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 weve 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. Its 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 its so often given a free pass in our discourse. Why is criticizing a persons 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 persons 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. administrations 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, youve concluded that this is an angry book, youre 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 its a brilliant book, too, and not just because of some sightly efflorescence of rage. The authors 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 Harriss 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, its 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 Faiths 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 books 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
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