Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

Feeling like I've finished reading a half marathon, I recently finished reading Sam Harris' 2004 New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith. The 230ish page book wasn't the hardest thing I've ever read technically speaking, but it has left me drained. I've been chunking away at it for about 2 months (reading other books alongside), and now I'm ready to share a few thoughts on it.
The End of Faith is one of the latest installments of popular books railing against the institution of religion. Harris is an outspoken atheist on a mission given away by the book's title: to end religious faith once and for all.

As a person of faith, I found this book at times difficult to read as well as offensive as I suspect it is meant to be. There's no doubt that Harris, a philosopher by training, is a smart man. There were sentences in the book I'm sure I'll never be able to fully understand. His chapter on the psychology of religion was quite impressive from a literary standpoint, and I wouldn't dare to engage in a philosophical battle of wits with him. That would just be dumb.

Predominantly, Harris goes after our world's three most longstanding and largest religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Out of the gate he goes after moderate Christians claiming we are the ones who have conceded to the Enlightenment but somehow still take the Bible as inerrant. His definition of a 'moderate' is one who is unwilling to fully submit to God's law, and he blames moderates saying our existence creates a context in which extremism can't be adequately opposed.

With his assessment and blame of moderates, I must disagree. I, personally, do not take the Bible as inerrant, and I scoff at being thrown into the category of "unwilling to submit fully to God's law." As if submitting to God's law was the point, as if the Bible was simply a rule book. For me, it is not. Also, as I see it, the existence of moderates likely does more to oppose extreme fundamentalism than would our absense. I would rather make efforts to change fundamentalists from inside the Christian camp than by outside pressure, which would only add fuel to the flame.

Harris spends much time going after religious history as a tactic to deter folks from faith. Calling on the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the Holocaust, to name a few, he points out the horrible atrocities which have been the result of organized religion down through time. However, I'm fair sure religion was not the only, nor the leading cause of the holocaust, which was driven much by politics, economics and racism. No doubt, the Inquisition and Crusades were absolutely terrible, but I would contend that the faith driving the crusaders and inquisitors, when compared to modern day Christianity, is starkly different, even incomparable.

Mostly, Harris' pointing to history is more likely a scare tactic trying to make Christians feel guilty and feel a need to defend the actions of those living 6, 7, and 8 centuries ago. At times, Harris uses shock value as an attempt to ilicit an emotional response from the reader. This approach will surely rally those on his side and are meant to shake a person of faith.

One challenge to reading this book is that Harris has many good points. There is a lot of evidence with which to speak against organized religion. And Christians, or people of other faiths, should not get angry when they are brought up. Honest questions and problems raised by atheists should never be met with contempt. I found myself agreeing with Mr. Harris at times in every chapter; however, I cannot say I agree with many of his conclusions.

The most alarming part was the chapter in which he demonizes Islam. Harris tries his best to foster fear of this world powerful religion. It is scary at one point when he lists every verse in the Koran which speaks against infadels or those who fall from the faith. Constantly, this holy book commands their demise. However, this maneuver must be taken with caution. The vast majority of Muslims read these verses with the same smirk on their faces as Christians who read verses about burning witches and killing disobedient children in the Old Testament.

As a whole, Islam is a more conservative religion than Christianity. But by lumping the entire faith into one group, Harris is ignoring the fact that Islam is as widely varied with conservatives, moderates and liberals as Christianity. You just can't judge us all by the same standards. I am no expert on Islam, though I know a number of Muslims, and from talking with a Christian friend who lived 6 years in Muslim countries, I know enough to be very leary of Harris' blanket attack on this enormously peaceful religion.

The book caused me to strongly consider what is truly important about faith. Harris makes many good points and uses sound reason to knock out things that aren't really that vital. In doing so, this revealed to me what is actually worthy: acts of love, charity, kindness, acceptance, forgivness, freedom, compassion, etc., all things Jesus embodied.

In the end, Harris is a good, brash writer, and the book is informative and challenging. For the most part, he is not raising any new arguments against religion, and I think he is generally preaching to the atheist chior. If you aren't a fundamentalist you will stand far less critiqued by this book.

Humanity has a pretty rough and ugly history. And since the majority of people in our traceable history have been religious, I guess religion also has had a rough and sometimes ugly track record. Harris' thinks that by doing away with the whole thing we will be better off, but, ironically, this is a leap of faith I simply cannot take.


Erin Miller said...

Good review! Saved me from having to read the book and having to become a bapadventathiest like yourself!

Nora said...

Psst, Nathan, you owe me an email!

Here's my other favorite Christian-but-not-crazy blog. The April 21 entry has a link to the modern-day Crusade guy, as a refutation to your point that such an idea is incompatible with modern Christianity. If more moderate Christians would speak out against the stupid-and-scary brand of Christianity instead of trying to sweep it under the rug by saying "well, that's not what I believe," I think more of us atheists would be willing to consider accusations that we are being too harsh or blowing things out of proportion.