic, cultural, and religious realities with their victims. And the bully does so not based on religious ignorance. He does so because he is a bully. And he is a bully even if in the future he will be a rationalist or a religionist. Jealousy emerges without regard to religious beliefs but because of passion and desire. (Yes, even among elite intellectuals. Surprise.) Hatred strikes within the tribe of the scientist as well as within the tribe of the religionists. I’m sure we could all (including Harris) come up with plenty of examples. Religious beliefs of any sort are not necessary for violence to appear. On a macro scale, in the absence of religion, the evil who rise to power would simply perform their evil deeds in the name of whatever else was available. [Maybe even in the name of science and reason.]

Harris supposes that he has discovered where violence comes from, wrong beliefs. That makes sense to a rationalist who requires that everything in the world make sense and have a “because.” But perhaps evil is not supposed to make sense. Perhaps evil is nonsense. Absurd. Maybe wrong beliefs are in fact the children of violence and evil and not vice versa as Harris suggests.

Of course, none of us (including Harris) can be held responsible to know what has not been revealed to us. For example, regardless of whether or not the objectification of Muhammad’s subjective experience both in the Qu’ran and in Islam was accurate, how does Harris know that God did not speak to Muhammad? Or Noah? Or Moses? He doesn’t. No one can know this. Not even their followers could know.

To some degree, this is the naked reality about the world. Noah said God spoke to him. He was bound by this revelation to act on it. He was also bound by it to include his family. His family, on the other hand, went into the arc with less certainty than Noah. Moses said he heard from God. Moses was bound by his experience to act on it. Those who followed him did so with less knowledge than Moses. Scientists today tell us that the data has spoken to them about the nature of reality. Those who follow them follow with less insight than these scientists. I am compelled to follow my personal revelation from God about Himself. My kids do not have access to that. They are not required to believe in my conversion or in my vision. However, their lives have been enriched by the transformation of my own life. Whether they believe or not, Jesus blessed them by calling me to follow him. I may be crazy but my kids are better off. The world is divided between the few who have insight (or power) or understanding and those who follow with less.

Harris’ religion does not allow for revelation. If a belief doesn’t represent the reality of the world, as proved by evidence, then it is “faith” i.e. “ignorance.” However, in this case, ignorance of the world as described by scripture had made Harris and his tribe ignorant of the world around them. Why should anyone give up the insight into human nature that the scriptures, or Homer, or Livy or Shakespeare give us? Needless to say, Harris’ lack of a personal religious revelation or insight does not set the global standard.

Harris is totally right about one thing. If Muhammad says that God told him to kill my family because we are infidels, I will kill him first. I would kill Moses too. I remember that a girl once told me that God told her we should get married. I assume she was right in pursuing that course, but I was not bound to it without a direct revelation from God. Here’s the point: the moment a personal revelation reaches out and touches the neighbors it must be evaluated by a commonly held set of values or a common revelation or common self interest. The moment a personal faith has social implications, we must measure the implications themselves.

Harris still believes that reason and facts can provide this foundation for measurement. The whole of the modern era stands as a witness against him. During the modern era, reason reigned in the west. In the end, it led to the philosophical dead end of post modernism and a recognition that there can be no commonly held foundation for knowledge.

Harris persists, however, with his faith in reason by telling us that “nothing is more sacred than facts” (225). This is the rationalist’s credo and it is wrong. Nothing is more sacred than people and relationships. Harris explains to us that “evidence and rational argument is what makes peaceful cooperation possible” (231). Harris seems to be ready for another rude awakening. In this world, power and self interest make cooperation possible. In the company of Christ, mutual respect, friendship and love is what makes peaceful cooperation possible. [Not that Christians cooperate…we must be honest.] Evidence, which can be variously interpreted, and rational argument are the tools of those who would do evil as much as they are tools of those who would do good. Harris’ faith requires that reason carry too heavy of a load. That structure will eventually fall under its own weight.

The way of Jesus is skewed towards the belief that people and relationships are the highest value. Respect and love are the supreme agents of peaceful relationships. These are not secrets. We all know this. Religions teach this. Self interest points to this. The mystery is that what we want to do, know to do, we do not do. And what we don’t want to do, what we know we shouldn’t do, mustn’t do, we do. (Romans 7.14 -25). Accumulating indubitable facts (if such exist) won’t change this.

