The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris delivers a startling analysis of the clash between reason and religion in the modern world. He offers a vivid, historical tour of our willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs—even when these beliefs inspire the worst human atrocities. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris...

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Title:The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
Author:Sam Harris
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Edition Language:English

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Reviews

  • R.A. Schneider

    I rate this a five in spite of some legitimate reservations, too well expressed by too many people to bear repeating here.

    The things I liked:

    1. Brilliant writing style. Incisive, funny, powerful. (His followup to this book, a 94 page tract called "Letter to a Christian Nation" displays this skill to even better advantage.)

    2. Sam's recommended actions for the reader. Religion generally gets a free pass to make unsubstantiated truth claims. Stop allowing that. Start questioning, and pushing back

    I rate this a five in spite of some legitimate reservations, too well expressed by too many people to bear repeating here.

    The things I liked:

    1. Brilliant writing style. Incisive, funny, powerful. (His followup to this book, a 94 page tract called "Letter to a Christian Nation" displays this skill to even better advantage.)

    2. Sam's recommended actions for the reader. Religion generally gets a free pass to make unsubstantiated truth claims. Stop allowing that. Start questioning, and pushing back publicly.

    3. Who SAYS "Faith" is a virtue? Again, an unsubstantiated assertion that deserves some pushback.

    4. Analogies: I love that Harris comes up with some new thinking in the atheist arena. Too many authors are trotting out Bertrand Russell gems, and as good as they may be, they're 90-some-odd years old. The best, IMHO, is when Sam asks the reader to distinguish between comforting religious truth claims and his (hypothetical) claim that he believes there is a diamond buried in his back yard, the size of a refrigerator, and that it gives him great comfort to know that at some point in his life he can choose to be very rich.

    In the current climate, one would get him branded insane, and the other would get him branded a man of strong faith. Bollocks to both, I say.

    5. Moderation supports extremism. It's not appealing, and those in the middle are looking for compromise and wiggle room, but it really DOES come down to some black and white, true/false determinations. Choosing to be moderate, as Sam says, betrays both one's faith and reason.

    This may be the hardest pill for Sam to get readers to swallow, because it requires the most sacrifice of one's own foundations (if one is moderately religious, that is.) This proposition simultaneously asks the moderate believer to abandon thoughts that they have held to be sacrosanct from their youth, and then as a consequence, "disaffiliate" themselves from a tribe with which they have strong identification. (tribe/religion... whatever.)

    A compelling read that I thoroughly enjoyed, and which I love to imagine moderates reading and squirming through all the uncomfortable passages. Which is precisely Sam's overall goal... to remove the "comfortability" of lolling around in one's unjustifiable faith propositions, at the expense of the rest of humanity.

  • Luffy

    I'm going to be brief. The End of Faith by Sam Harris is a landmark book for me. It blew my mind when I first read it. Now, it doesn't feel as good as the short and sharp Letter To A Christian Nation, and has less great moments than the slow starting and uneven The Moral Landscape. The End Of Faith opened my eyes to reviews and reviewing possibilities. It gave me an insight into writing quickly, with as much original thought and fluidity of prose as I am able to muster.

    It influenced my writing

    I'm going to be brief. The End of Faith by Sam Harris is a landmark book for me. It blew my mind when I first read it. Now, it doesn't feel as good as the short and sharp Letter To A Christian Nation, and has less great moments than the slow starting and uneven The Moral Landscape. The End Of Faith opened my eyes to reviews and reviewing possibilities. It gave me an insight into writing quickly, with as much original thought and fluidity of prose as I am able to muster.

    It influenced my writing most of all books and for that I'm glad. I couldn't, however read the parts about meditation and Sam Harris's take on mysticism is too contemporary and he doesn't look at the subject through history. I think whatever the imagined or concrete benefits of meditation are, they take up a lot of time, and should only be attempted by people who really need them. I also didn't get the bits about relativism and pragmatism. Harris's writing was surprisingly muted there and he didn't give any example to clarify his vague texts.

    Nitpicking apart, this book is still meaningful although now a tad dated by what now, ten years? Seemed that I was reading it for the first time quite recently. Sam Harris should go back to discussing Christianity as that is his forte and he should update his work. I'll gladly read about the recent events and a revised view and vision of what the present means for the future.

