Friday, November 30, 2007

The End Of Faith, Sam Harris

Title: The End Of Faith
Author: Sam Harris
Rating: Great!

This is a powerful book. It is closely argued, well researched, deeply thought out, troubling, and necessary. Sam Harris has done the world a huge service.

To be honest, though, I don't know if I agree with everything he writes. In fact, I rather doubt it in certain cases, but he's a thorough and persuasive writer, so even where I may not agree with him entirely, I have a lot of thinking to do.

The central premise of The End of Faith is that we must see the end of irrational beliefs - those without supporting evidence - of all kinds. Religious faith is far and away the most significant such belief in the world today, but there are other examples.

The first 170 pages cover this argument in depth, showing numerous issues with religious faith, both internally - as inconsistencies in beliefs that must remain unrecognized or be actively ignored - and externally - where faith leads to behaviors destructive to oneself and others. He calls out Islam, in particular, for deep examination and criticism.

That faith itself is a serious problem (and even a threat) was picked up by Dawkins as one argument among many in The God Delusion, but Harris goes beyond that point as well. The last 50 pages of The End of Faith discuss ethics that don't rely on religion, the war on drugs, pacifism, torture, and even spirituality in the absence of religion. Harris walks a mine field here, coming to places I would never have expected, and to conclusions that are quite probably correct and yet unsettling.

Some have accused Harris of being too strident in his presentation, but I don't see that problem. In the very real light of 9/11, suicide bombers, and those who would legislate against the private lives of so many in the name of their faith, a few sentences that drive home religion's awful effects on the world are trivia. I admit that some of his ethical conclusions are challenging, but if you can find the error in his logic I want to know it.

For me, this book will require at least two readings. The first was quick. I gulped it down in three sittings or so, and didn't read many of the end notes so I'd get the gist of his argument without being too distracted. The next pass will be slower, and I will read every one of the 60 pages of end notes in the process.

If I have a problem with The End of Faith it's not with the book itself, but rather that the world is unchanged from when it was originally published in 2004. As I write this, an English school teacher is going to jail for 15 days in Sudan for letting her students name a teddy bear "Mohammed". But that isn't the worst of it: her sentence is actually light. She could have received 40 lashes. It's disgusting but true that in 2007 people are still punished in the hideous ways set out by the Koran. But it doesn't even end there. Shortly after her sentence was announced a mob of over 1,000 protested in Khartoum. Whipped into a frenzy by their religious leaders, and following the dictates of Islam, they demanded execution - execution! - for the "offense" of naming a teddy bear after a supposed prophet. That's what faith leads to, and it sickens me.

I know there was a counter demonstration in the UK in which Muslims protested the sentence handed down in Sudan, but read Harris's work. The Koran is very, very explicit in its stipulated punishments for every transgression, and anyone saying "Islam is a religion of peace" is plainly incorrect.

And don't think that it's only Islam that wants the world returned to the fourteenth century. Christianity and Judaism come in for similar criticism, and their holy books are equally harsh on those of other faiths. It's just that more Christians and Jews ignore the ugly parts of their religion than is the case with Muslims. But for true believers of nearly any religion, the holy book is simply right, and those with differing points of view must die.

Having read The End of Faith I am happy to have Sam Harris out there, writing things that others - myself included - have been afraid to say. But I'm also deeply saddened that it's necessary, and I am terrified that we will see only continuing violence and hatred - inspired or required by religion in many cases - for the rest of our time on this planet. And I note with Harris that when madmen control weapons of mass destruction any hopes for a brighter future fade substantially. And as if to confirm what I read, just two days ago there was news about Russian uranium being seized by Slovak police. It was destined to go into a so called "dirty bomb", and had the sellers found the proper buyer, some city would have suffered an awful fate.

After all, why would anyone who has faith in the afterlife - and his or her eternal happiness therein - avoid using WMD when the cause of his or her religion will be advanced? There are people of every religion that would happily kill millions in the name of their faith, even (and sometimes especially) if they die in the process. None of us is safe from such insanity.

Read The End of Faith. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Then the work begins. We have to find ways to act on what it says. We must stop granting religious faith exemption from criticism, and we must find ways to keep those whose faith runs deep and who cannot be swayed from violence, from imposing their choices on the rest of us.

Sadly, I am not optimistic.