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End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason [CD-ROM]

Sam Harris , Brian Emerson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 2006
This important and timely book delivers a startling analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today's world. Sam Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind's willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify harmful behavior and sometimes heinous crimes. He asserts that in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer tolerate views that pit one true god against another. Most controversially, he argues that we cannot afford moderate lip service to religion - an accommodation that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need. He calls on us to invoke that need in taking a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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From Publishers Weekly

In this sometimes simplistic and misguided book, Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Not only does such faith lack a rational base, he argues, but even the urge for religious toleration allows a too-easy acceptance of the motives of religious fundamentalists. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Moreover, innumerable acts of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. But Harris overstates his case by misunderstanding religious faith, as when he makes the audaciously naïve statement that "mysticism is a rational enterprise; religion is not." As William James ably demonstrated, mysticism is far from a rational enterprise, while religion might often require rationality in order to function properly. On balance, Harris's book generalizes so much about both religion and reason that it is ineffectual.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Consider the following information, as supplied by Sam Harris in his book The End of Faith: In the most powerful nation in the world, a land of space programs, fibre optics, genome mapping, and open heart surgery, more than three-quarters of the populace believes that the Bible was, in fact, authored by God. Two-thirds believe in the existence of Satan. And nearly half takes “a literalist view of creation.” (Which means, as Harris points out, that these people place the birth of the universe “2500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer.”)
The degree to which any of the above amuses, dismays, or terrifies you is probably the degree to which the following questions seem worth asking: What can we conclude about ourselves when even the denizens of the richest and most scientifically advanced country-one founded on Enlightenment principles-have succumbed to such intellectually indefensible views? What does our future hold when we seem incapable, or at least unwilling, to apply the rationality we’ve used to tame our physical world against the rioting fancies of our spiritual life?
There are any number of Gods an atheist can rail against. For Harris, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of California, the object of his enmity is not so much the God believed to guide the outcomes of Grammy award shows and NBA semi-finals, nor the one who elicits swaying, feel-good warbling in little white chapels. It’s the vengeful ones from ancient canons who impel worshippers to put fire and sword to infidels, especially now that the swords are long-range and the fires bring mushroom clouds. As he says, take billions of people subscribing to competing religious traditions-each of which calls on its adherents to shun or slaughter unbelievers-add overpopulation, dwindling resources, and the supreme lethality of twenty-first century war-making, and what you have is “a recipe for the fall of civilization."
Given the danger that religious faith poses to all of us in this era of suitcase nukes and FedExed contagions, Harris demands to know why it’s so often given a free pass in our discourse. Why is “criticizing a person’s ideas about God and the afterlife impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics and history is not?” Why is the role that faith plays in, say, a suicide bombing discounted in favour of political or economic reasons? As he argues, a religious belief “is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life.”
Ultimately, Harris decides that faith is a mode of insanity that escapes such a designation because of its ubiquity. If a lone individual believed that Jesus Christ can be eaten in the form of a cracker for salutary metaphysical effect, or “that God will reward him with seventy-two virgins if he kills a score of Jewish teenagers,” his treatment would almost certainly include routine sedation, a monochromatic wardrobe, and scheduled walks in guarded courtyards. Harris strives to understand the curious partitioning that takes place in the human mind, where otherwise reasonable people require no corroboration for their theological convictions. “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him,” he says, “or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else.” Tell the same person that an unseen deity “will punish him with fire for eternity” if he fails to accept every improbable claim in his holy book, and “he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”