  • Pete

    There are several currents running through

    , many of which I agree with enthusiastically, some of which I regard with caution, and one or two that I find so strange as to wonder whether Harris wrote the last few chapters while in too.. contemplative a state, as he might say.

    First, some easy floating down the river. Where does your support for the following graded series fall off? (1) Religious scriptures shouldn't be taken literally. (2) No one knows if there's a god or not. (3)

    There are several currents running through

    , many of which I agree with enthusiastically, some of which I regard with caution, and one or two that I find so strange as to wonder whether Harris wrote the last few chapters while in too.. contemplative a state, as he might say.

    First, some easy floating down the river. Where does your support for the following graded series fall off? (1) Religious scriptures shouldn't be taken literally. (2) No one knows if there's a god or not. (3) No reasonable person could believe in anything supernatural. (4) Religious beliefs should not be accorded "respect".

    If you are still nodding after (4), you agree with Harris (and incidentally, me) on the main thesis of his book. It has been pointed out for a long time now that religious ideas uniquely get a free pass. Guests on a Sunday morning talk show may strenuously disagree with each other over taxes, who should be president, or which sports team is better, but to say "Bringing up that god of yours again, eh?" is just not done. You can get away with almost any behavior or opinion if you state that it's a matter of faith. Like many others before him, Harris points out the absurdity and arbitrariness of this situation, and argues that it should change. Religious beliefs should be attacked like other irrationalities; religious stories should not be talked about as if they were true by people who know they could not possibly be true; religion should not shield anyone from criticism. What is new in this book are two arguments that would raise the stakes. First, rather than patiently waiting for atheism to gain footing in the world, the ascendancy of Islamist power and the machinations of the Christian right make it an urgent matter. Second, religious moderates should be chastened as enablers of fundamentalism. Harris states "Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed". So far, so good.

    We soon approach some rapids -- Harris sets out on some heavy philosophical terrain about free will and ethics in his trumping up of Islamist terrorism as a force that should command our greatest attention. I don't think he lacks the ability to engage with these subjects deeply, but he doesn't go deep enough in this book. In many places there is too much reliance on the readers' imaginations to fill in details (about surveys, what people would do with a "perfect weapon", what Muslims think about the 9/11 attacks) his research couldn't supply, and not enough exercise of the same imaginations to find flaws with his thesis that religious motives, rather than nationalist, ethnic, or political ones, are the most salient feature of modern terrorism.

    And, at the end of the river, our little raft finds itself in a Shambhala bookstore. Somehow we have gone from demanding the End of Faith to claiming that medieval Tibetan mystics had very useful things to say about the human mind. Perhaps they do, but from what I've seen, it is very low signal to noise. After seeing the word "contemplative" used as a noun for the 10th or 11th time, seeing Padmasambhava trotted out as if he were chairing a neurobiology session, and watching the language melt from the hard-nosed "is" and "is not" to the mealymouthed "seems to" and "suggests that", I began to suspect I was dealing with a manifestation of a Žižekian fetish. The last 2 chapters of the book simply do not belong with the rest. Harris ought to have expanded his spiritual views in another volume and kept

    focused on arguments for ending faith.

    Overall, however, the book is a bracing tonic for atheists, and as we have seen, represents a powerful challenge to the status quo. Its main accomplishment is to have revived this discussion in the public intellectuosphere.

  • Matthew

    So near the mark, but just off of center. This book makes many laudable points, not the least of which is the critique that allowing faith/religion into the political sphere on equal footing with science and reason will doom us all. My primary complaint with this work, and the reason I knocked off a couple stars, is due to Mr. Harris's illogical and inconsistent privileging of America and fundamentalist Christianity over the more "violent" Islam.

    For example, he argues that we can rest assured th

    So near the mark, but just off of center. This book makes many laudable points, not the least of which is the critique that allowing faith/religion into the political sphere on equal footing with science and reason will doom us all. My primary complaint with this work, and the reason I knocked off a couple stars, is due to Mr. Harris's illogical and inconsistent privileging of America and fundamentalist Christianity over the more "violent" Islam.

