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                   August 2005 Book Review and Quotes Archive

  

 

                                     The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

                                                                                By: Sam Harris

                                                                      W.W. Norton Books 2004

                                                                            ISBN: 0-393-03515-8

 

It is ironic that Sam Harris begins his book with a description of a young man bombing a bus in the heart of a city.  Though published

in 2004, the description appears to fit very well the recent London transit bombings.  And this is precisely why this book demands our

attention in this time of growing radical, religious fundamentalism of whatever variety. 

Sam Harris presents as a quiet, thoughtful, reflective person in television interviews and public presentations.  His background is in

philosophy and he is now completing his doctorate in neuro-science.  He presents his analysis of religion in a deliberate, careful,

rational manner.  Yet the result is powerful. 

The book his two major themes.  The first part is comprised of a critique of the irrational basis of religious faith and the often terrible

consequences of these beliefs.   This is not a tentative or hesitating criticism.  At a time when the negative effects of religion and

religious thinking are becoming increasingly visible, this book serves notice that making accommodations to religious thinking serves

only to allow it to perpetuate its destructive influence.  A belief that killing innocent people is responding to the will of one’s God is not

an idea to be given credence.  And yet it flows directly from religious ideology and scripture.  

After surveying the current effects of religious beliefs, Harris then explores the nature of belief and how it relates to reason by providing

an excellent review of the criteria and process of determining truth—or what in philosophy is called epistemology. 

Building on this analysis, he then reviews the effect of irrational belief in the history of Christianity with the Inquisition, the Cathar

persecution, the witch hunts and finally the Holocaust.  His point is that the moderation and toleration that is generally accepted today

is not a result of the religious belief itself, but the modulating influence of the Enlightenment and the political separation of church and

state that followed.  This is followed by a detailed chapter analyzing the rise of radical and violent Islam.  But lest we think we are

immune from the effect of religious fundamentalism, he points out its current effect over issues such as the Ten Commandments

controversy, the role of “faith-based” legislative efforts, the attempt to legislate what had previously been areas of private freedom, the

movement to control embryonic stem cell research,  and, of course, the abortion debate.

Harris is particularly critical of what he calls the “myth of moderation” which flows from the postmodern viewpoint that all ideas are

relative and none can be held truer or better than others.

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we know what

we were talking about.  And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers,

because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred.  To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of the world—to say, for

instance, that the Bible and Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates

currently conceive it.  But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.  We must finally recognize the price we

are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance. [i]

The second part of the book is what makes it so significant  This is not just another attack on the irrationality of religious faith.  Harris

acknowledges the legitimacy of the issues that religion attempts to address.  

What makes one person happier than another?  Why is love more conducive to happiness than hate?  Why do we generally prefer

beauty to ugliness and order to chaos?  Why does it feel so good to smile and laugh, and why do these shared experiences

generally bring people closer together?  Is the ego an illusion, and, if so, what implications does this have for human life?  Is there

life after death?  These are ultimately questions for a mature science of the mind.  If we ever develop such a science, most of our

religious texts will be no more useful to mystics than they are now to astronomers.[ii]

 First he addresses ethics.  What kind of ethics is possible without a faith in a supernatural God?  One based in reason and that

incorporates our growing knowledge of ourselves at the level of the brain.  Where currently there is little consensus on moral issues,

a sustained inquiry will force the convergence  of various belief systems as it has done in other sciences.  Moral relativism will no 

longer make sense (“we can’t really judge the suicide bomber”) because we will have developed verifiable criteria for moral and ethical

behavior.  Harris explores a number of contemporary issues from this perspective including terrorism, torture and pacifism.  Furthermore,

ethics is intimately connected with spirituality. 

In the next chapter he reframes the entire arena of spirituality from the religious to the scientific in the newly emerging field of

consciousness studies.   He is hesitant to use the words spirituality or mysticism because “neither word captures the reasonableness

and profundity of the possibility that we must now consider: that there is a form of well-being that supersedes all others, indeed, that

transcends the vagaries of experience itself”. [iii]  Specifically he refers to those traditions that identify spirituality with consciousness

itself—with  the observer of content rather than the content itself, which frees us from the vicissitudes of experience. 

Our spiritual traditions suggest that we have considerable room here to change our relationship to the contents of consciousness,

and thereby to transform our experience of the world.  Indeed, a vast literature on human spirituality attests to this.  It is also clear

that nothing need be believed on insufficient evidence for us to look in this possibility with an open mind.[iv]

 It is tempting to quote whole sections of this final chapter in which Harris rescues spirituality from religion.  He explores the nature of

consciousness and the various efforts within traditional religions to change the nature of consciousness through sustained introspection

and the refinement of attention.  He applies this to an analysis of the nature of the self—how it arises, what sustains it and how it can be

transcended.  He compares Eastern to Western philosophy and religion and questions why the Eastern analysis appears to be so much

more sophisticated.  And finally he describes meditation as a form of introspection in a section which can serve as a primer to meditative

practice.  All of this is done from an empirical perspective informed by modern studies of consciousness rather than from religious doctrine.

 The only lack in this book is the omission of the psychodynamic explanation for faith as originally proposed by Freud and more recently in

the book The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief by M.D. Faber.  Harris takes a more cultural and societal  perspective. 

 Few books describe more clearly the transition to a post-religious era and establish  so clearly why it is of such importance. 

 The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered.  Whether the days of our civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend,

rather too much, on how soon we realize this.[v]

 Review by John Parker

 

 

 

 

                                             August 2005 Weekly Quotes    

 

"Just surrender to the cycle of things, Give yourself to the waves of the Great Change, And when it is time to go, then simply go, without

any unnecessary fuss."
T'ao Ch'ien
 

A truly rational approach to this dimension of our lives would allow us to explore the heights of our subjectivity with an open mind, while

shedding the provincialism and dogmatism of our religious traditions in favor of free and rigorous inquiry. [pp.40-41] 
Sam Harris, The End of Faith
 

There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than our current beliefs about God. [p.214]
Sam Harris, The End of Faith
 

It is time we realized that we need not be unreasonable to suffuse our lives with love, compassion, ecstasy, and awe: nor must we

renounce all forms of spirituality or mysticism to be on good terms with reason. [p.43]
Sam Harris, The End of Faith

   

                                                                  

 

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