So what has this uncritical acceptance of our religious texts wrought? Harris points to armed conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Caucasus-places, he says, where “religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.” Closer to home, he points to the incursions made on the American scientific community and education system-the banning of stem cell research, for instance, or the blocking of efforts to teach evolutionary theory in the classroom. He points to the zealous prosecution of drug offences, and the continuing illegality of certain consensual sexual practices, as evidence of an American legal system still contaminated by archaic Christian notions of sin. And he points to the U.S. administration’s hijacking by evangelical elements whose foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Israel, is deeply informed by apocalyptic scenarios foretold in the book of Revelation.
Of all the sources of unreason that Harris passes judgement on (and the docket lists some unlikely defendants; even Einstein, Jung, Noam Chomsky, and Gandhi are issued reprimands), two are particularly controversial. The first is Islam. Harris calls it a religion of “irrescindable militancy” with stridently imperialistic ambitions. He dashes the argument that the Koran expressly prohibits suicide-it contains only one ambiguous line: “Do not destroy yourselves”-and cites the results of large polls conducted in the Arab world that show widespread support for suicide bombing directed at civilian targets. He quotes, chapter and verse, the Koranic exhortations to wage jihad and seek martyrdom, and he avers that a cold war stand-off against the armies of a nuclearized Muslim theocracy would be virtually impossible, given their beliefs about the afterlife.
The second contentious target, more unexpectedly, is that prevailing admixture of religious moderation and relativism we see in the West. Harris contends that our championing of pluralism and tolerance helps stifle criticism of religious extremists. “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates,” he says, “betray faith and reason equally.” While Harris is right to condemn such hypocrisy in theory, it seems to me that moderation in practice is infinitely preferable to more malignant strains of religiosity-especially as Harris himself claims in a later chapter that Muslim moderation could be the only factor that averts a chain of wars between the House of Islam and foreign powers.
If, in reading this far, you’ve concluded that this is an angry book, you’re not wrong. Harris says he began writing it on September 12, 2001, and it shows: his tone is often aggrieved and his proscriptions are unsparing. But it’s a brilliant book, too, and not just because of some sightly efflorescence of rage. The author’s erudition, rhetorical dexterity, moral scrupulosity, and welcome humour give his arguments a force too often lacking in other polemics. When I began reading The End of Faith, I carried in my mind the charges often laid against atheists, like those of philosopher John Gray in his recent book Heresies: that they often suffer a doctrinaire rigidity of thought; that their attempts to repress religious impulses are as dangerous and futile as attempts to repress sexual ones; that their hope for a human world governed solely by reason is itself a kind of faith. But Harris’s work seems immune to such indictments. He acknowledges the solace, social cohesion, and transformative experiences that religion has brought believers, and he allows that humans cannot live by reason alone. Ultimately, it’s not the validity of our spiritual pursuits that he attacks, but the hopelessly retrograde belief systems that have sprung up around them. What he wants us to contemplate are the benefits offered by Eastern mystical disciplines which he contends are arrived at systematically and neither engender nor require any incredible views concerning this life or the next one.
On The End of Faith’s back cover are three written endorsements. Two come from essentially secular sources. The third, ridiculously, is from the president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, who praises Harris for providing “a wake-up call to religious liberals”-while betraying no discomfort at the fact that Harris has otherwise brutally invalidated his world view. Herein lies this book’s essential tragedy. Atheists who pick it up will nod smugly along through its 336 pages, delighted to see the reasons for their doubt so strenuously hurled back at them. Religious believers, secure behind bulwarks of impregnable dogma, will take the measure of its contents from beginning to end and then serenely, selectively, dismiss them. I cannot imagine a book as important as this one making less of an impact on the minds of the reading public. Its title is a vain plea, not a forecast.
Matt Sturrock (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Triumph of Reason over Faith Dec 22 2006
By Oliver TOP 500 REVIEWER
At its heart, this book is about the difference between faith and reason. Faith is blind. It is not based on evidence or reason, and therefore offering evidence or reasons will not shake the faithful from their beliefs. Harris thinks that is very, very dangerous. It will come as no surprise to anyone that he began writing this book on September 12, 2001.

