David's Reviews > The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

The End of Faith by Sam Harris
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Nov 11, 2007

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Read in February, 2006

In The End of Faith, Harris does what any number of enlightenment rationalists before him have done: attempt to undermine the authority of religion by showing how scientific rationality discredits the notion of a supernatural being. Harris seizes on the inherent contradictions that arise when a document composed of ancient texts and shaped by historical, political and institutional forces is said to be the inerrant word of a transcendent being. A number of lines of attack open up as a result:
-God is kind of a jerk, at least in the Old Testament. He is capricious, cruel, vindictive, even murderous. Where does a God like this get any kind of moral authority and who would want to worship him anyway?
-Believers claim the bible to be the word of God, and hence a form of absolute truth, yet almost all are incredibly selective about what they choose to emphasize. The bible is an extremely contradictory book open to multiple interpretations, and in almost any situation the things determining the emphasis are historical and cultural, rather than textual. So believers are, on the one hand, claiming supernatural authority for their moral and ethical principles, when in fact what they are really doing is using the bible to rationalize and justify beliefs that they hold for other reasons. The bible is so ambiguous and self contradictory that it can’t be said to serve as a reliable guide to how to live, because justification can be found in it for almost any course of action one might want to take. A literal reading of the bible is impossible, because such a reading would be completely incoherent. Surely an infallible being could have done a better job of telling us his intentions.
-The various explanations of human existence in the bible are plainly contradicted by modern science. So it’s clear that the bible, in and of itself, is little more than a historical curiosity. The only reason it bulks so large in contemporary life and contemporary debate is because of the institutions that have grown up around it, and the political and cultural utility of reference to it.

Maybe it’s the ex-history grad student in me, but I do think there’s something problematic about the kind of critique waged by Harris/Dawkins/Hitchens et al. As Terry Eagleton argued in The London Review of Books, they make no attempt to uncover and examine “the structure of feeling” of religious belief. An historian writing a history of a church or denomination or community in which religion played a large part would have to write a thick description of the way in which religious belief functions in the community of believers etc. The same thing would apply if he were writing a biography of an historical figure. He’d certainly need to stand outside that figure or community, and could not take every (or any) religion-inspired claim or belief at face value. But he would have to describe, neutrally and empathetically, the functional role religion played in a given society or community, or the psychological role it played in the lives of believers.

Now I’m not against New Atheist polemics. I found Harris’ book quite cathartic, and heard myself saying “Right On!” as much as “now hold on…” but I couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion that there was something wrong with his approach. Despite all the historical references in the book it seemed far too driven by current social and political anxieties to stand as a fair account of religion (as if such a vast subject could be dispensed with in 300 pages anyway).

But of course the book is not a work of history, it’s a polemic, an attempt to refute a specific opinion or doctrine. Being a polemic, it’s not bound by the rules and norms of academic historical inquiry. And in fact, Harris’ goal is not to reconstruct the past, but to convince readers that religious belief and religious faith should not be living options for people in the twenty-first century. The ahistorical quality of his argument is almost necessary, given his aim. In fact his presentist, ahistorical approach to religion is probably closer to how people actually live religious faith (or aspire to live it) than the textual, historical approach of biblical scholars. Most believers don’t approach the bible the way scholars do. They see it as a living thing, a guide to how to live in the here and now.

Most believers don’t believe every word in the bible. Most use it selectively, emphasizing passages that coincide with the more modern moral outlook that they’ve acquired through socialization (of which the historical/cultural weight of Christianity or Islam or whatever is a part). And for the vast majority of believers in the liberal democratic West, I’m guessing, religious faith poses not the slightest obstacle to life in the modern world. Most are functional secularists. Harris doesn’t ignore this fact—he seizes on it and gives it a darker emphasis. Moderate religiosity, he argues, is dangerous because it aids and abets the more fundamentalist and radical tendencies in the world today. And this is especially dangerous given the rise of right-wing fundamentalist Christianity in the US, and radical Islam in the Muslim world. If it were just a question of religious moderates living with (or ignoring) certain fundamental contradictions, there would be no cause for alarm. The problem, according to Harris, is that religious moderates aid and abet religious extremists by insulating them from criticism. They enforce the idea that it’s impolite to question the fundamental assumptions behind religious faith. They help keep these issues out of public discourse. And this might not be such a big deal if fundamentalists in the US respected the separation of church and state, or if Islamic radicals in the Muslim world weren’t so busy blowing up their perceived opponents. But when conservative Christians in the US threaten the teaching of evolution in the schools, and when Islamic radicalism threatens the political stability of the middle east (as does, I should add, the US response to Islamic radicalism), and the physical existence of people everywhere, this becomes cause for alarm.

