Book Review: The End of Faith

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The End of Faith : Religion, Terror and the future of Reason is the controversial best seller by philosopher Sam Harris. In it, he postulates the very real possibility of the end of civilization as we know it if we don't let go of two thousand year old dogmas and give up believing in invisible deities.  Given the awesome power a single small group can command these days, and the irrational belief in a better "hereafter", Harris strongly argues this is a recipe for disaster in today's world.

He begins the book with a short overview of religious dogma gone crazy, including the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other examples of intolerance.  He also lists several pages of apocalyptic and violent prescriptions against all infidels found in the Koran.  Harris is not the first to notice the irony of the Muslim problems with sex during life and yet promising an afterlife replete with orgies.  He also notes how "moderate Muslim" is an oxymoron, where by someone would have to pick and chose what parts of a holy book to believe and what not to believe. If you swallow any of the major books whole, you're living your life by the mores of a long dead culture.

The second half of The End of Faith is his attempt to rationally define things like morality, ethics and what it means to be a part of civilization, without resorting to some mystical being to kowtow to. He points out the failures of policies like pacifism, and the moral conundrum of torture and bombing civilians, as well as the old "would you torture someone if it meant saving countless other lives?" question. I found this part of the book a little hard going, but I think it was a very important part, as many attack atheism by saying you can't be moral if you don't believe in God, which is pure bunkum.

I found the book to be both enlightening and frightening. In many ways, I find the current backlash against Mormonism, especially by other religious fundamental groups, to be illustrative of many Harris points.  I think the only reason why other groups make fun of the Mormon belief in a charlatan like Joseph Smith's "discovery" of the Book of Mormon buried under a bush in upstate New York is because of its relative recentness.  At its heart, that story is as nonsensical as the burning bush, the Koran or any other "celestial" visions. And if anyone said that happened today, we would throw them in the loonie bin, yet instead these dusty old ideas remain inviolate today.

I'm anxious to read Harris' follow up, Letter to a Christian Nation, where he replies to the unsurprising invective hurled at him from all corners of the religious world after The End of Faith was published.  I also liked his recent Washington Post article, The Empty Wager, where he eviscerates Pascal's famous wager, where believers are simply taking the wiser of two bets - believe in God and if he exists, you're golden and if he doesn't, well, you're just dead. But if the atheist is wrong, he's in big trouble. Be sure to also follow the link to his "debate" with Pastor Rick Warren. Good stuff. Between him, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, there's hope yet for a rational future.



13 Comments

[this is good] I enjoyed The End of Faith when I read it a few months ago (and also Dawkins' The God Delusion, which has a different approach to the same subject). But now I'm re-reading Bertrand Russell's collection Why I Am Not a Christian, and find that he said many of the same things much earlier, and much more elegantly (in his unique scathing way). Having said that, I still like Harris' book.

Yes, I believe Harris quotes from Russell in a few different places, and it is on my "to read" list, for sure!

Sorry, religions and civilization have been around a lot longer than Mr. Harris and will survive nicely after we all are dust.  The John Lennon "Imagine" generation might think it good to have no religion but it is a short sighted view of history.Historically, it interesting  in the 20th Century as Europe abandoned its Christian roots  how many  people  actually died over the last 100 years.  Far more died under the "godless" Stalinists and Fascists of the last century than did any Christian war of the past 2000 years.  So I find it sort of laughable and ignorant to think that civilization would be better off without faith.Faith, at its roots guides and gives direction to people -- it makes you think outside yourself and your relationship to the world.  I would say that Christians care and do more to help people then any "enlightened" individuals ever think of doing. 

The cashier must have looked at me very funny when I picked up Russel's book along with one by C.S. Lewis a few years ago.I just try to get as many perspectives as I can.  I certainly have quite a bit of respect for Harris, and agree with him on many things, even though I am a believer (sort of).

Nice combo! That would make an interesting thread - what is the strangest basket of books you ever bought? Offhand, mine would probably by "Absinthe: History in a bottle" and "Education of a Coach".

Without going into the issue of the necessity of religion, I just wanted to clear up two historical misconceptions that I always encounter in these discussions:1. About Fascism. Both Hitler and Mussolini were devout Catholics (and at times supported - or at least not criticized -  by the religious authorities), and Hitler's Aryan race fantasy world took many elements from pre-Christian northern paganism.2. About Stalin. All three authors (Russell, Dawkins, Harris) discuss this one in-depth, explaining that Stalin's cult of personality was akin to a religion (in its obligatory blind faith in and reverence of a single figure and the slew of dogma surrounding it). They make other good points about this case, as well.In the end, whether or not to follow a religion is an individual choice. I have no problems with that. But at the same time, we need to get the historical facts straight.

