Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
Put aside the books of these prophets, O' Faraz Who'll look at these hateful writings all his life?**
Sam Harris didn't write his book, The End of Faith, with the same conviction, single-mindedness, and sense of purpose as did Richard Dawkins who, when he subsequently wrote his book The God Delusion, proclaimed, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." No such claim is made by Harris about The End of Faith.
In the first chapter, "Reason in Exile," Harris suggests that the ubiquity of religious faith is due to the fact that:
... most Christians and Jews do not read the Bible in its entirety and consequently have no idea just how vigorously the God of Abraham wants heresy expunged. One look at the book of Deuteronomy reveals that he has something very specific in mind should your son or daughter return from yoga class advocating the worship of Krishna: If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to seduce you saying, "Let us go and serve other gods," unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away, anywhere throughout the world, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God ..." (Deuteronomy 13:7-11).
It is not that many of them have not read such passages in the Bible, Koran, or other religious books, rather it is that there is a certain aura about these books which captures the minds of the believers with such intensity that they don't feel any sense of unreality about them. They read the text but do not question it. Their faith is total and blind. When they read other books, e.g., books of science, philosophy, politics, etc., their rational skepticism automatically comes into play. Divinity seals their minds. The author alludes to this dichotomy in this chapter. He writes:
Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as any one else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.
The author rather simplistically correlates terrorism directly with the Koranic text. The text that he has quoted is correct and is of similar genre as the Deuteronomy text quoted above (and at several other places in the book) in a different context. The Koran is not distinctly any more terrifying than the Bible or other religious books. In my opinion, however, the roots of Arab terrorism are political. There were no suicide bombings before 1948 when the state of Israel was created. Millions of Palestinians were displaced and rendered homeless. This was the rankling root-cause which engendered the terrorism that we encounter every now and then. The author has essentially corroborated this view in chapter 3. He writes:
Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous as its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers by exercising their "freedom of belief" on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Osama bin Laden has exploited this political backdrop as much as he could by invoking the Koran.
In this background, the author's description of extremism and extremists should become more plausible. He states, "They [Muslims] are extreme in their faith. They are extreme in their devotion to the literal word of the Koran and the hadith (the literature recounting the sayings and actions of the prophet), and this leads them to be extreme in the degree to which they believe that modernity and secular culture are incompatible with moral and spiritual health."
Harris is at his best when he directs his critical rationalism toward mythical beliefs of religion. He writes:
In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs.
He argues using philosophical and logical arguments to demand evidence to support our beliefs. In the subsection "Faith and Evidence" in chapter 2 (The Nature of Belief), he writes:
To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and my acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary as any other.
This is true only of those people who think that God can be explained rationally. It doesn't work with those who believe in a transcendental God who is beyond space and time, and beyond human comprehension. With rational arguments, you can go only so far, not all the way, when belief in God is concerned. This explains the results of the Newsweek poll according to which "more than a third of Americans (36 percent) think the power of organized religion has increased in recent years, and a plurality (32 percent) say religion has too much influence," (Jon Meacham, Newsweek, April 9, 2007).
Harris himself has provided instances of the overwhelming power of traditional faith over reason in his book. For example, he writes:
It appears that even the Holocaust did not lead most Jews to doubt the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. If having half of your people systematically delivered to the furnace does not count as evidence against the notion that an all-powerful God is looking out for your interests, it seems reasonable to assume that nothing could.
And Jews are not the only ones who suffer from this delusional malaise, it is almost universal, embracing Muslims, Christians, Hindus, etc.
Harris also asserts:
The faithful have never been indifferent to the truth; and yet the principle of faith leaves them unequipped to distinguish truth from falsity in matters that must concern them. The faithful can be expected to behave just like their secular neighbors--which is to say, more or less rationally--in their worldly affairs. When making important decisions, they tend to be as attentive to evidence and to its authentication as any unbeliever.
Harris uses numerous factual examples to underline the irrationality and hollowness of religious faith, yet the majority of believers are not budged from the faith which they inherited from their forebears. Consider the following as one such example. Quoting from The Profession of Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, Harris writes:
I likewise profess that in the Mass a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead, and the Body and the Blood, together with the soul and the divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and there is a change of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into Blood; and this change the Catholic mass calls transubstantiation. I also profess that the whole and entire Christ and a true sacrament is received under each separate species.
The author discusses the Inquisition, its history and perpetration of inconceivable atrocities; anti-Semitism, historical and modern; and the Holocaust in chapter 3. This chapter is particularly noteworthy for its detailed descriptions of torture and torment, burning of witches, and of the stoning of those who were branded heretical. The chapter ends with:
... we confront a civilization [Islamic] with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately, they are now armed with twenty-first century weapons.
Chapter 4, "The Problem with Islam," is powerful. It includes numerous quotations from the Koran (pages 118 to 123 do not contain anything but these quotations) in support of jihad and the killing of infidels. These quotations support the view that Islam is a religion of violence despite its literal connotation as a religion of peace. But so is every other religion. Harris writes, "As we have seen, Christianity and Judaism can be made to sound the same intolerant note--but it has been a few centuries since either has done so."
The truth is, as the author has noted, that the Muslim world is a few centuries behind the West. Whether it will emerge successfully or not, as the West has done (or has it?), and learn to live peacefully remains to be seen. The Islamic world is also riven by an internal struggle between the extremely orthodox and secular skeptics. Time cannot be turned back; the Muslim world will have to reform its fifteen-centuries-old ideology into a meaningful and rational way of life--or completely abandon it. At the same time, it must be realized that much of the violence is not entirely due to religion, rather politics heavily involved as well, thus enabling dark side of Islam to come into play.
It appears that the dark forces of religion have not completely relinquished in the West, either, at least not in the USA, as Harris demonstrates in chapter 5, "West of Eden." Harris gives several specific examples of people in high positions who are dominated by biblical faith--President Bush's administration included--to support his thesis. It is not simply Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc., which contribute to large-scale hatred in the world; it is religion itself, religion of any and all kinds. Harris writes, "All of this should be terrifying to anyone who expects that reason will prevail in the inner sanctums of power in the West."
Chapters 6 and 7 are titled "A Science of Good and Evil" and "Experiments in Consciousness," respectively.
The book ends with an epilogue.
All in all, the book is a useful addition to the growing body of antireligious literature. And although the author doesn't make any specific claim that it will do so, The End of Faith might well change many readers into skeptics of religion.
** Ahmad Faraz is a distinguished Urdu poet of Pakistan who is secular in his outlook. The quoted verse reads in Urdu as follows: "Inn Rasoolon ki kitabain taaq mein rakh dau Faraz Nafraton kay yeh saheefay omar bhar dekhay ga kaun."
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