Better Not to Believe?

Book cover
The End of Faithby By Sam HarrisW. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 348p $24.95 (hardcover) $13.95 (paperback)

As if religion did not have enough problems, Sam Harris in The End of Faith condemns the three great Abrahamic religions as the cause of violence and war in the world. A little shocking and indeed offensive to people who try to get through life’s daily trials in a moral and faith-filled way, The End of Faith is nonetheless an interesting book that attempts to address today’s discontinuities between religion and politics.

The author’s compelling prose puts the kibosh on religious belief and its penchant for getting in the way of facts and reason. Faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst it is a continuous source of human violence. In his view, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have led people to war and terrorism.

Harris, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University, condemns, for example, those who believe in the afterlife, because they claim to be the only ones who will enter the Kingdom of God. This belief omits those outside the faith from being saved on Judgment Day. So, the logic goes, why respect or tolerate people of other faiths who are deemed inhuman?

Give people divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after death, and then oblige them to live together with limited resources. The result is just what we see: an unending cycle of murder and cease-fire. Add weapons of mass destruction to this diabolical clockwork, and you have found a recipe for the fall of civilization.

Harris is leery of people with strong, faith-filled convictions. They tend to disrespect evidence and rational argumentthe hallmarks of peaceful cooperation and collaboration in a civil societyand they are unwilling to modify their beliefs by the introduction of new facts. Openness, he says, is the antidote to faith, which can secure the world for all of us.

The author’s premise is that the brain is tuned to deliver the vision of the world that you are having at this moment. In other words, one’s beliefs are linked to one’s actions, and this is what leads some people of faith to violence. For instance, the hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, believed their martyrdom would lead them to paradise. At the same time, 44 percent of Americans believe that within the next 50 years Jesus will come and that the war in Iraq will lead us to Armageddon. Zionist Jews believe that God promised them the land of Israel and so they justifiably drove out the Palestinians who were living there.

Beliefs like these come from literal interpretations of religion’s holy books, which Harris points out were written by

sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldviewis to repudiate 2,000 years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture.

This is a little disheartening for those of us who believe in God’s love and enduring revelations to his people. But it brings readers to a basic, two-part question for our time: What constitutes a civil society, and how can we achieve it? Harris’s answer to the first part is to identify ourselves as human beings, not members of religious tribes that demand faith-filled loyalties to a vengeful God. His answer to the second is that we commit ourselves to a critique of all ideas, without risking the retribution of censorship or violence. 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.

Most puzzling is Harris’s attitude toward religious moderates. He puts down those who allow people to believe whatever they want about God. This sort of tolerance, he says, is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss. It is quite surprising that he would see an act of tolerance as a negative. Meanwhile, he relies on moderate Muslims as the key to turning the small group of violent jihadists away from their sociopathic behavior: Unless the world’s Muslims can find some way of expunging a theology that is fast turning their religion into a cult of death, we will ultimately face the same perversely destructive behavior throughout much of the world.

Despite his acerbic treatise against religious belief and his preferences for modernist thought, Harris does not suggest that we live should by reason alone. Spirituality and reason together are essential components for good living that make possible such things as love, compassion, ecstasy and awe. Nothing is more sacred than the facts, he says, and the litmus test for reasonableness should beto know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms.

Most interesting is Harris’s own belief about the purpose of life, and he resorts to what Kant and Jesus suggested long ago: To treat others ethically is to act out of concern for their happiness and suffering. Here, perhaps, is one point on which believers and modernists can come together to resolve the fight between religion and politics. But, contrary to Harris, it will take faith and hope to get us there.

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