Book Review: The End of Faith By Sam Harris

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

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Book Review: The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living By Mark Boyle

What would you do if you had no money? The obvious answer is ‘get money’. But what if you couldn’t get money or more specifically didn’t want to get money. Welcome to the world of Mark Boyle. In The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, Mark Boyle puts his mouth where his money used to be.

It’s easy to think of life without enough money. For most of us, that life IS our life. But trying to think of life without money at all is actually somewhat difficult. If you need food, you can go to the store or you can go to McDonalds. If you need food but you have no money and refuse to take charity in the form of money or friends giving you stuff, this simple need becomes a bit of an adventure. What do you do? You can grow some of your own food if there is a community garden they’ll let you use. You can go dumpster diving or ask local businesses if they’re throwing anything out. You can forage in the forest. The thing that this book illustrates time and again is that there are options without money.

It begins with a fantastic and simple description of finances, banking and debt. He explains clearly how he’s not against the concept of money exactly. He’s against debt. He’s against what world currencies have created. He’s against financial institutions that only exist to make rich people richer. Some protest these people who seem to have rigged the system. Mark Boyle makes an interesting choice by walking away from the game entirely.

It would be easy to pick this book apart if I wanted to. I could point out how much stuff he got simply because he was lucky. (Not everyone who reads the book is going to be able to put a donated trailer on a community garden and live rent free.) Or I could say that he violates his own rules again and again. I mean he goes on about how he doesn’t like to eat animals and doesn’t want to use cars because of big oil companies and whatnot, but he still has a cell phone and a laptop. However, none of that really matters. This isn’t a book about living like a monk. It’s about what’s possible even without money.

This isn’t new thinking. In fact it’s very old thinking. The idea of trading and bartering for goods and services is as old as humanity. I think that’s why it’s so appealing.

For me, the problem is that I am really nothing like Mark Boyle. Towards the end he says, “We cannot have fast cars, computers the size of credit cards, and modern conveniences, while simultaneously having clean air, abundant rainforests, fresh drinking water, and a stable climate.” I disagree with this. I think that science and technology are the problem and the solution. I think that technology can make things easier and better. The problem isn’t so much the technology and science as it is the profit.

There was an interview with a record executive that I can’t find now. In it, the executive talked about how it used to be that you’d find a band. You’d help them create a voice. You’d help them create an album and a sound. You’d help them tour. And you’d help them work on their next album. You’d let their career be your career. Now though, most record executives don’t care. They find someone they can make one number one hit with, they push that as hard as they can and make a million damn dollars and they’re done. It’s fine for business to be about money. It should be. But it should be about more than just money. It’s the WalMart-ization of the world. Price and profit over quality and innovation. This is where our real problem lies.

– Jack Cameron

Review – Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life

There are only a handful of books that I’ve read that really changed my life. One of those books was The Game by Neil Strauss. It’s a book I liked so much I even mentioned it in my book. While those who have not read it may think it’s just a book on how to pick up girls, it’s really a lot more than that. Neil Strauss uses that premise to hang an entertaining and informative narrative, and then goes one step further by not just showing various pick up techniques but showing where the limits are on that sort of thing. After reading The Game, I instantly had more confidence when it came to women and for the first time in my life really felt comfortable in any given social setting. The Game changed things for me.

It’s because of the effect The Game had on me that I picked up Neil’s latest book: Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life. Instead of Pick Up Artists, this time around Neil submerged himself in Survivalists. Like a lot of people, the past eight years has scared the hell out of Neil Strauss, but he’s not the sort to just be scared. Instead, he started looking into ways to assuage his fears. Nowhere else are you going to find a book that talks about everything from living in the forest to cryonics and the benefits of owning goats.
Like The Game, Emergency is told in an entertaining narrative format. At first this didn’t seem like it was going to work as well as it did in The Game. The first hundred pages or so have less to do with survival techniques and more to do with the reasons for his various fears. Luckily, all of that was just laying the groundwork for the rest of the book.

Once the book gets rolling, it’s a lot of fun. The cast of characters may not be as colorful and crazy as his friends in The Game, but they’re a hell of a lot more dangerous. One of the things that makes Neil Strauss’ books so damn readable is that he approaches these ‘experts’ with the same sort of wary eye that most of us would. When he goes to Tom Brown’s infamous boot camp, he thinks most of the people there are crazy. He pitches his tent wrong and it floods. He hates it. And yet, he’s learning. He takes what he can from the camp without drinking the Kool-Aid. That’s what makes Emergency such a good read. Unlike most Survivalists, he’s not trying to brainwash anyone. He’s just talking about what happened to him and what he went through.

About two-thirds into Emergency, Neil Strauss has turned himself into a force to be reckoned with. He can live off the land indefinitely. He’s trained to use various forms of firearms. He can build a shelter out of just about anything. He can track and identify an animal by its prints. He is prepared for the shit to hit the fan. That would be enough there to recommend this book, but then something else happens.

The last third of the book surprised me. He goes from being a survivalist to being something else. Something better. I don’t want to say too much because I think it’s better that you read it for yourself, but yet again, like The Game, he turns out to be a better person than you’d think. Even if he did kill a goat.

Whatever Neil does next, I’m looking forward to it. He’s one of the best Stunt Non-Fiction writers* out there.
-Jack Cameron

* Stunt Non-Fiction: A term I made up to describe non-fiction books where the author essentially takes a subject, throws himself into it, and then writes about it. Other Stunt Non-Fiction writers include AJ Jacobs and me, among others.

The Wheelman

What do you do if you’ve just written a book about the history of bank robberies and bank robbery techniques? Well, if you’re Duane Swierczynski, author of This Here’s A Stick Up, you write The Wheelman. The Wheelman is about a bank robbery that goes about as wrong as it can go.

 

One of my favorite movies is Red Rock West. I like it because throughout the entire movie Nicholas Cage’s character simply cannot catch a break. Even when it seems like things are working out, they turn out worse than before. However, compared to The Wheelman, Nick Cage’s character went through a walk in the park.

 

Lennon is the title character and an absolute pro behind the wheel. Unfortunately he doesn’t get to spend much time driving because he’s too busy being kicked, shot, burned, tortured, and dragged all over the underworld of Philadelphia. I really don’t want to say too much about the plot because it’s too much fun finding out what’s going to happen next.

 

The Wheelman reads like the absolute worst nightmare of any pro bank robber. Murphy’s Law will not cut it. This is Lennon’s Law: anything that can go wrong has gone more wrong than you thought possible. Unlike most novels of this genre, the characters barely have a chance to catch their breath. Most of the chapters are short quick jabs and then you’re suddenly hit with something you didn’t even see coming.

 

Since I’m currently working on a novel directly after writing a non-fiction book, I know that it takes different muscles to do it. I was glad to see that Swierczynski was able to make the transition so easily. His writing is still incredibly relaxed and fun to read. I felt like I should have had a drink in front of me the whole time, but I know I wouldn’t have had time to drink it because I was too busy reading the next chapter.

 

Swierczynski is definitely on my list of novelists I must read, right next to George Pelacanos, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.