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A Fear of the Faithful Who Mean Exactly What They Believe
A review of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (Norton); 2004; pp. 336.
By DANIEL BLUE
Daniel Blue is a New York writer.
San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 15, 2004
Photo: Sam Harris
Sam Harris is tired of being nice to religious people. Why, he wonders, should we be expected to respect individuals who in the year 2004 still believe in virgin birth? And Christians rarely return the favor. Instead, they're down in Washington holding prayer breakfasts and smiting 'sinners' through mandatory drug sentences, intrusive sex laws and prohibitions against stem cell research.
If Harris mistrusts Christians, he's openly mocking of Muslims, whose beliefs, he suggests, 'belong on the same shelf with Batman.' In fact, he doesn't like any religion much at all. As he points out in The End of Faith, believers of every denomination constantly engage in civil wars. They are also responsible for such historical lows as the Inquisition, witch hunts and the sustained anti-Semitism that eased the way for the Nazis.
What most annoys Harris, however, is that the faithful are averse to development and change. Fixated on ancient scriptures, they ignore the accumulating insights that have transformed the world. Every other field redefines its positions in the light of fresh data. Only religion takes increasing pride in being backward.
There, indeed, exist moderate clergy and flocks who try to accommodate their faith to the times. Harris, however, dismisses such people as decoys who distract our gaze from their dangerous brethren. The true believers are the fundamentalists, and they want to turn the clock back 2,000 years.
At this point, the reader's eyes may begin to glaze. Writers have been arraigning religion for 300 years, and much of this has been said already. Never before, however, have weapons of mass destruction been so available. For Harris, the apocalypse arrived on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, which he believes commentators misunderstood. 'The evil that has finally reached our shores is not merely the evil of terrorism. It is the evil of religious faith at the moment of its political ascendancy.'
The point for Harris is that religious people mean exactly what they say, and this does not bode well for the rest of us. Curiously, principles of faith are often discounted by political observers, who ascribe the deeds of religious people to any motive but religion itself. The rebellions of fundamentalist Christians are often treated as reactions of the disenfranchised. Islam-inspired terrorist groups are seen as acting out of political grievance. Harris takes fundamentalists at their word. 'The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were . . . men of faith - perfect faith, as it turns out - and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.'
Under pressure, Harris reveals ideological biases that will trouble some readers. He has nothing but good to say of Samuel P. Huntington's notorious The Clash of Civilizations. He quotes with approval a rhapsodizing comment about Israel's treatment of Palestinians, even though one might think that religion plays a role in that country's troubles, too. He seems to loathe Islam with a fury the more surprising because he doesn't seem to know much about it. (His quotes on the subject stem mostly from the works of Bernard Lewis and a university Web site.)
Harris is also wont to speak with a dogmatism that suggests that he might be a person of faith himself. The reader may be startled when he announces, 'It is time we recognized that belief is not a private matter.' Pat Robertson and the ayatollahs might have said the same.
How, then, does Harris distinguish himself from the competition? In later chapters he argues that Hindu and Buddhist meditation practices, when stripped of their metaphysical overtones, offer measurable insights that can underpin ethics. In short, his view has a scientific justification that no theologian can match. This is a clever tactic, but there is a difference between entertaining a hypothesis and proving it. Scientists have begun to explore the claims of meditation, and perhaps someday they will bear out Harris' belief to the letter. But until 'the science of good and evil' regularly appears on the biology syllabus, his claims will appear more wishful thinking than accomplished fact.
The End of Faith offers something to offend everyone and is certainly not for those who read only what they agree with. Yet, despite its polemic edge, this is a happy book - Harris is obviously tickled by his own intelligence - and he writes with such verve and frequent insight that even skeptical readers will find it hard to put down.
Besides, we might all check our belief systems for deadwood. Because it touches a nerve, The End of Faith is a good place to begin. The fundamentalists' greatest asset is that they believe what they say. If Harris is right, the rest of us will be sitting ducks unless we discover - and then live - what we really believe as well.