Book Review from The Economist
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason By Sam Harris
To be published in Britain by Free Press in February 2005.
Norton; 256 pages; $24.95.
THIS book will strike a chord with anyone who has ever pondered the irrationality of religious faith and its cruel and murderous consequences—from the Spanish Inquisition to the suicide bombs of devout young Islamists. After noting that a majority of the world’s population still believes in some kind of divine creator, Sam Harris goes on to show how one holy book after another promises paradise to believers and damnation to all others. Deuteronomy tells believers to have no mercy on apostates (“You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh, your God”); death is the punishment for anyone breaking the Ten Commandments; and “those that deny Our revelations shall be punished for their misdeeds,” says the Koran.
Against such a background, argues Mr Harris, “moderation” is a self-deluding “myth” which “springs from the fact that even the least educated person among us simply knows more about certain matters than anyone did 2,000 years ago—and much of this knowledge is incompatible with scripture.” In other words, religious moderates (who are surely the vast majority of the faithful) are forced constantly to reinterpret supposedly immutable revelations of the truth in an attempt to reconcile their faith with their reason.
Many people would think that a good thing, since moderation implies tolerance and respect for other faiths. Mr Harris disagrees: tolerance on the part of moderates is precisely the attitude that allows extremists to flourish. “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do,” he says, “religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.” And therefore, goes the argument, they connive in all the horrors carried out in the name of their imagined creator. Only when we renounce the impossible paraphernalia of religion—for example, the virgin birth (attested to by only two of the apostles) or the ascension of Muhammad to heaven—will reason be free to rescue mankind from religious terrorism that tries to send all non-believers to hell and only the faithful to heaven.
It is a clever thesis by a clever man (Mr Harris has a philosophy degree from Stanford and is completing a doctorate in neuroscience). In the context of the author’s homeland, much more religiously inclined than Europe, it is also a controversial one: Mr Harris quotes Gallup poll findings that 35% of Americans believe “the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe”, and “another 48% believe that it is the ‘inspired’ word of the same—still inerrant, though certain of its passages must be interpreted symbolically before their truth can be brought to light.”
But is the argument ultimately convincing? Presumably not to true believers, though even Mr Harris’s critics will have to concede the force of an analysis which roams so far and wide, from the persecution of the Cathars to the composition of George Bush’s cabinet.
By contrast, Mr Harris’s supporters may be disappointed by his efforts to reconcile spirituality—“a natural propensity of the human mind”—with reason and ethics. His approval of eastern philosophy and Buddhism is much too brief to be helpful, and it is hard to grasp the assurance that, “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not.” But never mind: the reader can turn to 62 pages of references and closely argued notes for further enlightenment.
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
By Sam Harris.
Norton; 256 pages; $24.95.
To be published in Britain by Free Press in February 2005