Book Review: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

I have read three of the four so called “Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  They are: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  I don’t plan on reading Dawkins book, at least not for a while.  From the excerpts I’ve read and from what I’ve heard, he’s basically doing a straw-man fallacy.  I would also include Victor Stenger as part of “The New Atheists” but he hardly gets any media attention.  From what I’ve read and heard, these New Atheists are playing the same game but with new cards.  Do they contribute something?  Yes, but I don’t think it’s original.  If you want a good atheistic book that deals with the hermeneutics of suspicion, I recommend Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Sartre.  These New Atheists are regurgitating the same arguments, but for modern times.  Nevertheless, if you ever get to read these New Atheists, I highly recommend Dennett’s book at least.  I’ve written about him from before, and he has certainly influenced my way of thinking in terms of religion.  I would avoid Hitchens at all costs.  His book is simply vitriolic, acerbic and filled with ad hominems that isn’t worthy of a book.  All in all, the New Atheists are starting (assuming?) atheism and so they have different projects.  Dennett’s is how can we explain religion through evolutionary means.  Hitchens is simply anger because religion doesn’t do anything, in fact it makes things worse.  Dawkins, as far as I can tell, is saying that science explains everything, so why add God into the picture?  At the same time, I do see Dawkins giving a Dostoevsky reason why one should rebel against God, but no one seems to pick up on that.  How does Harris stand in this array?

To start, these New Atheists are bringing up two questions:  1.  Is religion rational?  2.  Does religion lead to violence?  Let’s see what Harris says.

Harris’ claims can be summed up by stating that religion is dogmatized irrationality and it should basically stop.  From there, religion is irrational because it is based on illogical premises and it is inherently violent.  But now what about these “religious moderates” who don’t fit into the purely secular or the fundamentalist fringes?  Harris’ claim is shocking.  Even religious moderates aren’t helpful.  Indeed, they just exacerbate the problem.  This is because religious moderates are the ones who tolerate other religions.  Therefore, religious moderates condone violent acts from religion.  Already, I see a problem with this.  Religious moderates are angry for the unjustified violent acts.  However, they can differentiate between violent acts and religious intolerance.  Now, Harris claims that religious intolerance leads to violent acts.  But if this is true, then religious moderates (which, by definition, are tolerant of other religions) will not lead to violent acts.  It seems that the solution is to increase tolerance, not get rid of religion itself.  But Harris continues on: the reason why there are religious moderates in the first place is because science and living in the modern world have caught up with them.  And that in order to keep up to a modern society, the first thing that must go is some religious literalism (or perhaps ignore religious precepts altogether).  Harris writes “The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt” (p. 19).  This is something that I do think Harris contributes to the discussion.  Religious moderates aren’t genuinely religious.  Pure religious people are, by nature, intolerant.  Here’s the common sense view:

  1. If people are religious, and there also exists a modern society, then religion and modernity can co-exist.
  2. People are religious, and there also exists a modern society.
  3. Therefore, religion and modernity can co-exist.

In an interesting move, he flips the typical “common sense” argument on its head:

  1. If one is serious about religion, modern society cannot exist.  The fundamentalist wins because it stems from purely religious texts, faith, and irrationality.
  2. If a true modern society can exist, then religion should be gone, or people won’t take it seriously anymore.  The secularist wins because a modern society comes about from reason.
  3. However, people are religious, and a modern society does exist.
  4. Therefore, these religious people (who are neither fundamentalists, nor secularists, but moderates) are not taking their faith and reason seriously.
  5. Thus, religious moderates both fail to be genuinely religious and rational simultaneously.

I think, however, that this comes down to psychological and cultural preferences rather than a reasoned out dilemma.  In this, I find Dennett’s notion of belief in belief to be very apt as to why religious moderates exist.  It comes down to form an epistemic community rather than basing beliefs on some metaphysics.  Beliefs have become practical rather than evidential, and while Harris does sponsor a view close to W. K. Clifford’s evidentialism, I believe that Harris misses the point on why people believe, especially the moderates.  Their beliefs hold, but the practices don’t.  But this isn’t coming from a view that people have kept up with the modern world (although that could play a factor).  Rather, it’s because it’s part of one’s epistemic community.  Of course, I guess it comes down to how one defines “religious moderates.”  Does Harris say it’s the people who believe and are part of the practices, but who aren’t violent?  If so, he’s leaving out a demographic: the people who do believe but don’t practice.  And it’s these people that Harris isn’t speaking about.  On the other hand, Harris mentions that religious moderates aren’t authentic on their religion because they don’t fully follow the precepts exactly of their religious texts.  On this point, I think it’s true, but on the other hand, there are instances where people become moderate because of critical interpretation of the religious texts.  This doesn’t happen among the lay, but it does happen and this could trickle down to the lay.

