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.
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".
Harris recapitulates the history of the Christian churches, with their extensive campaigns of expunging their own heretics and the Jews. With both religions driven by divine commands, as expressed in the "Books", the gods insist on obedience by all people. Those "chosen" to carry out that dictation are, of course, the faithful. Those insisting on "tolerance" are reading the "Books" selectively. To Harris, this is a shortsighted approach. Others see The Books as divine ordinances that must be obeyed. Christianity's long, bloody record is vividly presented, from the Inquisition through baptising Indian children before immediately executing them, the hunting of witches and other obscenities. Nazism, often portrayed as the mindless expression of a few adherents, Harris argues, is simply another form of mainstream religion. It certainly had the tacit approval of the Papacy. The injunction to "purify" is still with us in many guises - even if only at the level of banning "Harry Potter" as endorsing witchcraft and wizardry, expressly condemned in Christianity's "Book". Our enemy, Harris notes, is faith itself.
As a neuroscientist, Harris arrives at an unexpected solution to the ills of a religious societies. To Harris, the bizarre logic of Christianity - you can mutter a few words over your favourite Burgundy to render it into "Christ's blood" - must be shelved. So, too, must be the religion that claims to be the "chosen" of a desert deity. One that can condemn a man to death for writing fiction is morbidly irrational. Since all these concepts are but symptoms of "normal people embracing madness as something holy" a fresh means must be found. He's studied the various ideas of consciousness and discovered our notion of it can be abandoned. Harris argues that the Eastern mystics provide the solution. By abandoning the old faiths and learning the lessons mystics have acquired, the need for eliminating other humans for their derelictions of faith would evaporate. Although a rational recommendation, it remains difficult to envision how such transformation would be effected. The current technique of using "smart bombs" and imposed cultures is clearly inadequate, not to say unreasonable.
Harris's book is a must read for everyone. How else could the issues be confronted? His history is sweeping, if necessarily brief. His denunciation of religions is fully justified for their past and present practices, let alone the flawed foundations on which they rest. What is needed is a campaign strategy - the only shortcoming this book exhibits. Read it and make one of your own. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on October 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!
on October 2, 2005
The End of Faith is an important, challenging and courageous book which is well worth reading. Harris says many things which need saying about religion but which seldom receive adequate coverage.
The notion of restricting our spirituality to activities/beliefs for which there is actual evidence is highly attractive. But what seems to be missing in the book is adequate emphasis on the current existence of overwhelming evidence that runs counter to numerous existing religious beliefs. The unfounded rejection of evolution by many religious groups is a striking example.
Harris quite rightly says that "Nothing is more sacred than the facts." And the factual evidence, from the fossil record and DNA studies, for the occurrence of evolution is absolutely overwhelming. Those who recognize this have unfortunately allowed the disbelievers to muddy the waters by unfailingly speaking of "the theory of evolution" -- as if there is a single comprehensive and fully detailed explanation of how evolution actually took place.
It was known by Copernicus and Galileo - long before Newton's theory of gravity - that the earth was not the centre of the universe. And, Newton's theory of gravity was subsequently superseded by Einstein's theory of gravity which is itself incomplete if not actually defective. It is exactly the same with respect to evolution. Darwin's attempts to understand and explain evolution should not be regarded as the last word on the subject. But, what is incontrovertible is the occurrence of evolution. We know from DNA evidence that that all of us human beings are descended, on the paternal line, from a common male ancestor (dubbed the Y-chromosome Adam) who lived some 60,000 years ago. And, likewise, on the maternal line, we are all descended from a common female ancestor (mitochondrial Eve) who lived some 100,000 years ago. And, from this Adam and Eve, our shared ancestry goes much further back to the murky beginnings of evolution. These are the facts and we should all speak explicitly about the occurrence of evolution and not allow evasive and misleading talk of the theory of evolution.
The point is that if we removed from extant religions those beliefs that are contrary to existing evidence it would go a long way towards the goal of an evidence based spirituality.