Here's an attempt sketch a less condescending model of the psychology of religious moderation:
a) The idea of God is the idea that there are forces beyond the self that rule and determine human existence. While these forces may, in principle, be knowable, for most human beings alive on the planet at any given moment they are effectively inscrutable. We can never know the truth of our existence in any ultimate or absolute sense. Nor, for that matter, do the truths of science offer us much insight into how we should treat our fellow human beings.
b) Church and religion is a place where the ethical implications of this insight are worked through, codified, and put into practice—it’s where we learn how to act toward our fellow man
c) The Bible is obviously an historical text, written and assembled by fallible human beings but it is useful for the following pragmatic reasons 1) the weight of tradition behind it gives it an authority that other, more straightforward, contemporary, intellectually rigorous and logically consistent books don’t possess—its useful in building and sustaining a community of the faithful, which is crucial to establishing a church and practicing a religion 2) It’s distance from the contemporary world is one of it’s virtues—its anachronistic nature means that its inherently critical of contemporary norms and values (often in reactionary ways) 3) While the book is riddled with incredible claims about the world, anachronistic values, and injunctions to outright despicable behavior, there are plenty of worthwhile passages in it as well.
d) Church is also a place where the mysteries of human existence, and human subjectivity are explored, through prayer, meditation and other forms of spiritual discipline. These are techniques for cultivating inwardness and building a soul.
e) Religion also offers solace from the harsher aspects of human existence—the anxiety and insecurity we experience while alive, and the finality of death.
f) Finally, it is possible to belong to a church, practice a religion, be a “believer”, and still live in the modern world. This may involve living with a number of logical contradictions, but people do that all the time.

So the upshot, I guess, is that New Atheist polemics like Harris' are good as far as they go, but they only go so far. They help you understand certain things about religious belief—mainly the logical and moral problems that arise when one tries to take an ancient text that’s origins are largely political and historical and treat it as a source of transcendent and inerrant wisdom. But they don't provide a fair description of contemporary religious belief, or provide an adequate description of how contemporary believers, especially religious moderates, live their faith.
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Greg "But they don't provide a fair description of contemporary religious belief, or provide an adequate description of how contemporary believers, especially religious moderates, live their faith..."

And why should they? I don't care how they've 'moderated' or 'interpreted' their beliefs from their book. Why are they 'adapting' from a book that was once considered the inerrant word of God and is now laughable at best when read literally? Surely there are more ethical and moral works of literature out there to guide them in their lives.

message 2: by David (last edited Mar 03, 2009 03:05PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

David Well, first of all, as I say, they (Harris and other New Atheists) shouldn’t do that: their project is to continue the critique of religion begun with the Enlightenment. Also, in Harris’ case (this is less true of Dennett, who seems to me to be the least arrogant of the bunch, at least in tone), his book is a polemic. So, like all good polemicists, he’s free to use whatever logical tools he has at hand to demolish the opposing position. That’s what a polemicist does. On the other hand, why, for example, do we write histories of outmoded belief systems, histories that try to understand and explain, rather than condescend to, their subjects? Why are there departments of Medieval studies? We know that most of what they believed was wrong (pretty much everyone who ever lived before the Enlightenment interpreted the world in religious terms). Why do we bother trying to reconstruct their way of life and the contexts that gave rise to their belief systems? Why don’t we just ridicule them for being the idiots that they obviously were for believing stuff we now know to be nonsense? True, now we know better, but not everyone knows better, and there are social and economic and other reasons why some people don’t know better. Plus, a book like Harris’ only tells part of the story. It’s not a complete or adequate description of the lived reality of moderate religiosity in the 21st century. And it doesn’t attempt to be. And that’s fine because that’s not the book he set out to write. But if you want to understand contemporary reality as it is, in all its fullness, then you can’t stop at Harris (or Dennett—who’s writing I love—or Dawkins). And you can’t settle for just sitting back and laughing at the rubes for being know nothings. You have to be able to a) bracket your own beliefs and assumptions, to the extent that this is possible, and enter into the belief systems of others, and b) recreate the various contexts that make those belief systems possible. And for that matter, what do I care if religious moderates profess belief in a book that contains propositions I find deeply problematic? I know plenty who do and they don’t shove their religion down my throat, almost all are functional secularists anyway, and most are perfectly charming, intelligent, interesting people. In a way, their contradictions make them more interesting than people who’s heads explode when they encounter two or more ideas in tension. Finally, I’m an atheist, and while I’m convinced there’s a materialist explanation for everything, I also know that I don’t know everything there is to know about everything with absolute certainty. Who knows when some Khunian paradigm shift is going to come along and make our current understanding seem quaint.

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