Secondly, Harris is simply wrong that faith doesn’t evolve.  Religious beliefs, practices and faith itself does evolve.  If it doesn’t, that religion won’t survive.  This has been a constant in any intro to sociology class.  Religion does evolve to the modern world and people of faith don’t give up the faith because of new modern thinking.  Rather, or typically, believers accommodate both modernity and their faith into a new light.

Thirdly, Harris states that “the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist” (p. 20).  I guess one man’s equalization is another man’s contrapositive: maybe it’s the fundamentalist who failed to be a religious moderate.  However, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally because they’re not being sincere in their religious beliefs, nor are they being serious in their rationality.  Secular knowledge has forced moderates to ignore some of their religious claims.  Moderates aren’t truly religious.  In this, I somewhat agree, but I’m more inclined to Dennett’s thinking than Harris’s.

We can see Harris’ assumed epistemology: evidentialism, which is brought forth by Clifford’s essay.  By applying this standard, Harris notes that people who seriously believe certain propositions, they will act on them.  From here, there are certain beliefs that are intrinsically dangerous.  Moderates are part of the problem because they hold onto these religious beliefs.  Therefore, any toleration of religion (which is what the moderates do) is disastrous.  From this epistemic standpoint, religious beliefs are invalid because there’s no evidence to support them.  Here’s the problem: people aren’t evidentialists.  Yes, it could be nice if they were, but people believe not because of evidence.  Again, it comes from an epistemic community of believers and in this sense, Dennett is closer to being correct.  People do not follow the evidence conclusively.  Thus, one does not act out on one’s beliefs all of the time.

Harris brings up the disasters and violence that religion has done, but to me, these seem to be a non-sequitur.  People have done horrible things in the name of religion, but one cannot conclude that religion is therefore inherently dangerous.  In order for this to be so, Harris has to convince me that religion isn’t merely an instrument.

He brings up a bold claim that no politician would dare to say: we (the western world) are at war with Islam.  To be clear, he’s not saying we are at war with Muslims.  He wants to fight the religion, not the participants of religion.  He brings up points that no one recognizes: terrorists are actually rational, and studies show that terrorists actually come from middle- or upper-class upbringings.  The latter is easy to defend empirically, but what about the former?  Again, this stems from Harris’ assumed epistemology.  If beliefs dictate actions, and beliefs stem from religious propositions, and these religious propositions say to be violent, then the rational person would act violent.  There’s nothing crazy or flawed with this.  But if this is the case, isn’t every proposition rational if someone believes it?  But then how does one distinguish between rational and crazy?  Harris has an answer: the crazy people are those how hold onto a proposition but don’t act on it.  This sounds like they are the religious moderates which really flips the argument on its head.  He does bring up possible objections, that the reason for 9/11 was because of America’s bad foreign policy.  However, he uses radical people (Jean Baudrillard and Noam Chomsky) to represent this view.  But this is a serious flaw.  He can’t use radical people to represent a claim x and then as soon as he shows the flaws in their thinking, states that claim x must therefore be true.  To get a serious representation of claim x, he must include people that aren’t part of the fringe.

To be fair, he does bring up Fareed Zakaria (someone whom I admire greatly).  Zakaria’s position is something that I believe is a respectable position: the reason why there’s a mess in the Middle East isn’t stemming from religion, but from a lack of resources, bad politics and horrible economies.  Thus, if we modernize the Middle East so that there are stable, the Middle East will be caught up with the modern world and the violence will be lessened.  Harris’s reply is that people like bin Laden and countless others are wealthy and the have a high education.  Thus, one can have great economic prosperity, have a high education, but still be religiously intolerant.  The problem, therefore, is religion.  It is here that I think Harris has a very interesting syllogism:

  1. Either you believe that Islam is inherently dangerous, or it is not.
  2. If it is inherently dangerous, then any form of uncontainability will make things worse.
  3. Democracy is a form of government that (among other things) makes them part of the uncontainable world.
  4. Therefore, if Islam is inherently dangerous, bringing them democracy will just make things worse because they will bring more violence to the world.
  5. Thus, if you believe that Islam is inherently dangerous, then you should also believe that bringing them democracy will make things worse.  (This comes from his hidden epistemology.)

