I picked up this book because it promised to express a bold position not only against religion in general but, given the state of affairs since 9/11, Islam in particular. Sam Harris’s unforgiving appetite for logical rigor and evidence-based reasoning help inform our opinion on terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and religion in general.
A good start: atheism | current affairs
For someone looking to develop a mental map of philosophy/religion/atheism, this is a good book, but not the only one to read (add Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens to the list).
Similarly, if we’re trying to form an opinion (not just a collection of impressions) on Islamic terrorism, this should be one of many books to study. This book points to the teachings of the Koran and the Hadith as the ultimate explanation of the violence within the Muslim world and the terrorist attacks on the West.
So, a good start, but not an exhaustive read. Fortunately, the book is meticulously annotated and includes an extensive list of reference readings, sufficiently long to keep you entertained well into the after life, if you believe in such thing.
Main ideas (on religion and other faith-based beliefs)
There are a few basic arguments from which everything else in the book follows logically.
- Religions do not allow for a mechanism to test the validity of their basic beliefs and tenets
- Note that any faith-based, ideological, or dogmatic system of belief, be it religious or not, falls in this same category
- In every other sphere of human interest (engineering, biology, medicine, politics, etc.) we have used rational discourse, free inquiry, and observation to test and re-test assumptions, beliefs, and theories resulting in previously unimaginable progress
- The realm of morals and ethics is susceptible to progress (and regress)
- If you don’t agree, just think of our not so distant past (slavery, lynchings, even the Inquisition is not that distant)… don’t you react with disgust?
- It’s imperative to take a rational approach to ethics. Understand that “questions or right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward them.”
- In the West, we have adopted a timid stance in relation to religion, and this is not only unfortunate, but unethical and dangerous
- In our political moderation, we have placed religion beyond the confines of rational discourse, which results in the perpetuation of anachronistic superstitions (as each new generation of believers inherits the same set of untested beliefs)
- Our timidity prevents us from rethinking our problems of ethics and social cohesion. Harris writes “Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world.”
- Islam is a religion of conquest and, if followed literally, Muslims wouldn’t stop until all infidels and heretics have been subjugated or destroyed
- The End of Faith singles out Islam as the most violent of the Abrahamic religions based on a literal reading of the Koran and the Hadith. I can’t help but feel reservations in this respect because the god of The Old Testament should be in the running for the most megalomaniac, cruel, violent, and capricious. Poseidon is not far behind either. Perhaps focusing on gradations of brutality of one ancient text vs. another is not the most useful discussion, and the point is that anyone can find calls to barbarous violence in these old books.
I have two wishes, one of addition, and one of subtraction.
- Wish of addition: spend more pages analyzing, or at least describing, other factors that converge with the teachings of the Koran to result in the type of violence we are seeing. Yes, unquestioning belief that the Koran contains the literal word of god is the ultimate culprit, but there definitely are circumstances that aggravate or act as catalysts to the current state of affairs. Poverty, access to education, foreign policy, other.
- Wish of subtraction: the last third of the book is densely packed with philosophy and I felt that the flow was interrupted. I felt a change in style; the book turned scholarly, with lengthy annotations, and we drifted away from religion, terror, and ethics into mysticism, the self, meditation, and some epistemology. I wish these topics had been covered in a separate book.
The take away
I’m taking away one passage of the book to reinforce my guiding principles in life:
“Our primary task in our discourse with one another should be to identify those beliefs that seem least likely to survive another thousand years of human inquiry [impossibly quaint and suicidally stupid beliefs]… and subject them to sustained criticism.”
Obviously religion is at the top of the list. That is the main argument of The End of Faith.
But what other beliefs and practices of today should/must be near the top? My vote goes wholeheartedly to Intensive Animal Farming.
I wish there was a score of 7.5I wish there was a score of 7.5
Reason in Exile
In our moderation, disappointingly, we have placed religion and faith beyond the confines of rational discourse. A singularity. All other areas of human thought and endeavor (medicine, engineering, economics, even politics) have benefited from years of testing and retesting their beliefs, hypothesis, and theories.
