Sunday, February 6, 2005
Faith no more
Sam Harris blames religious moderates for allowing extremism to flourish in The End of Faith. It is time secularists took a stronger stand against religion, says Stephanie Merritt
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
Free Press £12.99, pp336
During the recent debate occasioned by religious protests against artists’ freedom of expression - Sikhs at the Birmingham Rep and evangelical Christians at the BBC - it was disappointing not to hear a more robust argument put forward for the abolition of blasphemy laws altogether.
Blasphemy, after all, is a charge of libel against someone who doesn’t objectively exist and shouldn’t be equated with religious violence or discrimination: there is a world of difference between beating someone up because they’re wearing a turban and a comedian joking that a figure who died two millennia ago might have been ‘a bit gay’.
American writer Sam Harris takes the same approach in this impassioned reappraisal of an old thesis - the idea that religion remains the primary source of human conflict. His addition to the argument is the idea that, since accelerated advances in weapons technology and biochemistry have made it all too easy for would-be martyrs to take unthinkable numbers of innocents along with them in their pursuit of paradise, it is time for civilised societies to accord less respect to established religion, rather than more.
Harris, whose background is in philosophy and neuroscience, giving him an unusually comprehensive overview of the human mind, blames the current surge of religious extremism on the fact that nominally secular societies have continued to treat certain religions as if the tenets of their faith were established fact, rather than subjective beliefs bolstered by the weight of tradition, and to allow them public platforms as long as they don’t overstep the mark.
In a radical attack on the most sacred of liberal precepts - the notion of tolerance - Harris blames religious moderates for perpetuating a climate of acceptance that nurtures extremism. It is not good enough, he argues, for moderates, or even liberal atheists, to insist that governments should accommodate freedom of personal belief, because beliefs are directly responsible for actions. ‘Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as if we knew what we were talking about.’ Moderates, in any case, only arrive at their position by editing out the more unpalatable elements of their respective texts and assimiliating modern cultural developments.
He also points out that we in the West only have the luxury of indulging those who claim to have absolute knowledge about the afterlife because we have been fortunate enough to live in a society that separates church and state. Those, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, who have encouraged a ‘loving concordat’ between faith and reason could not afford to do so if the church had real political influence, as is increasingly the case in Bush’s America.
Unfortunately, Harris too often allows his anger at this continued deference to unreason to colour his tone, slipping into an incredulous sarcasm which might appeal to readers who agree with him, but could only succeed in alienating those who need to be persuaded.
Yet his central argument in The End of Faith is sound: religion is the only area of human knowledge in which it is still acceptable to hold beliefs dating from antiquity and a modern society should subject those beliefs to the same principles that govern scientific, medical or geographical inquiry - particularly if they are inherently hostile to those with different ideas. It’s easy to laugh at the man who believes aliens are sending him messages through his hairdryer, but we don’t let him run schools or make public broadcasts as if his view were anything other than a delusion. It’s less amusing that international policy is decided by men who believe that the book beside their bed was written by an invisible deity and is above doubt or questioning.
While this book is considerably longer than it needed to be - Harris has a tendency to over-explain his case - it is an eminently sensible rallying cry for a more ruthless secularisation of society. Sadly for the forces of reason, it is not one that a born-again President or a Prime Minister singing the praises of faith schools is likely to heed.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005