    For example, he argues that we can rest assured that the intent of Bush in bombing Iraq was not, as in the case of Palestinian suicide bombings, an attempt to cause widespread civilian death. Mr. Harris was apparently asleep at the wheel when the initial incursion was labeled "Shock & Awe"... I'm sorry, but bombing suburban neighborhoods to cow an enemy is neither strategic (if you buy the liberation myth) nor morally just. The faith of radical clerics in America is treated as somehow less violent because it is Christian, yet he never supports this; I recommend Mr. Harris check out the new documentary,

    . Much more logical to assume that with the most powerful military on the globe, Christian America doesn't

    to do suicide bombings?

    Next, we're assured that these non-Western nations, with their approaches toward death and suicide, could not possess nuclear weapons without annihilating innocent civilians with them. Apparently the possession of these weapons by Pakistan and India means little.... fundamentalist religiosity is extremely violent and politically popular in the governments of both nations, yet they've somehow abstained from blowing themselves, each other, or us up. There seems to be a lot of truth to Arundhati Roy's claim, which he quotes, that there is a racist element underlying some critiques. Mr. Harris appears to fully buy into this trap, while making pot shots at both Roy and Chomsky for presuming that factors aside from religion may also be important.

    Finally, he makes a claim that Israeli treatment of Palestinians and their neighbors is of the highest ethical caliber. This is almost grotesque following the horrific loss of civilian lives in the recent conflict with Lebanon... as with American Christians, Mr. Harris frequently seems confused over whether or not Jewish fundamentalism is also as bad as the Muslim flavors.

    This book makes a number of excellent points regarding the errors of living based on "faith," the violence resulting from those views, and the ability of science and reason to explain and support the best of human virtue. The argument that this is more concerning in the Islamic world, or that we need to look outside our own backyard (or White House, or Senate, or House of Representatives, or Supreme Court) to find religious zealots willing to militarily force their faith-based views upon others, regardless of civilian casualties, is where the book falls apart. I'm eager to see if this is remedied in his follow-up book.

  • Jessaka

    Sam Harris began his book with his rants about Christianity, nothing new, except to say that he is also against the Islamic religion and appears to think that all Muslims desire to kill us. For this, he uses their scripture to condemn them, but the Christian bible says the same things and not every Christian is out there trying to kill non believers. He never brings up this fact.

    What difference do you see in these two scriptures? I don’t think that there is much:

    The Bible:

    “If there be found amo

    Sam Harris began his book with his rants about Christianity, nothing new, except to say that he is also against the Islamic religion and appears to think that all Muslims desire to kill us. For this, he uses their scripture to condemn them, but the Christian bible says the same things and not every Christian is out there trying to kill non believers. He never brings up this fact.

    What difference do you see in these two scriptures? I don’t think that there is much:

    The Bible:

    “If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant; 17:3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; 17:4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel; 17:5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.”

    The Quran:

    “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture - [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.”

    Just as a Muslim can explain away their verses on violence towards infidels, so can a Christian, and just as most Christians today don’t kill people who are not in their religion, neither do Muslims.

    To me, this chapter of his on the Islamic religion is just as dangerous as the Christians rants on the Jews. Both can lead to violence and have. While there has always been a fraction in religions that has desired to kill those who don’t believe as they do, most today do not. But try reading The Left Behind series. It will make you cringe. I knew a woman who talked about the kind of people who love that book. She taught me a new word: schadenfreude!, and she explained it me. It fits. So while in the past some religions have forced people to join or else, some now are just biding their time, waiting for Armageddon when they will be able to safely take up arms and slay the wicked, but they may have a hard time figuring out who the wicked are since if you are not in their particular church, you are wicked.

    The other bone I have to pick with Harris was his views on tolerance, well, maybe I don’t really have a real bone to pick with him here, but I have some things to say about it and had my own ideas. He believes that if churches don’t speak out about the wrongs that other churches commit, they are just as well to blame. That is true to some extent. BUT, then he praises Buddhism as a peaceful religion, and yet at the same time he doesn’t realize that Buddhism also causes harm to others. Tibetan Buddhism is the cesspool of Buddhism, according to one ex lama. They, in fact, believe in turning the precepts upside down, so to speak. Break all the rules. Those that have been in Tibetan Buddhism and have spoken out against them have been harmed in various ways. Read June Campbell’s book Traveller’s in Space or Christine Chandler’s book Enthralled. Read the online free book The Shadow of the Dalai Lama, or go to crookedpath.freeforums.net.