There are two important effects of this singularity:
- The perpetuation of anachronistic superstitions and tribal hatreds. Each new generation of believers inherits the same set of beliefs because we have chosen to not allow any mechanism to test these beliefs.
- The inability to rethink our problems of ethics and social cohesion. In our moderation, we prefer to cling to the ancient texts and cherry-pick what is still serviceable, dismiss the abhorrent, and somehow hope that all works out in the end. Harris writes “Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world.”
Guiding principle: We should keep in mind how we view beliefs and practices of our not-too-distant past with disgust (e.g., slavery) and observe and reflect on current practices that are likely to provoke the same reaction in future generations… “Our primary task in our discourse with one another should be to identify those beliefs that seem least likely to survive another thousand years of human inquiry [impossibly quaint and suicidally stupid beliefs]… and subject them to sustained criticism.” | religion for sure tops the list, but also animal farming.
In the Shadow of God
Horrors of the Inquisition, particularly witch hunts, and the persecution of Jews throughout history.
The Inquisition lasted almost 600 years, from 1250 well into the 19th century! The Pope explicitly authorized the use of torture to extract confessions and, confessions of guilt were not sufficient, victims were coerced to name his/her accomplices.
The Holocaust was the culmination of German tribalism and 2000 years of Christian harassment towards Jews.
“Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm. Genocidal intolerance, on the other hand, must inevitably find its inspiration elsewhere. Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe? You will find that it is always -always- preposterous.”
The Problem with Islam
- There are no moderate Muslims in that even “moderate” approaches to Islam consider the Koran to be the literal word of God. The difference between fundamentalists and moderates resides “on the degree to which they see political and military action to be intrinsic to the practice of their faith.”
- The penalty for apostasy is death, and there’s no metaphor here. The Hadith normatively states: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”
- The penalty for learning too much about the world is death.
- This sounds like Christians in the fourteenth century.
- Even Cat Stevens endorsed the death sentence proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini on Salman Rushdie.
- A global survey conducted in 2002 by the Pew Research Center showed a vast majority of Muslims in favor of suicide bombing used against civilians (to defend Islam). Chilling.
- Accessibility to nuclear technology makes plausible the scenario of world annihilation “on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman…”
- On foreign policy: “we [the West] cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century.”
- There’s no separation of church, government, and civic affairs in the minds of islamists, and there’s no appetite for free inquiry
- Of course, lack of education and poverty play an important role; however, note that Muslim terrorists have tended to come from educated, middle-class families
- The perfect weapon analogy
- Not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development
- What would Bush have done with a perfect weapon? What would Osama bin Laden have done with a perfect weapon?
- “As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.”
West of Eden
- “There are sources of irrationality other than religious faith, of course, but none of them are celebrated for their role in shaping public policy… religious faith obscures uncertainty where uncertainty manifestly exists, allowing the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over the facts.”
- “Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc). This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics. It is time we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong.”
Ethics – A Science of Good and Evil
- Rational approach to ethics: once we abandon our dependence on a rule-making God, the question of why a given action is good or bad becomes a matter of debate.
- “A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward them.”
- Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
- Moral communities
- We need a way to specify the rules for inclusion in our moral community. Our answer should reflect our sense of the possible subjectivity of the creatures in question.
- Where do we draw the line? All humans in, all animals out is clearly wrong.
- Pragmatism and relativism
- Both positions propose that there are no absolute moral truths, so suicidal bombing isn’t really wrong, it just appears wrong from our Western perspective
- The danger of this type of stance is that it weakens our convictions… from Yeats: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Mysticism and Consciousness
- Harris proposes a rational approach to understanding the self and consciousness, informed by empirical evidence and devoid of the unfounded and unchangeable beliefs advanced by religion.
- “While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it.”
- “Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.”