I agree with Harris on so much of what he writes, resonate at times with his conclusions, and think he writes about an urgently important reality. I applaud Harris for “outing” the inability within the academic world and his rationalist tribe to make judgments between cultures:

What can we say about this behavior? Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters and sisters less than Americans or European men do? Of course, we can. And what is truly incredible about the state of our discourse is that such a claim is not only controversial but actually unutterable in most contexts (189).

Bravo. Harris is exactly right and I congratulate him for taking a politically incorrect position. Lamentably, he doesn’t come clean about what and where are these “contexts” in which these truths are “unutterable.” I think I can help here. Few places, it turns out, can be as inhospitable to freedom of thought as the very chapels of rationalism that Harris espouses. Perhaps he means here the academic institutions where politcal correctness once ran rampant and cultural relativity now rule. Or perhaps he meant the less “religious” and thus more “rational” states of our union. Of course, since he is arguing that religion and ignorance are synonymous, I can see why he would forget to mention this.

Also, I think Harris is totally right in provoking believers to return to reason. Reason is a huge part of the future. Religion, in spite of Harris’ prediction that the days of religion are numbered, will be a big part of the future as well. Hopefully, both reason and religion will evolve in ways that humanize us all. Unfortunately, Harris seems to become unreasonably and dangerously certain (39) that he knows the world the way it is. I would want us to avoid both religious fundamentalism and rational fundamentalism. Arrogance and pride lead to a fall regardless of what camp you may call home.

I think both the religious and the rationalist limit too much the ways we have access to the world in which we live. We have faith AND reason AND doubt AND experience AND scripture AND history AND nature AND science AND community AND autonomy AND tradition AND imagination, AND…etc.

I agree with Harris on the political model of the world. That’s the area in which his thinking could hurt humanity most. But, he doesn’t hurt the world there. He helps. I totally agree with Harris that once you reach out to touch others with your personal revelation, you must build a commonly held foundation with those who do not share your revelation. The moment you try to impose your faith on me, I am obligated to resist.

I disagree with Harris about the nature of the world. I do believe in revelation, in communication with God or other transcendent beings. He cannot believe this in the absence of a revelation himself. That’s understandable. You don’t just go out and get one of those. If I had not had a vision, I would argue about the world very much like Harris. In fact, even so, I still argue about the world somewhat like Harris. However, Harris is too certain that reality is limited to his reason and to his tribe’s interpretations of the scientific evidence. But I suspect that more things happen in the world than what our reason can reveal or than the plausibility structures of our tribe can sustain.

Personally, I’m not sure we’ll evolve quickly enough to get the world Harris (and I) want(s). It may be that the only way forward [or backward] may be a cataclysmic über-9/11 event that reorients all of global culture. With this book, Harris joins the growing number of social Chick Littles in heralding a gloomy future scenario. Don’t scoff at him or them. They may be right. The sky may indeed be falling. The September skies sure did.

The irony of the whole thing is that the secular, scientifically oriented, and rationalist Harris reminds me of that religio-cultural icon of 20th century America. You know the one… the bearded fundamentalist who stands on the corner, carries a sign on his shoulder, and warns us all of the oncoming apocalypse: “the end is near”.

Don’t get me wrong. The stakes are high and the danger is grave. Even so, the irony of this makes me smile.

What do you think? Have you read the book? What are your thoughts?

See you in the mystic…




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3 responses to “The End of Faith –a review”

  1. R. Bran Avatar
    R. Bran

    Your commentary brings to mind van Auken’s own journey from reason to faith. He was influenced by C.S. Lewis himself.

  2. Nic Nelson Avatar

    Great analysis, Alex. Funny that Sam hasn’t realized how closely he might work together with “ignorant religionists” to create a safer more stable society. I wonder if he will read this and what he will think of it. And you.

    Meanwhile, I’ll just keep doing my ignorant Jesus schtick here in the inner city, so that next time his car breaks down at night on the wrong side of the urban tracks, he might be met by a warm religionist rather than a cold rationalist.

  3. Alex Avatar

    R. Bran, I’m not familiar with van Auken but thanks for your comment.

    Nic, He must resign himself to work with religionists of the same political orientation for dealing with terrorism. What options does he have?

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