Harris argues that relying on faith instead of reason is a bad way to lead your life. It leads to all sorts of weird and dangerous beliefs, prevents important scientific discoveries, and stirs hatred between people who hold mutually inconsistent faith-based beliefs. Of course, people make mistakes when they rely on evidence and reason, but at least if we rely on reason and evidence, we are moving in the right direction and we are open to changing our minds when we are wrong. If our beliefs are based on faith, we are stuck forever.

This book will make religious people uncomfortable. Harris says exactly what he thinks, without making an attempt to spare the feelings of the religious. He does not, however, call anyone names or say anything in order to be mean or offensive. He simply states that facts as he sees them.

Some reviewers claim that Harris is "intolerant" or a "fundamentalist." They are wrong. Harris, unlike many religious leaders, fully supports the right to think, say and believe as you wish. He opposes any form of oppression. On other hand, Harris also reserves the right to think some beliefs are foolish. You probably do not respect the belief that Elvis is alive. Harris feels the same way about religious beliefs. He certainly would not want to see Elvis believers put in jail or denied rights, but he feels free to say that belief in Elvis is just plain wrong.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive, alarming and irrefutable Feb. 6 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Mum always insisted; "Don't discuss politics or religion!" These days the two are too thoroughly intertwined to avoid discussing one without the other. Sam Harris thinks so, and is emphatic that we need to recognise that. He doesn't like religion - there are too many illogical and inconsistent expressions of it. He's particularly concerned about how religions manifest themselves in politics. In this challenging and provocative book, he urges us all to be aware about what the "faithful" learn about their gods, and how they express that learning. He finds the situation dangerous, threatening enough that immediate action is overdue to correct the peril we face. This cry of alarm must be heeded, and Harris has done a thorough job of explaining why we must act.
In the West, he notes how religious tolerance, after a long struggle to gain acceptance, poses a conundrum. Tolerance means acceptance, but the faithful in the three extensive monotheistic religions, preclude tolerance. "The Book", accepted if not admired universally, demands the diminution, if not the destruction of "heresy". He's particularly scathing of Islam's own "Book", the Qur'an in its insistence on rooting out infidels. Thus, there is no "border" to the Islamic world short of the planet itself. This, he argues, is a tangible threat. We've experienced one of its most diabolically conceived acts in the destruction of the Twin Towers. This, he argues, is but the first of a series of acts that will grow increasingly severe with the passage of time. Those in the West stressing that the suicide bombers are "fanatics" and "fundamentalists" are deluding themselves. It is clear, Harris says, that Islam "must find a way to revise itself".
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why should we have to respect nonsense? Oct. 27 2006
When someone claims something preposterous, unsupported by fact, out of wishful thinking and/or ignorance, we don't have to respect those claims. There is no reason religious faith should be an exception, argues the author. Faith is not worthy of respect in a conversation.

More importantly, Sam Harris makes the point that if we bend over backwards not to offend religious moderates, and the latter do the same not to offend religious fundamentalists (as you've noticed they inevitably do!), we're just freeing the way for the cancerous growth of fundamentalism, with the associated

suicide-bombings and other fun stuff.

This is an excellent book making the point that faith is positively harmful and could well spell the end of our world (think a bit about nuclear weapons in the hands of religious fanatics).

The only part that left me quizzed is the chapter about mysticism and meditation: Sam Harris may be onto something, but I really am at a loss figuring out what he's talking about.

Apart from that, the style of the author is crystal clear, brief, concise, admirably articulate.

Make sure you check out [...] it has very interesting print, audio, and video material.

And buy the book; and promote the cause!
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars End of Faith Oct. 15 2006
When I read this book about a year ago my first reaction was one of jealousy. This is a book I would have loved to have written. My second thought is that in a Bush era of right- wing Christian orthodoxy there is still nothing wrong with the US graduate schools if they can produce a scholar of this order of magnitude. They are still doing what they are supposed to do: producing graduates that can think and Mr. Harris is able to do so fluently. His is stepping into a distinguished tradition. His skepticism about religious belief in general is foreshadowed in Bertrand Russell's book Why I am not a Christian (a book that Harris makes reference to), and to the work of Karl Popper (The Poverty of Historicism) who demonstrated the strong links between Communism & Fascism with religious orthodoxy. While I cannot say that I agree in toto with everything that Mr. Harris has written, I can say that I admire his intellectual courage, and his ability to cast his arguments with reference to logic and reason
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1.0 out of 5 stars Missing key element
So very close, but missing one foundational element. Read "The End of Religion" by Bruxy Cavey instead.
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