I discovered Sam Harris when I found a link to an excellent article he wrote about violence and self-defense. It was well written and incredibly practical. However, the thing that got me most was that it actually gave me a new idea about violence:
“This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.”
This was a new concept to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with it. It was that I’d never really thought of it like that before. I read a few more of his posts on his site and then decided I would read one of his books. When I get interested in an author, I like to start with his first book whenever I can. So I got The End of Faith.
The End of Faith is about faith, religion, and the incredible dangers posed in the modern world by people who believe things with no evidence. As an atheist, I was a bit concerned that I’d read the book and my only reward would be that I’d have a few more points to make when I debate someone about the existence or non-existence of God. Surprisingly Sam Harris’ book is much more than that.
One thing that struck me about Harris’ writing is that he isn’t nice. He doesn’t try to bend the reader to his way of thinking. He hacks at the weakest points of some of the longest held beliefs in history. And he’s exceptional at it. He attacks blind faith with reason, practicality, and logic.
I’m sure it’s no surprised that in this first part, I was in complete agreement with him. I also thought how this first part of the book was so brutal that many Believers probably wouldn’t read further. This is unfortunate on many levels. Sam Harris is clearly a well educated smart man and he has something important to say here. I’d like to think that anyone, regardless of their faith would be interested in what a man like him has to say about religion and faith. Ultimately, if you read it and think he’s wrong, nothing has been done to your faith. If you read it and think he’s right, then your beliefs will have changed. Either way, it’s not damaging.
After clearly explaining why religion and blind faith don’t make a lot of sense in the modern world, Harris starts talking about the consequences of religion in the modern world. He touches on everything from missionaries not passing out contraception to suicide bombers whose actions are celebrated by the faithful. The picture he paints of the horrible things that happen because of what different people think happens after we die is startling.
This isn’t a new problem. Harris goes into detail about how history is full of atrocities and tragedies that are the result of religion. He acknowledges that religion has also contributed a great many good things to our society but not one of them would have been impossible without religion. Unlike things such as the Spanish Inquisition which required faith to happen.
With technology continuing to shrink our world and weapons of mass destruction being easier and easier to produce, the existence of groups of people who believe in things that cannot be proven and want to kill people who do not believe those things make religion and faith one of the most obvious dangers to our civilization. Harris goes into details on why this is true and what we should do about it. It’s here that he almost loses me. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I can find no fault in his logic. In many ways, I think that perhaps I just don’t want to agree.
After pointing out the fallacy of faith and the dangers of religion, Harris takes some time to talk about ethics. He does a reasonable job of pointing out that ethics do not need to be grounded in religion and that we don’t need a God or an old book to tell us what is right or wrong. I agree with this, but his thoughts on torture disturb me:
“Whenever we consent to drop bombs, we do so with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them. It is curious that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the unintended (thought perfectly foreseeable, and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.”
Personally, when it comes to torture, I’m against it in all cases. If for no other reason than it rarely produces good results. Torture to me is a failure of the interrogator. Then again, I’m not the biggest fan of bombs either. However, as he points out, regardless of the outcome of the torture, from a purely ethical standpoint, he has a good point.
Finally, Harris talks about spirituality. This was the last thing I expected on a book basically dedicated to the absurdity and horrendous consequences of religion. His thoughts here are lucid. He argues that in many cases religion gets in the way of spirituality and our objective study of it. I entirely agree with him. The most spiritual moments of my life had nothing to do with Jesus or church.
Often books like this will not have sources. They’ll read like manifestos. Harris’ book does not suffer from this. Almost a third of the entire book is full of notes about his sources and references. Clearly, he did his research.
The End of Faith is a book I’d love to share with my father and with any Believer I know. It’s challenging. It’s thought provoking. And it’s accessible. There’s not much more I ask for in a non-fiction book. I’m looking forward to reading more Sam Harris soon.
– Jack Cameron