The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris, New York: Norton, 336 pages, $24.95
For nearly as long as there have been villages, there have been village atheists, the hypervigilant debunkers who lovingly detail the many contradictions, fallacies, and absurdities that flow from belief in holy writ. As a strictly intellectual proposition, atheism would seem, on the face of things, to have wiped the floor with the believing opposition.
Still, village atheists are as numerous, and as shrill, as they've ever been, for the simple reason that the successive revolutions in thought that have furthered their cause--the Enlightenment and Darwinism--have been popular busts. As the secular mind loses mass allegiance, it becomes skittish and reclusive, succumbing to the seductive fancy that its special brand of wisdom is too nuanced, too unblinkingly harsh for the weak-minded Christer, ultraorthodox scold, or wooly pagan.
The faithful, meanwhile, take some understandable offense at this broad caricature of their mental capacity and ability to face life's harder truths. So each side retreats to its corner, more convinced than ever that the other is trafficking in pure, self-infatuated delusion for the basest of reasons: Believers accuse skeptics and unbelievers of thoughtless hedonism and nihilism; the secular set accuses the believoisie of superstition and antiscientific senselessness.
Still, the vast majority of people comfortably tolerate the huge paradoxes that so exercise the super-faithful and their no-less-righteous secular pursuers. Americans are, after all, heir to the greatest Enlightenment traditions in self-government and tolerance, while also forming one of the most religion-mad polities in the industrialized West.
Polls regularly show that at least 90 percent of Americans believe in God; more than 80 percent agree that the deity is regularly performing miracles in today's world; more than 80 percent also believe in an afterlife and Heaven as an actual physical site for same. Even Jews, who traditionally have not had any scriptural basis for believing in an afterlife, have begun acquiring it as a sort of contact high. The General Social Survey conducted annually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found in the 1970s that a mere 19 percent of American Jews confessed a belief in the afterlife; in the 1990s, that proportion rose to an astonishing 56 percent.
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris, a UCLA philosophy grad student, has seized on the all-too-real specter of Islamist terror as the occasion to revisit the village atheist waterfront, compulsively itemizing all the irrational, surly, atavistic features of faith. Never mind that, among the world's one billion Islamic believers, the vast majority of clerics and lay Muslims renounce the politicized brand of Islamist dogma that extremists seek to inflict on Muslim and non-Muslim populations alike. Identifying all Islamic beliefs with extreme Islamist terror, as Harris does throughout the book, is a little like saying that the Maoist guerrillas of Peru's Shining Path are cognate with the Democratic Leadership Council.
Never mind, as well, that militantly atheist movements like Soviet and Khmer Rouge communism--as well as volkish pagan ones like Nazism and Tutsi supremacy--stand behind some of the worst mass violence of the past century. Harris believes religious belief is the single greatest threat to the survival of the human species. Religious faith is not merely a maladaptive superstition, Harris writes; it is the "common enemy" for all reasonable people concerned with the preservation of the world as we know it. All extant religious traditions, to him, are without exception "intellectually defunct and politically ruinous."
Harris' stolid--dare one say dogmatic?--failure to see anything in contemporary religion other than the exclusive, world-conquering fantasizing of monotheism at its worst keeps his book mired squarely in a painfully anachronistic atheist's bill of indictments, cribbed in most particulars from the heyday of Enlightenment skepticism. Like Voltaire, Harris marvels that ardent believers actually worship words when they think they profess fealty to God: "How can any person presume that [theism] is the way the universe works?" Harris writes in typical sputtering indignation. "Because it says so in our holy books." Then, zeroing in for the kill, he asks, "How do we know our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so."
And even though the language from those books sounds occasionally sonorous or beguiling, fueling that oceanic longing for repose within the universe that religion is supposed to fulfill, we should not forget for an instant that these words have been used to justify mass murder: "Words of wisdom and consolation and beauty abound in the pages of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Homer as well, and no one ever murdered strangers by the thousands because of the inspiration he found there."
Actually, all three of those authors routinely celebrated all manner of grisly nonreligious state violence. And determined mass murderers can find a rationale for killing in any handy text that comes along--say, The Rights of Man or Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. But the larger, painfully obvious objection to this argument is a structural one: Reasoning backward under the impression that the destructive results of this or that piece of writing invalidates its purchase on our serious attention could make "E=mc squared" the most taboo phrase in the language.
But Harris' central message is the peril inherent in faith, especially in today's world. As he is fond of reiterating, Islamist terror means religious faith has crossed the line, become simply too dangerous to dally with. The September 11 attacks, for Harris, effectively refute all religious schemes of knowledge. Indeed, he launches The End of Faith with a sensational account of a hypothetical suicide bombing and segues promptly to the key object lesson: "Why is it so easy--you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy--to guess the [attacker's] religion?"
And should this be too subtle an exercise, Harris concludes his litany of Enlightenment-era objections to medieval models of piety with this rhetorical wallop: "All pretensions to theological knowledge should now be seen from the perspective of a man just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, only to find his meandering thoughts--of family and friends, of errands run and unrun, of coffee in need of sweetener--inexplicably interrupted by a choice of terrible starkness and simplicity: between being burned alive by jet fuel or leaping one thousand feet to the concrete below." Thus again are we instructed that the perpetrators of this most heinous act were "men of faith--perfect faith, as it turns out--and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be."
Yet Harris, who is otherwise so singularly obsessed with the single-bullet religious origins of every sort of human infamy, from forced castration to child labor, makes no mention here that suicide bombings were in fact originally the handiwork not of the Islamist faithful but of the Sri Lankan communist guerillas known as the Tamil Tigers. None of this, of course, is to downplay the grave and horrific nature of the Islamist terror threat; it is, however, to suggest that if this sort of historical causation is more complicated than Harris asserts it to be, so it might just be the case that faith is not always and everywhere "so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a perverse, cultural singularity--a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible."
Nor is it the case, to take Harris' emotional (and rather crassly manipulative) example of the hideously sacrificed World Trade Center worker, that 9/11 unambiguously demonstrates the pure irreducible lethality of religious belief. If those opinion polls are any reliable indication, most of the victims of the terrors that day proclaimed faith in warlike, atavistic deities too. As many as 800 of them were adherents of Islam, a religion that Harris flatly asserts is not "compatible with civil society" (rather a cold comfort, one supposes, as they too laid aside their early morning coffee to ponder their sudden mortal doom).