    Yet, other Buddhist sects will not speak out against Tibetan Buddhism due to this policy of tolerance. This is no different than Christianity’s tolerance. I can only assume that Harris doesn’t realize this yet.

    He doesn’t realize that Tibetan Buddhism has two faces either, one is of peace; the other is of violence towards any member that speaks out against the violence that they and others have experienced within the religion. Buddhism is also a misogynistic religion. To learn this all you have to do is read the Pali Canon or just do a google search. I remember asking a monk why nuns have 311 precepts to follow and monks only had 227. He said, “Because women do more things that are wrong.” Okay. We can also go around and around on whether women can become enlightened or if they have to be reborn a man. Or we can talk about how nuns should not be leaders, but today women are fighting for this privilege and winning in some sects. Of course, there is much more, but this is enough.

    And now Sam Harris is in praise of mysticism because when you meditate you experience “truth,” according to him. Is this what he means by the end of faith, knowing the truth, and believing the truth is what you experience in meditation? Yet, do you really only experience truth? Maybe, but how can a person really know for sure? One person meditates and experiences God, but a Buddhist will say to that person, “What you experienced is not real, because there is no God. Keep meditating.” Not all meditation experiences have the same outcomes either. But while Harris is busy praising meditation he doesn’t realize that most religions began because of these transcendental experiences which include love towards all mankind. Perhaps it is that meditation experiences just become contaminated by man’s own belief system, his own shortcomings. I don’t know. I do know that meditation does not make one a better person, for that you need to study ethics, and well, maybe ethics has its limits as well, because not everyone thinks the same here either.

    For example, Sam Harris believes it is ethical to torture others in order to save a group of people. It is claimed that Buddha said that it is okay to kill someone if you know that they are going to kill a group of people, not that we really know what the Buddha taught. Yet, some people claim that it is unethical to torture, and they have their reasons. You can go around and around on this one and get nowhere as far as I am concerned. I know, I have tried googling this subject. I even asked a Buddhist monk once, “What is the right thing to do if you saw a cougar that was going to kill you. Would you kill it first?” He said, “I would run.” I wanted to say, “Good luck. You have now become prey.” I didn’t question any further because questioning always got me into hot water in any religion that I had joined.

    So give Harris enough time, and he will be slamming Buddhism and maybe Hinduism as well, that is, if he dwells deeply into the teachings that practice meditation. He may learn that meditation doesn’t always bring one peace of mind, because there are those who meditate, who have never had psychological problems and now have them. It also doesn’t make you a better person because even teachers can become greedy and have become sexually immoral, and can be verbally abusive towards their disciples. It can also lead to stoicism. I used to think that the peacefulness I saw in the so-called Buddhist masters was wonderful, but I learned on my own that they have just become stoic, and they will tell me that I am wrong, but I don’t believe I am. Meditation can flatten out ones emotions. They may teach compassion, but they do not practice it by going out and helping the needy. When I asked a teacher how I could help a friend with her problems, he stated, “Bring her here so she can learn to meditate.” That was the extent of his compassion, although I knew that he is a good man. But what if my friend didn’t want to meditate? How could I help her then?

    Karma is another teaching that shows me how uncompassionate these meditation based religions are. They say to never interfere with a person’s karma because they have to work it out on their own. So we have people dying in the streets of Calcutta, we have people suffering in religions and elsewhere, but we are not to help them in any way. Mother Teresa showed compassion, she picked up those dying in the streets of Calcutta and placed them in a warm place and fed them. There may not have been medicine, I don’t recall, but I do recall reading that they were not given pain medication. Is this true? I don’t know. But she prolonged their suffering as far as I can tell, so was she the better person? I am not sure, but I do believe she cared.

    Back to Harris. Perhaps it is that he is a seeker. Christianity failed him, so now he is trying Buddhism. I have been there. I even tried Hinduism. They all failed. I don’t feel that there are any real answers; no real way to end suffering, unless I wish to harden my heart in some way. I believe that all you can really do is not cause more suffering and if you can, help others who are also suffering.