I think Harris’s syllogism is spot on, and I do think he makes a good point.  There were no religious fundamentalists causing harm (as far as I know) in Iraq during Saddam’s reign.  But I think he’s missing a huge chunk of Middle Eastern history.  Zakaria is right: the Middle East is a mess because of the resulting consequences of World War II and their perceived view of the West as a form of Imperialism.  Harris never brings up the notion that Islam was modernized in the 1800s, but it went back shortly after World War I.  It was possible that they could have achieved some modernization without the interference of outside powers.  Zakaria makes a stronger points.  It’s the politics of previous generations that has made them violent, and they use religion as an instrument to justify their violent actions.  If one took away the religion, would they still be violent?  Zakaria would say yes, Harris would say no.  In this, I believe Zakaria is correct.

So what is Harris’s solution?  He brings up three possibilities: hope for (or bring in) some benevolent dictator; nothing, in which case there will be a continuous war between the West and Islam; or (à la Thomas Friedman) bring in alternative energies so that the Middle East can no longer fund these extremists.  Oil needs to become worthless.  I brought this point up in a previous blog.

The next few chapters were a surprise because I didn’t think he’d bring them up.  The next deals with prosecuting victimless crimes.  For Harris, this is nothing but a “judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin” (p. 159).  These are things like drug usage, pornography, and sodomy laws.  In this, Harris is stating that true secularists should declare war on sin, suggesting that it doesn’t exist.

He next talks about morality, stating that one can be moral without religion.  This has been done, especially with Plato’s Euthyphro, but Harris believes that science will be able to explain morality once we can develop the ideas behind it.  Ethics must come down to the happiness, love, and getting rid of the suffering of individuals, but instead of going down the utilitarian route, he says that intentions do count.  In this, he critiques relativism and pragmatism.  I won’t go over the arguments against relativism since it’s been done ad nauseum, but his argument against pragmatism is really interesting.  Essentially, pragmatism is against realism.  Realism states that there are corresponding facts of the world and they are either true or false.  Pragmatism states that we can never know about the truth or false claims about the world, so our discursive notions of truth and falsity comes down to usage, or workable functionality.  Harris’s reply is a good one, I think.  Essentially, pragmatists claim that realism is false.  But isn’t this itself, a realism claim?  Thus, pragmatism contradicts itself.

And then he brings up another bold claim.  The Middle East has notions of “honor” killing.  But this causes major suffering to the women.  Therefore, Harris claims, Middle Eastern men do not really love their wives, sisters, daughters, or mothers.  They are not ethical.  As Harris states, “not learning to see others as ends in themselves is not another style of ethics.  It is a failure of ethics” (p. 190).  The reasonable thing to do is also the lovingly (and therefore, the ethical) thing to do.

Finally, he brings up the notion of consciousness which I found somewhat apropos to his whole (anti-)religious project.  Consciousness isn’t a thing but more of a process.  The “I” is always shifting and science shows this.  But then he brings up these claims that sounds almost antithetical to his project by bringing in meditation, more in the Buddhistic and Hinduistic kind.  These spiritual experiences, however, are not otherworldly, but something that needs to be seriously investigated.  It is a mysticism without religion.  More than that, mysticism is rational!

His project overall is ambitious but I think Harris is ignoring the political, epistemic, and cultural variables.  He also ignores the historical context about fundamentalism as well.  Fundamentalism is actually a modern phenomena, not an ancient one.

Should you read this?  Yes, but take it with a grain of salt.  Out of the New Atheists, Daniel Dennett is a must read and must be kept on the bookshelf, Harris is more of a read it, but with critical eyes, but it’s something that you can get at your library.  For Hitchens, it’s simply bad arguments.  For Dawkins, I suggest reading Hume and Dostoevsky for a better critique of religion.

UPDATE: 10/3/2010.  There’s a really good debate between Reza Aslan and Sam Harris. I think they both make excellent points, but I think Aslan makes a better argument.


About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Book Review, Culture, Daniel Dennett, Government, Middle East, Pragmatism, Religion, Respect, Science, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

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