Sam Harris makes the point that ". . . every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This puts the 'leap' in Kierkegaards leap of faith". Nevertheless , Harris admits that not all religions are equally bad in this regard. The Bible has been dissected and analyzed far more ruthlessly than any other book in the history of mankind and this commendable state of affairs is singularly lacking in the case of the Koran. It is little wonder that the current instantiation of Islam is highly dangerous in a world with weapons of mass destruction. And it is little wonder that most Christians do not believe that all Muslims need to be be converted or eliminated. Most Muslims - even moderate ones - believe that the Koran is the literal word of God. A much larger percentage of Christians believe no such thing with respect to the Bible.
Nevertheless Harris is correct in contending that moderate Christians and moderate Muslims are in many ways just as dangerous as the more fundamentalist ones. The bare essentials of most religions are simply mutually contradictory. Practising Christians believe (or are supposed to believe) that Jesus and Jesus alone was a human instantiation of God and that salvation is through Jesus or not at all. The Muslims believe that Mohammad superseded Jesus in being a channel for a more complete and accurate perception of Allah. The Bahais believe that Baha-ullah superseded both Jesus and Mohammad in bringing a more complete and accurate revelation of God. Those of the Jewish faith believe that neither Jesus nor Mohammad nor Baha-ullah were really needed since they were on the right track anyway in their worship of Jehovah. And many Buddhists can be found in temples all around the world praying before a statue of Buddha as if he was/is some kind of demi-god.
All in all religious toleration is inclined to be phoney since such a collection of disparate and incompatible beliefs cannot all be true and every one of them must - with almost total certainty - be false.
In highlighting the flaws in Christianity, Islam and Judaism Harris seems to give insufficient emphasis on the flaws in communism (Marx, Lenin, Stalin), National socialism (Hitler) and Pol Pot's horrible reign of terror. It would seem that the absence of belief in the existence of God is, in and of itself, utterly useless when it comes to having faith in non-evidentiary distortions of reality. Harris does speak of "political religion" when referring to Stalin and Mao but somewhat greater even handedness, in this regard, would not have come amiss.
Some comments on Harris' treatment of mysticism/spirituality would seem to be in order. Harris points out that a mystical form of religion is more prevalent in Eastern rather than Western religions. But he does not seem to recognize that different instantiations of mysticism vary significantly in their quality just as different religions and different subgroups in these religions vary enormously in the extent to which they are already focused on actual evidence for their religious beliefs and practises rather than blind faith.
Mahavira (one of the leading Eastern Mystics who was a key figure in the history of Jainism) spent twelve and half years meditating in a state of deprivation until he achieved "enlightenment". His teaching was thereafter directed towards helping others to achieve freedom from "the cycle of birth, life, pain, misery and death, and achieve a permanently blissful state" (I quote from Wikipedia). In the end - at the age of 72 -- he literally starved himself to death.
In contrast to this Meister Eckhart, who was a Catholic mystic (posthumously excommunicated for his beliefs), and was certainly well aware of the possibility of blissful ecstasy writes as follows:
"what a man takes in contemplation he must pour out in love. If a man was in rapture such as Paul experienced and he knew a person who needed something of him, I think it would be far better out of love to leave the rapture and help the needy man. It is better to feed the hungry than to see even such visions as Paul saw".
The purpose of life cannot be simply to achieve happiness and/or enlightenment but rather to do something with our lives that makes the world a better place and brings happiness and fulfilment to others and not just to ourselves.
One final comment is probably worth making. The percentage of Americans who reject the occurrence of evolution is far higher than it is in Europe, Australia, New Zealand or Canada. This is almost certainly due to the appalling quality of the teaching of mathematics and science in American schools. In a recent study by the Organization of for Economic Co-operation and Development America ranked 24th out of 29 countries examined. I children received a better grounding in science they would undoubtedly be far less likely to end up in believing ideas which have no basis in reality.
on October 19, 2005
Having been raised in a faith based environment I found this book challenging and uncomfortable in many ways - but ultimately more truth than I've encountered in many religious books. Harris gets us to question more than we are perhaps ready to question. Far from being simplistic (especially when read along with the end notes) I think it was a well thought out and coherant argument. His chapter on morals and ethics is again uncomfortable but excellent. There are questions posed here that we all need to face.
I'm not much of a Richard Dawkins fan but I agree with his reaction to this book: read it and wake up. The last chapter on Eastern traditions is particularly interesting since I've always thought they had things sussed way back and are just waiting for the West to catch up!!
