Among the Non-Believers

The tedium of dogmatic atheism.


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).

How can it be that the 9/11 suicide bomber, whose spiritual principles and hateful political practices are denounced in the highest reaches of mainstream Islamic observance, is "a man of perfect faith," and that the innocent victims of those attacks, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Jain, or Hindu, are automatically symbols of defiled secularism? Harris' protracted 9/11 set piece isn't even a credible account of how the religious world was affected by the terror attacks (let alone responded to them); so much the less is it the hard and fast measure of "all pretensions to theological knowledge."

It's obvious, of course, that a certain derangement of Muslim dogma prompted these men into terrible action, but there are also, again, more complicated forces in play, involving (just for starters) the ruinous course of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the deeply antidemocratic and dissent-resistant political traditions of the Middle East, and a Saudi monarchy and gerontocracy propelling many middle-class young men to the religious fringe. None of these by itself is an explanation of any of the hijackers' behavior, but neither is something that is–in the actually existing real world, if not in Harris' imagination–as broad and variegated as "faith."

It's necessary to insist upon this point in some detail because Harris, as it happens, is only getting warmed up with the 9/11 scaremongering. He's ready to roll up his sleeves and endorse pre-emptive assaults on both individual bad believers and dangerous Islamist regimes by any means necessary. In a world-class show of "this hurts me more than it hurts you" disingenuousness, Harris makes it clear that the fault for this state of affairs resides entirely with the believers he thinks we may have to kill. "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.

"This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people."

If we must, more in sorrow than in anger, expunge Islamist thought by offing its adherents one by one, so we must also gird ourselves for the big coming conflict with a nuclear-armed Islamic power, which prompts Harris to flights of hypothetical fancy worthy of Herman Kahn (if not Dr. Strangelove's Gen. Buck Turgidson). After all, Harris reasons, "There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons….Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon."

Cautioning further that we would never know the actual whereabouts of such lethal weaponry in the hands of a Paradise-addled Islamist power, Harris presses blithely on to the unthinkable: "In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own." He of course allows that this opening feint of pre-emptive war could trigger a "genocidal crusade" among the Islamic world's nuke-wielding imams, but to paraphrase our Vietnam strategists, sometimes you have to destroy a planet in order to save it.

In any event, it was the believers who started it. Calling this course of events "perfectly insane," Harris once again didactically marvels at how our own pie-eyed tolerance of faith has brought us to this grimmest of all passes: "I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world's population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone, and unicorns."

Here again, Harris glides right by historical precedent–a well-advised move for his argument, since the only power that has used nuclear weapons on civilian populations (up to and including the zealots in Pakistan and India who now belong to the nuclear club) is our own secular, Enlightenment-bred American republic, steeped in pragmatic self-regard far afield from faith-induced deliriums of jihad and martyrdom. And its war-ending rationale in 1945 was very much of a piece with the shoot-first reasoning of Harris' current doomsday scenario. Presumably, it meant a great deal to the dignity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's incinerated citizens to reflect that they were being sacrificed not to mad faith, but to the prerogatives of a properly calculated nuclear assault, on the part of a Western power that was only rationally pursuing a marginal military advantage.

It is a notorious hazard of the village atheist's vocation to mimic many of the worst features of the dogma he obsessively denounces. That certainly is the case with The End of Faith. Harris wishes to convict religious belief of mulish literalism, while attacking its tenets in the most bluntly prosaic and anachronistic terms he can muster. Harris attacks the believing world's maudlin wish fulfillments and faulty logic–and winds up exploiting lurid imagined scenarios of the final moments of 9/11 victims as an argument-stilling tactic. Harris excoriates the religious worldview's foreshortened use of fact and evidence, and produces ahistorical, misleading summaries of the most basic features of Muslim belief, geopolitical conflict, and religious thinking generally.

Most tellingly, The End of Faith derides the callow apocalyptic temper of the monotheistic traditions, while effectively seeking to bully readers into accepting nuclear Armageddon as a justified response to rampant fundamentalism. Lord knows there's plenty to criticize, and be alarmed by, in today's religious scene. But even if we posit with Harris that faith is itself "the enemy," then it behooves any tough-minded strategist to know the enemy. And while I'm far from a believer myself, I'd also suggest that it behooves any village-atheist counselor of high-stakes nuclear conflict to ponder the Psalms of Pogo, in which it is written that we have met the enemy, and he is us.?