From my Christian perspective the points about Fascism an Stalinist make an interesting additional point that faith as  St. Paul points out is part of the natural  make up of humankind -- "only a fool says there is no god."   This natural knowledge or awareness of God is so part of our make up so we can even take  philosophies that are "godless"  an make them a religion. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis is a good counter balance to this book.Interesting discussion.

I figured you had stirred the sh*t pot with this one.  Religion and politics will certainly stir the pot.  @web_guy94301 - glad to see a believer joining the discussion and trying to contribute instead of just bash.  Much appreciated, even if I politely disagree.  The quote "only a fool say there is no god" I find particularly interesting.  Of which god does he speak?  What makes his God any better than the many others people believe in?  If he were born in a third world nation without contact with the outside world, what would he believe then?  If there is only one right way to believe, what is it?To call people who ask for a little evidence or logic in life fools, seems a little childish for something so important for so many people.  For many, their religion is a life or death thing.  It should not me treated lightly."Sorry, religions and civilization have been around a lot longer than Mr. Harris and will survive nicely after we all are dust."  This I agree with.  People will go to great lengths to maintain their belief, despite facts or other inconveniences.Is it not enough to be a good person?  If there really is a god and heaven (or other afterlife), is that god really so vain as to require belief and worship of it to require favorable treatment after death?@Jonathan, good for you for daring to review this book publicly.  It's not easy "coming out".  I had one friend say she felt bad for me.  When I asked why, she said I had no one to turn to in tough times.  I told her that I believe in myself, and have my wife and friends to look to during hard times.

[this is good] I forgot a "this is good" in my comment.  So, here you go.  Also, I've been reading "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" by Carl Sagan and purchased the Pulitzer Prize winning "On Human Nature" by Edward O. Wilson.  I thought about reading Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), or Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking the Spell), but was concerned that they might be too harsh for some.  Having not read these works, I don't no for sure.  But, Sagan and Wilson are known for their delicate treatment of such sensitive topics.  It certainly makes conversation easier with believers I'm close with (i.e., friends and family.

Another new "Freethinkers" book out is Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great", but I haven't read it yet. I didn't really want to get into an argument about the whole thing, as I feel it is impossible to change anyone's mind. One thing Harris points out is that, because there isn't anything anyone could say to "disprove" God, or Jesus or anything taken on "Faith", it means it is well nigh impossible to have rational discourse about it. A good source for information is Richard Dawkins' web site, which posts interesting news, both for and against atheism. To be honest, I haven't read The God Delusion yet myself, because the backlog at the library is too long (80holds)!

You said, "One thing Harris points out is that, because there isn't anything anyone could say to "disprove" God, or Jesus or anything taken on "Faith", it means it is well nigh impossible to have rational discourse about it." I agree, rational discussion is very difficult.  You have to be talking with someone who's willing to question their faith yet still be faithful.  Most believers never question their faith.  They seem to be afraid to question it because they're so dependent on it.  That's scary to me.  They're much more likely to fall for the wolf in sheep's clothing (bad people who hide behind the church).  In my opinion, it's not only important to question everything (to some degree), but it's a birth right.  It's like someone being born with perfectly good legs but never walking.  Or, growing up in the same small town and never leaving it.  Without exploration of body and mind, I wouldn't be writing this.  (ok, I'm getting too philosophical here, moving on...)Back to Harris.  Does he say why he writes his books then if it's nearly impossible to have rational discourse?  Who is he writing the books for?  Is he trying to better "arm" free thinkers (or what some like to call Brights)?I saw Hitchens on the Daily Show promoting his book.  It looks interesting.  So many books (and movies), so little time.

He views it as an imperative to at least try to explain why he feels it is so destructive in nature, possibly apocalyptic. He refuses to give up hope, even if he is pessimistic, given the awesome power a single rabid group can wield, with nearly all of them fanatical faithful.

Historically, it interesting  in the 20th Century as Europe abandoned its Christian roots  how many  people  actually died over the last 100 years.  Far more died under the "godless" Stalinists and Fascists of the last century than did any Christian war of the past 2000 years.  So I find it sort of laughable and ignorant to think that civilization would be better off without faith.
I find it quite laughable that Christians should try to use some kind of historical numbers shoot-out between Christians and non-Christians to prove that faith is necessary for civilisation.  But if you're going to use that argument then you'd better not forget to include the 3 million killed in Vietnam by believers, and the 600,000+ so far in Iraq.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 4, 2007 8:02 AM.

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