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A review of "The End of Faith" by James Scanlan, Ph. D  

"Intelligent dissent has its limits. People who believe that the earth is flat are not dissenting geographers; people who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred are not dissenting historians; people who think that the God created the Universe in 4004 BC are not dissenting cosmologists; and we will see that people who practice barbarism like "honor killing" are not dissenting ethicists." -- p. 184, "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris.

Human beings know that they are going to die; that bad things often happen to good people, and justice, on this earth, is often hard to come by. All religions attempt to solve the problems of death and justice, usually suggesting that faithful people don't truly die, that that there is life after death, and that "the faithful" get their just rewards for their lives and conduct while on earth. For many, without such beliefs, life on earth looks like a chaotic, dog-eat-dog free for all, with tragedy at every turn. What Sam Harris argues in The End of Faith is that these beliefs are fundamentally irrational, and that the "real world" cost of maintaining such ideas is too high, resulting in never-ending warfare between groups and barbaric practices that are condoned because they are seen as part of a religious "sacred space".

The End of Faith by Sam Harris is a great brawling fistfight of a book. You may agree or disagree with his arguments, but remaining indifferent is no more possible than being blasé after being punched in the face. I personally admire any writer who has the guts to stake out an unpopular and provocative position and defend it strongly, without misdirection or holding back. Harris does that here, arguing that there are huge logical contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in most religions; that intolerance is built into every religion, and religions are not subject to revision on the basis of evidence; and that even "true believers" will use causal reasoning and factual evidence in areas outside of their religious beliefs. Additionally, Harris believes that "cultural relativism" and pacifism are bankrupt, and that even in the realms of faith and ethics there is the possibility of establishing some "truths" rather than just a multitude of diverse opinions. He reserves special ire for Islam, which he views as "undeniably a religion of conquest" which finds itself at war with all of its non-Muslim neighbors. Finally, Harris points out the huge expenses and contradictions caused by the prosecution of victimless crimes which be believes to be the result of a religiously inspired "war on sin".

While I applaud Harris's efforts in writing a manifesto to rid the world of irrational thoughts and the barbaric behaviors that often arise from them, I question some of his premises. What Harris really wants is the end of irrationality, of which he believes religion in general is an example, and Islam in particular is a problem case. He seems to believe that humans are rational 99% of the time, and that religion is just part of a 1% vestigial irrationality that needs to be eradicated. I feel that this is much too optimistic, that people have much higher rates of irrational or emotionally based beliefs. Pure rationality and consistent logic are used by the scientifically inclined, but are by no means predominant in the world. Additionally, Harris overlooks that fact that many irrational beliefs, although false, are actually advantageous to those that hold them. Some historical examples of such false beliefs: it is fine to own, use and abuse black slaves because they are an inferior race; and women should not be allowed to vote or own property because they are less intelligent or more "emotional". If there are large socioeconomic advantages to holding “false beliefs”, such ideas may represent more than simply irrational "cognitive errors".

Harris attributes a host of conflicts directly to religion. While it appears that many conflicts have a religious basis, I fear it may simply be a part of human nature to feel your personal religion/nation/political system is inherently superior to all others, and that this "superiority" is used to justify violence against others. For example, the U.S.S.R. was ostensibly an atheistic system, yet belief in communism seemed to function as a state "religion" and the Soviets did not lack for conflicts with other nations or atrocities against their own people. Thus the central problem may be that most human groups have (and perhaps need) beliefs that say that their in-group is somehow superior to all others, and religions and ideologies may serve as the boundaries of those in-groups. Religion, like optimism, may be a belief system that distorts a realistic view of the world, but makes its adherents happier and better adjusted as a result.

Despite these caveats, I feel that this is a courageous book that should provoke new and often contradictory ideas in thoughtful readers. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt "Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to …live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

Sam Harris will never live in gray twilight.

Some striking quotes that distill the essence of much of his argument:

p.17 "Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interest of living in the modern world."

p. 46 "the fact that we are no longer killing people for heresy in the West suggests that bad ideas, however sacred, cannot survive the company of good ones forever.

p. 86 "Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance only grows when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous"-Will Durant

p. 105 "Although not a single leader of the Third Reich-not even Hitler himself-was ever excommunicated, Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992".

p. 109 "the world is filled with poor uneducated and exploited peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism"and the Muslim world has no shortage of educated and prosperous men and women "who are eager to murder infidels for God's sake."

p. 134 "Paul Berman has written a beautiful primer on totalitarianism-of the left and the right, East and West-and observed that it invariably contains a genocidal, and even suicidal dimension. He notes that the twentieth century was a great incubator of "pathological mass movements" -political movements that “get drunk on the idea of slaughter."

p. 135 "The Israelis have shown a degree of restraint in their use of violence that the Nazis never contemplated, and that, more to the point, no Muslim society would contemplate today. Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews if the Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism?"

p.137 ..."whenever large numbers of people begin turning themselves into bombs, or volunteer their children for use in clearing minefields (as was widespread in the Iran-Iraq war) the rationale behind their actions has ceased to be merely political."

p. 143 "It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development."

p. 150 "If you live in a land where certain things cannot be said about the king, or about an imaginary being, or about certain book, because such utterances carry the penalty of death, torture or imprisonment, you do not live in a civil society."

p.152 "...the development of alternative energy technologies should become the object of a new Manhattan Project -- If oil were to become worthless -- Muslims might then come to see the wisdom of moderating their thinking on a wide variety of topics."

p. 159 "...we must ask ourselves, why would anyone want to punish people for engaging in behavior that brings no significant risk of harm to anyone?"

p. 176 "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence" - Christopher Hitchens.

p. 178 "...many intellectuals tend to speak as though something in the last century of ratiocination in the West has placed all worldviews more or less on an equal footing. No one is ever really right about what he believes; he can only point to a community of peers who believe likewise."

p. 180 "To lose the conviction that you can actually be right-about anything- seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." "For the realist, our statements about the world will be 'true' or 'false' not merely with reference to any culture bound criteria, but because reality simply is a certain way, independent of our thoughts. "To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered -- and thus we can be right or wrong about them"


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