The End of Faith

Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is a well-executed polemic of a kind that, in retrospect, has been curiously absent in the West over the last fifty years. Not since I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian in the early 1970s have I seen an attack on organized religion as clear, uncompromising, and compelling as this one — and Russell’s book was expanded from a lecture he gave in 1927.

Why, in a supposedly secular and modernist society that is heir to the anti-religious Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century, do we not see more outright attacks on particular religions, or religion as an institution in general? Mr. Harris supplies a surprising answer: he thinks ‘tolerance’ is a problem, that the modern West has agreed to accept almost any form of unsanity or fanaticism as long as it is labeled ‘religion’.

Harris barely mentions Russell (and never cites earlier militants in the same line like Voltaire or Robert Ingersoll), but following his logic we would conclude that critiques like Russell’s are now rare because even intellectuals inclined to believe them deem them a violation of the ethos of tolerance, the tacit agreement not to dispute matters of religion that is the closest Western secularism has come to solving the problem of faith.

The trouble with ‘tolerance’ is that it only works as a cultural compact when all parties are civilized and have in practice largely agreed to abandon the more inconvenient claims of the religions they theoretically profess. Bertrand Russell, in his time, could set against Christianity’s moral account mainly the fact that it had committed massacres and atrocities in the past and might do so in the future. Sam Harris began writing this book on September 12th, 2001; he is reacting to the vary real atrocities being perpetrated now in the name of militant Islam.

The End of Faith begins with a description of the last hour of a suicide-bomber’s life. Beginning with this vivid image, Harris argues that tolerance of religious fanaticism is now a liability that a nuclear-armed world can no longer afford. If we do not make an end to faith, he warns, it will make an end of us.

Apologists for the now-dominant Christianity of the West will object that this is too sweeping. “Surely, at worst,” they will argue, “only some kinds of faith are toxic; conveniently for us, the wrong kinds.” Harris neatly scotches that argument by quoting passages from both Old and New Testaments that require killing for apostasy. There is no doubt that Christian scripture tells its adherents to kill those who turn away from faith, even members of their own families. There is no doubt that Christians have behaved that way in the past; there is no doubt that Christianity only refrains from this now because most Christians have agreed to ignore inconveniently harsh passages from the Bible; and, given that the fastest-growing Christian denominations profess Biblical literalism, there is every reason to suspect that agreement is fragile and temporary.

Harris’s central case is continuous with arguments I have made before, notably in my essays Islamofascism and the Rage of Augustine and Toxic Christianity, round two. I will spend much of the rest of this essay critiquing various aspects of this book not because I disagree with his conclusions, but because I think some important aspects of the problem he is tackling are not quite adequately addressed in his argument.

Most of what is missing is readily explicable from Harris’s background; he is someone primarily trained as neuroscientist writing in an area where comparative religion and some aspects of philosophy (most notably epistemology, confirmation theory, and the philosophy of language) are more directly applicable. As a result there are places where, while his conclusions are sound, his arguments are roundabout, a bit naive, and subject to spoiler attacks on the details. And there are arguments he should make that he doesn’t.

One obvious error in the early part of Harris’s exposition is a tendency to speak as though all religions make faith claims in the same way that Christianity and Islam do, and are thus all equally dangerous in potential. This is not true, and later in the book Harris makes clear that he knows better — or at least, that he knows Buddhism (when properly understood) doesn’t make faith claims. But he displays no understanding of other kinds of religion (shamanism, polytheisms, animism) even where references to it would strongly bolster his case against Judeo-Christian-Islamic particularism.

Harris’s Chapter 2 (The Nature of Belief) is the first major demonstration that he knows too little about analytical philosophy. Thus, he spends that chapter wading through ontological thickets that he could have avoided had he availed himself early on of the operationalist criterion: a belief or theory is true to the extent it permits successful prediction of observables. Lacking this tool, he has to do a lot of gear-grinding about the relation between “statements” and “reality” before getting anywhere useful. While putting the ontological cart before the confirmational horse in this way remains a common error even among philosophers, seeing Harris repeat it is disappointing in a book otherwise so lucid.

A similar error dogs his discussion of “pragmatism” vs. “realism” in Chapter 6 (A Science of Good and Evil). Harris doesn’t seem to realize that modern versions of “pragmatism” such as Richard Rorty’s are largely self-crippled by their advocates’ political commitments (notably, to multiculturalism and against objective normative truth). Early pragmatists like C.S. Peirce actually had a better handle on the relation of usefulness to “reality” than their successors today do. One might summarize it by observing that a pragmatist who does not arrive at an independently causal “reality” as the most useful hypothesis has failed, but a realist who justifies his ontology on any grounds other than strictly pragmatic ones is just fantasizing.

Harris’s forays into ethical philosophy are in some ways even more unfortunate. There is some excellent reasoning about the use of force here (Harris’s account of pacifism is especially telling), but the worst moment in the book arrives when he makes a complete hash of the controversy between deontic and consequentialist ethics, annotating the statement “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything” with a footnote that flatly contradicts it! He is far too quick to usher adaptationist accounts of ethics offstage, and he seems completely unaware of the contributions ethical-egoist critiques of faith (such as, for example, Ayn Rand’s) could make to his argument.

In terms of Harris’s own objectives, the book’s most serious failure is that he does a poor job of connecting faith-based religion to the murderous secular irrationalisms of the 20th century, notably Communism and Naziism. The problem here is one that shows up elsewhere in the book; connections that seem obvious to Harris are alluded to rather than nailed down with explicit argument, creating the appearance that his case is weaker than it actually is.

Harris could have made much of the connection between ‘faith’ and authoritarianism, and the psychological mechanism I have elsewhere described as the sin/guilt/thoughtcrime monitor. But he never gets there, which is a curious failing in someone who understands meditation and mysticism so well.

But these are comparatively minor defects in a sustained argument that is remarkable in its clarity, penetration, and wit. The most unfortunate thing about this book is that the people who need it most are the ones least likely to read it.

The best we can hope for is that it is the beginning of a conversation that will galvanize the unbelievers, the sane people, into rejecting suicidal tolerance of fanaticism and standing up against ‘faith’ and for rationality. Because Harris is right — this isn’t a parlor game any more. If we let them, the fanatics will use our ‘tolerance’ as a weapon against us. And they will use it to kill.