Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of ReasonThe End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read Letter to a Christian Nation, which I thought was good in places but overall too antagonistic in tone, I was unprepared to like The End of Faith. But Harris's sometimes bitingly funny writing style and clear argumentation hooked me.

As far as the substance of his main arguments, this much I can agree with: Beliefs matter. If you believe that Heaven awaits you for martyrdom in the cause of propagating your faith, then you are a tinderbox waiting for a fuse. A "fundamentalist" is only as prone to violence or peacefulness as the fundamentals (i.e., sacred texts) mandate in their plain language.

His last chapter on the nature of consciousness is a great tonic for the fearful portrayal of violent faith in the rest of the book. He really makes a wonderful case here for the efficacy of contemplative mysticism to short-circuit religion's claims on what is reality. He also argues that religions of the East offer far more wisdom than the Abrahamic religions of the West due to their emphasis on examining the nature of consciousness.

I agree with one other of his main arguments, too, which is really a corollary of the arguments above. Harris points out that not all religions are the same. His most striking case study is that of Jainism. In the chapter "The Problem With Islam", he writes:

A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely. We  would lose more of our crops to pests, perhaps (observant Jains generally will not kill anything, including insects), but we would not find ourselves surrounded by suicidal terrorists or by a civilization that widely condones their actions.

Incidentally, he repeats this same line of reasoning in Letter to a Christian Nation, and with equally convincing effect.

Of his main theses, however, I still cannot support the idea that religious liberals and "moderates" are worse than fundamentalists because they somehow provide cover for religious extremism. He doesn't make that case well. His argument is basically that religious moderates rely on the same sacred texts as fundamentalists and therefore offer credibility and respectability for the worst parts of those texts, namely the worst parts of the Bible and the Koran. I don't think that's the case.

Whereas I do think that religious moderates (or what I often call "religious modernists") in the West owe a great debt to the advances of secular knowledge that have led to all the modern movements of liberation since the Renaissance, and especially since the Enlightenment, I don't think that means that modernist approaches to traditional religion are null and void.

In fact, I think Harris buries the lead of his book in the Epilogue. There he writes:

The only thing we should respect in a person's faith is his desire for a better life in this world; we need never have respected his certainty that one awaits him in the next.

That's actually a strong argument not to alienate religious moderates, but rather to embrace them. Many religious moderates already do compassionate work for the betterment of humanity now on account of their faith. The End of Faith would be more balanced if Harris made this plain.

My biggest problem with the book is his statement "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Harris has received a lot of criticism for this statement, so I'll not regurgitate it all here. His response on his blog, in which he places the statement in context, I still find unsatisfactory. Beliefs matter, but it is a bedrock principle of democratic society that one's right to hold certain beliefs is, shall we say, sacrosanct.

Overall, a compelling and thought-provoking book. I highly recommend it, despite its flaws.