  • Rob

    A greater mystery than human nature and its irrepressible theological imagination is how this book managed to impress so many people. After much consideration, I can only conclude its popularity (along with Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great) is because of the mass hysteria among secularists over religion after the 9/11 tragedy combined with increased politicalization of religion in government and education. This is

    A greater mystery than human nature and its irrepressible theological imagination is how this book managed to impress so many people. After much consideration, I can only conclude its popularity (along with Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great) is because of the mass hysteria among secularists over religion after the 9/11 tragedy combined with increased politicalization of religion in government and education. This is to say the book's popularity is due to external factors, its timing, and cathartic tone. It isn't for the depth of argumentation, scholarship, or insight.

    Any reader familiar with the atheistic works of Lucretius through Bertrand Russell or Antony Flew (who recently became a deist) will find Sam Harris' treatment to be scattered, grasping, and shallow. He has been scolded by (atheist) scientists such as Scott Atran for being thoughtless, unscientific, and offering no evidence (see YouTube.com, Scott Atran vs. Sam Harris). Harris strains an evasive response. This is poignant given Harris' trite pontifications on the primacy of science, as if he is a sugared up kid ready to jump into the now-drained pool of Positivism. Too bad the same Positivism he seeks makes his own endless moral accusations empty ([

    ]). The book does have the verve and personal engagement that is rare. The End of Faith has a pithy prose style that might distract you from lamenting the end of logical rigor.

  • Paul

    Another yawner from the "New" atheists. This is another book by a pretentious atheist who just can't believe that there are still theists. "Arrrgh! Don't you know we've beaten you theists fair and square. It is just

    that theism is false. If you won't give up your theistic beliefs by our obviously superior rational arguments, then I'll shame you in to giving them up."

    Ho hum.

    Harris trots out the usual dusty canards of the New Atheists: religion is evil, it's the cause of all the wars, it's

    Another yawner from the "New" atheists. This is another book by a pretentious atheist who just can't believe that there are still theists. "Arrrgh! Don't you know we've beaten you theists fair and square. It is just

    that theism is false. If you won't give up your theistic beliefs by our obviously superior rational arguments, then I'll shame you in to giving them up."

    Ho hum.

    Harris trots out the usual dusty canards of the New Atheists: religion is evil, it's the cause of all the wars, it's gonna destroy mankind, etc.

    Of course none of this is ever based on any

    scientific research, odd for the priests of Science. Go read the detailed anthropological, sociological, political, environmental, etc., work by some of the actual

    who study wars &c. Go read your Pape, Pearse, Waller, Rummel, Livingstone Smith, &c, and then get back to me.

    Harris serves up the re-heated evidentialist objection to faith throughout the book. He repeatedly claims that "If you don't have evidence in favor of your beliefs, then your belief is unjustified or irrational." Of course, all we need to do is inquire about

    belief itself. Is it justified and rational? Then it must have evidence in its favor. So, what is it? Assume Harris can give us something, call it E. Call his evidentialist constraint his anti-theistic security blanket ASB. So, he gives us E for ASB. Now, what about E? Does he believe it? If so, is his belief justified and rational? If so, then he needs evidence for E, call it E1. So, E1 backs up E which backs up ASB. Does he believe E1? Is his belief rational and justified? Then he needs E2, and obviously this can go on

    . So, his anti-theistic security blanket just writes one bad check to cover another, and another, and another....

    Harris also sets up a false dichotomy. He claims that there are two kinds of theists, and only two: extremists and moderates. Extremists want to kill everyone if it would solve the problem of heresy and unbelief. Moderates aren't any better. They think that all beliefs,

    , should be allowed. He then says the moderates are complicit in the world's destruction since they allow the extremists to operate. But here we hit upon some major ambiguity. One can allow people to have whatever

    they want,

    they don't

    on those beliefs in a way that is harmful to others in an unjustified way. See the problem in Harris's reasoning? A further problem is that he claims that we cannot choose our beliefs. This is called

    . This is fine as far as it goes. It's philosophically viable, and a strong position. The problem, then, is that he claims we shouldn't allow people to have unjustified beliefs. So can people control what they believe voluntarily or not? A third problem is that I am a theist and I don't fit in either category. Though I fit in the moderate camp in an uninteresting way (the belief/act distinction), I don't think people

    have unjustified beliefs or false beliefs. But, I don't think the extremist solution is correct. Indeed, it is one of those beliefs others shouldn't have. Harris tries to get as much traction as he can out of making false dichotomies like this.