An angry, scary, hopeful and at times up-lifting book. Don't read it because you want to - read it because you have to.
on October 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
on November 13, 2004
Sam Harris' book offers a refreshing and much-needed analysis of the failure of religion and the devastating effect that faith-based ignorance has had on human progress. The End of Faith postulates an age when mankind is no longer ruled by fictitious gods, but realistically recognizes this may be generations in the future. In the meantime, Harris advises, we need to work with whatever moderate elements exist within Islam (which he correctly identifies as the most dangerous of all the religions) to blunt the aggressiveness of Muslim fundamentalists. Harris' arguments, sound within themselves, lose some of their force when he debates the need for spiritual experience in the human consciousness.
on February 28, 2010
Sam Harris delivers a stunningly hard blow to all style of religious beliefs thru sheer rational reasonning. If you think religious beliefs should always be respected, no matter what, read this book: "The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece." Too long as faith received an undue respect, and Harris finally say aloud what many think in private. Truly refreshing.
on February 22, 2016
5 stars in spite of a few points. Sam Harris gives me far more to think about than any one else re religion. I think he is far ahead of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens regarding this thinking.
But as much as I think Islam is drastically overdue to 'modernize', I think Harris goes overboard in his concern about the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism and the negative aspects of the religiosity of most Moslems.
To my disappointment, he takes snippets here and there from the Koran and Hadiths (without detailed and correct historical and linguistic context) and uses westerners like B. Lewis and S. Huntington as Islamic experts instead of actual Middle Eastern intellectuals and scholars for his evidence.
Thankfully In 2015 he and Maajid Hawaz (author of his autobiography Radical) and the founder of the Quillium Foundation, finally met to dialogue and jointly wrote "Islam and the Future of Tolerance". While Hawaz does not deny the many problems with Islam, he does very clearly clarify a lot of the bad interpretations Harris gave of Islam in End of Faith.
And yes, I do agree with him that most aspects of Buddhism leave traditional religions in the dust when it comes to explaining our relationship with ourselves, our fellow man, and the greater world and the even mightier universe.
I hope Harris and Hawaz will continue to work together in the future. The future of the world depends on people like them.
on November 17, 2015
One of my favourite quotes is Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that;
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
In this book, the Sam Harris discusses ideas. He does not launch any ad hominem attacks on anyone, and only rarely attempts to voice hindsight opinions of past events. It is certainly true that some of his ideas are very controversial in today’s society. Harris has carefully thought out these ideas, and has not been afraid to challenge popular societal explanations and clichés in his presentation of his arguments. I disagree with just a very few of his points, but even on these issues, I do understand his reason for developing position he takes. The ideas in this book certainly need to be discussed, and Harris has eloquently presented them – perhaps trailing slightly in coherency in the last couple of chapters as compared to the rest of the book, but en masse, in a well written and very readable manner.
When taking stock of the somewhat controversial nature of many of Harris’ ideas, we might consider that less than five-hundred years ago, the only openly atheist people in Europe were a small few locked in Christian dungeons, or writhing in the flames as they were burned to death. Any dissention from the opinions held by the church was grossly unacceptable, and indeed unimaginable. Galileo was being threatened with torture for suggesting that Earth was not at the centre of the universe, and witches were being burned at the stake for flying on broomsticks of causing thunderstorms. These practices were the societal norm, and were considered good ideas at the time. The idea that God might not have done precisely what the church said he did was viewed as an entirely unspeakable suggestion. Any writer of that time courageous enough to challenge the church would be lampooned, excommunicated, shunned, tortured and quite likely executed. Moreover, their writings would be censured.
In the west at least, we have come a long way since those days, although other parts of our world still lag woefully behind. When we read a centuries-old document that carefully suggests that witches, just possibly, don't actually cause disease through spells or curses, our reaction is, "Um, duh! Well obviously!" I tend to think that it is probable, provided that we do not annihilate ourselves over religion first, that Harris’ ideas will cause readers five centuries from now to slap their foreheads as they read them and say the same thing. It will be boring and banal to them; a truism that is news to no one. So read it today, while it’s still controversial!