I’ve finished Sam Harris’s The End of Faith unexpectedly early. It stops about 2/3 of the way through the book. The remainder is notes and citations justifying the statements and some of the statements need quite a bit of justifying. It’s a difficult book and a disturbing book. There are also sections where I disagree with the author, but it’s certainly not a foolish book.
Harris argues that religion has ceased to be a foible or eccentricity and now poses a threat to the future of civilisation. That’s a big claim. The bulk of it is down to Islam. Harris sees it as not particularly more violent in theory than Christianity and Judaism. The difference is that Christians and Jews now ignore any bits of the holy texts they don’t like, while mainstream Islam still takes the Koran seriously. The violence inherent in Abrahamic religion wasn’t a huge problem while it was the cause of local slaughters with one tribe moving into a promised land. These days, Harris argues, the same imperative to slaughter the other is balanced with the prospect of nuclear or biological weaponry. It isn’t simply a matter of peaceful coexistence because, to a significant proportion of Muslims, western culture is simply intolerable.
By itself this could read as a screed against Islam, but Harris also tackles Christianity. In the west Harris gives examples of Christianity being imposed on people. One example he gives are American drug laws. Another example are the laws banning non-procreative sex between consenting adults. There may be good reasons for the state to ban such acts, but none have ever been given beyond the bible saying no. The bible is frequently ignored on other matters, so why should this be an issue. This form of ‘morality’ becomes more sinister when it condemns people to die because someone thinks that ‘sex’ is another way of spelling ‘sin’. The problem with this isn’t merely the content of the religious teachings, it’s the act of faith that puts them beyond justification. Fundamentalists are not so much dangerous from their reading of their texts but from their degree of faith.
He also says another cost of faith is that we live with a primitive morality. I’ll need to think more about this. He compares the insight into being that eastern religion has while western religion rarely gets above “If you don’t stop doing that you’ll get a clout”. Removing faith an appeal to authority from ethics would allow ethics to advance in the same way physics did when it was accepted the Bible wasn’t a science textbook. I’m not sure about this, partly because I’m not that well read on eastern philosophy. There would be some dark irony if western religion actually aided the development of science as a means to understand God’s creation but left us with a crippled spirituality.
More problematic is his chapter on torture. He argues that torture can be moral and may be a necessity in the fight against extremists. This deeply concerns me. His position is that we would do this as a rational transaction to prevent greater suffering elsewhere. I’m really going to have to re-read that chapter over again.
Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a large bomb in the heart of a nearby city. This man now sits in your custody. As to the bomb’s location, he will say nothing except the site was chosen to produce maximum loss of life. Give this state of affairs – in particular, given there is enough time to prevent an imminent atrocity – it seems there would be no harm in dusting off the strapado and exposing this unpleasant fellow to a suasion of bygone times.
But what about real life when you don’t know that the person is a terrorist. Harris likens this to collateral damage in a war, but points out that unlike innocent casualties of war, the victims won’t be children. I’m really not convinced by the argument. I’d like to think that I’d crack sooner watching a child being tortured than being tortured myself. If you have an interrogation where time is of the essence then can you now justify the torture of children too? Is sheer revulsion by an idea a substitute for refutation though? How many people have to die before you accept the torture or death of one person? All in all I’d prefer not to think about it, but modern weapons technology might make this kind of arithmetic a reality. Nonetheless I’m vividly aware of the times when people have been massacred for a greater good which later evaporated.
The biggest challenge the book lays down is one that is getting repeated from many places – what does faith bring to life. Jamie Whyte in his book Bad Thoughts has pointed out that no-one has faith in anything demonstrable. No-one for instance has faith that London is the capital of the UK, or that if you jump from a window you’ll fall to the ground. Faith seems only be used for issues that cannot be proved or else are demonstrably false. Harris says that even ardent believers will ditch faith for proof given the opportunity, hence the popularity of medieval relics.
While I wouldn’t agree with everything in the book, it is a well-written piece of non-fiction horror.