    Another problem is that he still holds to justification is necessary or sufficient for knowledge. This has fallen out of favor with contemporary epistemologists. In fact, almost all agree that theistic and atheistic beliefs can be

    (cf. Plantinga's Warrant trilogy). But this doesn't mean much. Edmund Gettier rather put a damper on all this. So, Harris pulls from some outdated concepts in epistemology. This is rather odd considering he's at Stanford. I'm sure his philosophy profs cringed at his book.

    Here's another example of how Harris makes ridiculous and self-defeating comments:

    - p.63

    i) What about a person's belief in the law of non-contradiction? Is he "vulnerable" to new evidence? Could there be a "conceivable" change in the world that could get this person to question his belief? Isn't the LNC part of what allows something to even be conceivable in the first place?

    ii) What about a person's belief in her existence? Is there a conceivable change that could get a person to question her existence? Who would be questioning it?

    iii) What about Harris's belief on this matter? Is there a way the world could be that would make it false? Then it would still be true since this new belief a "consequence of the way the world is." A conceivable way the world could be that would make Harris question this belief would affirm his strictures and thus not make him "vulnerable." But a consequence of this view is that your beliefs must be "vulnerable" in this way.

    This is all to symptomatic, I'm afraid, of the new atheism. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens &c. are rather embarrassing emissaries for a group that prides themselves on how "rational" and "smart" and "erudite" they is [sic], as opposed to us irrational, stupid, and toothless fundies.

    Yawn, the "New" atheism.

    Go Sammy, it's your birthday!

  • Nebuchadnezzar

    Harris can pen a clever turn of phrase. Unfortunately, that's most of what he has going for him. The old standby "What's good isn't new and what's new isn't good" very much applies here.

    It's funny how much Harris and I agree on the fundamental issues -- we are both atheists and we both believe that religion can and has done great harm -- yet I found little of value in this work of atheist apologetics. History, politics, and culture are grossly distorted in service of Harris' arguments. The prime

    Harris can pen a clever turn of phrase. Unfortunately, that's most of what he has going for him. The old standby "What's good isn't new and what's new isn't good" very much applies here.

    It's funny how much Harris and I agree on the fundamental issues -- we are both atheists and we both believe that religion can and has done great harm -- yet I found little of value in this work of atheist apologetics. History, politics, and culture are grossly distorted in service of Harris' arguments. The prime offender, of course, being the treatment of Islam. He essentially endorses

    's "clash of civilizations" thesis, which reifies the concepts of "Western culture" and "Islamic culture" as monolithic entities. The use of "Islam" itself lumps Sufism together with Wahhabism, which makes as much sense as grouping Unitarians with fundamentalist Southern Baptists. It reads like he took a Quran from the shelf, flipped through to some choice passages, and then decided that this explained everything about Middle Eastern politics. Much of US foreign policy in the Middle East is conveniently airbrushed out. Harris implores us to take Osama bin Laden at his word, but omits bin Laden's fatwas directed against US military presence in the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

    in his latest book,

    , dedicates an entire section to responding to and debunking Harris' claims about suicide bombing. In contrast to Harris' armchair speculation, Atran brings empirical fieldwork and statistics to bear on the issue and demonstrates quite the opposite of what Harris asserts. Religious education is actually a negative predictor in suicide bombing and those that carry out these operations often have high levels of scientific and technical training, very useful when you have resources for little more than a shoestring operation. (

    is also recommended for a reality-based view of terrorism and suicide bombing.) Certainly fundamentalism of the Islamic stripe is a danger (just ask Theo van Gogh), but foreign policy can't be based on a fundamental misconception of religion and geopolitics.

