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October 12, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books

Book Review: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

If I didn't know any better, I'd say The End of Faith was a bad joke. This is the bestselling advocacy for atheism and screed against the evils of religion? The world's freethinkers deserve better than Harris. His basic thesis is that we can no longer accept fanaticism--and Harris defines all religion as fanaticism or enabling to fanaticism--because of the destructive potential technology has given us. That's all well and good. I think we can all agree that we're not terribly keen on nuclear annhilation or biological warfare, and there's an argument to be made about the conflict between science and those who would scorn it while they harness its destructive potential. Harris, however, is not the person to make that argument.

First of all, The End of Faith is riddled with logical errors and inconsistencies. For example, the author seems to think that it's very important to open with a commentary on beliefs, and how they define a world around us that is subjective. "No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all" he writes, and implicitly endorses the "brain in a jar" thinking that every basic philosophy freshman briefly entertains. He also includes the dubious notation that there "seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena," even though in later chapters he relies heavily on the progress of science, objectivity, and Enlightenment thought. It's just very strange, and it makes his argument seem nonsensical at best. Similar logical faults, the kind that should have been caught by even the clumsiest editor (or indeed, the aforementioned freshman in philosophy), are entirely too common.

Second, Harris seems to take leave of his senses entirely halfway through The End of Faith and launches into a rabid, neoconservative anti-Islam crusade. Perhaps understandably, he seems to have taken September 11th as an example of religious extremism gone horribly awry. However, the hyperbole here comes off as hysterical, in a chapter titled "The Problem with Islam." "We are at war with Islam," he states, shortly after castigating the War on Terror as being a meaningless conflict against a large idea (another one of those pesky logical inconsistencies). He spends several pages pulling out violent and deadly quotes from the Koran, which is tedious and mean-spirited. It's also not a terribly convincing argument. Anyone can cherrypick scripture to suit their needs. Only because Harris explicitly defines religious moderates as enablers of fundamentalism can he even make the argument.

Look, I'm no fan of militant Islam--or militant anything, really (although in a bizarre detour, Harris also tries to prove the supreme immorality of pacifism). And religious moderates who make excuses for fundamentalists also bother me. But the insistence that they must all be converted to atheism or militarily destroyed just doesn't sit well with me as a rational option. For example, note Harris's strange justification of terror: having redefined all ethics as the awareness of the pain of others, he imagines a "torture pill" that would inflict pain while simultaneously blocking the external reaction of the subject. Even as a thought exercise and a loophole, it doesn't make any sense. Obviously, wouldn't the person applying the pill have to be conscious that it would cause discomfort? Unless it kills the subject (thus rendering it useless), wouldn't their subsequent confession break the ethical barrier? Harris doesn't even touch on the accuracy of the information from this torture. And he's the rational one?

Add in the elevation of Eastern mysticism, and what you have is a severely schizophrenic work. Harris wholeheartedly endorses Eastern philosophies as gentler, less violent, and more self-aware than those bad ol' Western religions. Nowhere in Taoism or Buddhism, he states, could we find anything as horrific as the Koran or the Bible. Allow me to say this as someone who has studied Chinese history, religion, and literature: balderdash. The argument is just pure orientalism, on par with The Last Samurai and businessmen praising The Art of War. Just as with his treatment of the Koran, Harris is cherry-picking in order to make a point. I personally doubt that those who died to build the Great Wall, who were killed in Qin Shi Huang's wars of conquest, who had their feet bound to fit a feminine ideal, or who joined in the codes of Kamikaze and Bushido, would agree with Harris's idolatry of the East.

Perhaps he has answers for these criticisms. But since the book is only 200-odd pages of actual text, followed by another couple hundred pages of endnotes, I can't honestly be bothered to read through his research material after such a nonsensical slog. It feels like padding for a weak argument. It feels juvenile.

The picture is simply more complex than The End of Faith is willing to admit. It pains me to see such a disjointed text representing atheism, and it pains me even more because the subject matter showed such promise. I'm always interested in advancing rationalism and fighting religious extremism--but I don't want Sam Harris on my side. If he's looking for fanatics, all he needs to do is glance into the closest reflective surface.

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