    The same type of distortions are found in much of Harris' treatment of history in general. To mark them all would be an exhausting task, so I will use the Holocaust as a shining example. Harris more or less pins the blame for the Holocaust on medieval Christianity and Martin Luther. Here he relies largely on Daniel Goldhagen's

    . While it did contain worthwhile original research, the overarching thesis of this book (that the Holocaust was driven primarily by "eliminationist anti-Semitism") has been thoroughly discredited. No doubt anti-Semitism played a large role, but to portray it as the main factor requires Harris to erase the millions of non-Jews (Roma, gays, political dissidents, etc.) who were exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps. Not to mention just leaving out the mountains of other political and economic factors -- the Treaty of Versailles, the dismal economy of the Weimar Republic, etc. One would think that it would not be best to rely on a work that was met with massive controversy by academic historians and perhaps look to the best scholarship that has synthesized the big picture debates in the field, say

    . Once again, though, it feels as if Harris just plucked the first book from the shelf he could find that might support his thesis and ripped it entirely out of scholarly context.

    There are all sorts of other nonsensical arguments peppered throughout. He argues that only secularism has contested literalism and fundamentalism, an ahistorical claim. Explicitly secular challenges to religious power in Europe did not become prominent until the early modern era. In fact, St. Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley rejected literal interpretations of the Bible. Another amusing trick is Harris' redefinition of communism as a "political religion." Sure, if you beg the question and redefine all bad things to be religion, religion certainly does look like the ultimate bogeyman. I believe the word he was looking for is "ideology."

    When Harris isn't rewriting history, he spends a number of other chapters laying out a philosophy of materialism or philosophical naturalism. On much of this, I am in complete agreement with him, though the ideas aren't particularly new nor does the presentation seem to add much to what much clearer thinkers have said before. However, even on this, he clearly goes off the rails on a number of points. Harris seems to be some kind of crypto-mystic or crypto-Buddhist. There are some mentions of psychic phenomena with references to kings of parapsychology Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, who are regarded as fringe cranks within the field of psychology. He also whitewashes the history of Buddhism, presenting the Westernized warm-and-fuzzy version of it. No mention is made of, say, the role of Zen in Japanese nationalism. Apparently, religion isn't all that bad, as long as it's the one Harris likes. His claims for meditation are stretched as well. The most recent and largest meta-analysis of meditation studies published by NCCAM found the research to be rife with methodological flaws and found no conclusive evidence that meditation was significantly more effective than placebo. (

    ) As someone who practices meditation, I actually hope that Harris is right, and he may turn out to be, but more research is needed.

    Further fallacies are perpetrated in his chapter on a "science" of morality. Here, Harris seems to believe he's found a solution to a problem that has dogged philosophers for hundreds of years. In reality, he just commits the naturalistic fallacy, or a violation of Hume's is-ought problem. His follow-up,

    , seems to be an attempt to stretch this fallacy into a book-length work of vulgar scientism.

    Ultimately, Harris' goal seems to be to resurrect some zombified form of logical positivism sprinkled with a bit of pseudo-spiritualism. He styles himself as a Prometheus bearing the torch of reason, but he is closer to the cocktail party philosopher who jumps headfirst into a debate without the vaguest idea of what it's about. A good portion of the material is simply embarrassing to anyone who's studied the history, anthropology, or psychology of religion, US foreign policy, or philosophy in general. Harris is not an expert in anything besides self-promotion -- his citations and arguments make that much clear. Indeed, he claims to support science, but brushes away research such as that of Atran when it doesn't suit his purposes. That's as anti-scientific as any fundamentalist. Reason? No, this isn't reason, it's mostly stuff and nonsense.

  • Emma Sea

    I absolutely reject Harris's key argument that Islam is essentially and inescapably a religion of violence and hate. That's like defining Christianity by the actions of the

    . Given that, it's hard for me to do anything other than dislike the book, but I was equally disappointed in it for other reasons. e.g. compared to religion, "Mysticism is a rational enterprise" based on "empirical evidence." (p. 221). Um, really?

    Very disappointed in this read.

    ETA: As many people have

    , this c

    I absolutely reject Harris's key argument that Islam is essentially and inescapably a religion of violence and hate. That's like defining Christianity by the actions of the

    .¹ Given that, it's hard for me to do anything other than dislike the book, but I was equally disappointed in it for other reasons. e.g. compared to religion, "Mysticism is a rational enterprise" based on "empirical evidence." (p. 221). Um, really?

    Very disappointed in this read.

    ¹ ETA: As many people have

    , this comparison was the wrong one to make. Because the KKK was WAY worse

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