The End of Faith by Sam Harris

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

10 Responses

  1. Duane says:

    Interesting review, Thanks. And now there’s another book for my every grow­ing “need to read” list.

  2. Edie says:

    You make a good point about tor­ture, which raises ques­tions about what pur­pose a book like this might serve in jus­ti­fy­ing the cur­rent war.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Hello. I just found your site doing a search for archae­ology blogs. I’m a 30-something who has returned to school to get the arch degree I should have got­ten 10+ years ago. I like your stuff here. Cheers.

  4. paul says:

    I liked the review.

    The quote regard­ing tor­ture appears to be a hypo­thet­ical, but it is not.
    It is more like a scen­ario from an action movie, wherein it is clear the vic­tim is a ter­ror­ist and we demand that good pre­vails.
    The point was made that in real­ity we do not actu­ally know he is a ter­ror­ist, and this makes ALL the difference.

    And most tellingly, it ignores that fact that Christians, Jews, and Muslims for the most part ignore those advanced moral demands of peace and char­ity which ring through­out all their holy writings.

    The account of Abrhamic reli­gions by Mr. Harris appears totally ignor­ant of Midrash or other com­ment­ar­ies of a level higher than that of the middle school playground.

  5. Phil says:

    It also assumes that tor­ture works

  6. paul says:

    Continuing Phil’s idea:

    My prob­lem with Mr. Harris is that accord­ing to his approach, tor­ture will work most of the time.

    The use of tor­ture is a moral issue. Harris pre­tends to set forth a hypo­thet­ical moral situ­ation in that of the terrorist.

    However, the ter­ror­ist is in our cus­tody, we know which city the bomb is in, we know about what time it will det­on­ate, we also know — mira­cu­lously — that the bomb is situ­ated to pro­duce a max­imum loss of life ! And so on, and so on.

    This is a story line from DIE HARD. You can almost see the seconds tick­ing off the digital clock.
    This is not a moral hypo­thet­ical. We will always vote for a happy end­ing for the movie, so will we approve tor­ture most of the time if we fol­low this type of story-line in moral reasoning.

    Another note, I par­tic­u­larly enjoy beat­ing reli­gious people about the ears while cau­tion­ing that they are pos­sibly not advanced enough to enjoy the true fruits of civil­iz­a­tion: nuc­lear and bio­lo­gical weaponry !

  7. Phil says:

    Sorry if my last post was a bit glib or terse. Its just everything about the example is based on tenu­ous assump­tions and opper­tun­ity should be taken to repeat that at every oppertunity!

  8. alun says:

    In Harris’s defence what you have is a brief account of his argu­ment. I think his pos­i­tion that in these car­toon terms tor­ture might make sense, but we need to think about whether or not it does when there are more unknowns. In vari­ous forms it’s also a fairly com­mon thought experiment.

    He doesn’t think tor­ture would always work either. Simply that if you know an atro­city is going to take place then would the likely loss of life jus­tify the use of tor­ture? Would the deten­tion of Islamic fun­da­ment­al­ists have made the war on Iraq unne­ces­sary? Harris’s view is that the num­ber of inno­cents killed or maimed would be less, there­fore in numer­ical terms would tar­get­ted tor­ture be bet­ter than war?

    He argues that his pos­i­tion has been that tor­ture would be wrong, but now with the weaponry that may become avail­able to ter­ror­ists, the risk is so great that it may become neces­sary to revisit how we deal with irra­tional people. The dam­age done by a dirty bomb in Washington would prob­ably be much worse than break­ing someone’s arms. If tor­ture might lead to inform­a­tion that would stop a mas­sacre then it’s a price we should con­sider paying.

    Personally, I agree that the use of tor­ture is unjus­ti­fied in the real world because of the uncer­tain­ties, but my own feel­ing of revul­sion for it isn’t an argu­ment. My own opin­ion is that even if you feel the cur­rent gov­ern­ments of the USA or UK are jus­ti­fied and respons­ible in sus­pend­ing liber­ties, would you con­tinue wish an altern­at­ive gov­er­ment to wield the same powers? If the USA moves to the left, or the UK to the right after the next elec­tions would those gov­ern­ments be able to wield power as wisely as Bush or Blair? Thus I feel this kind of action is wrong as it acts to sub­vert the safe­guards that pre­vent it being mis­used — if you agree that it is pos­sible to use tor­ture responsibly.

    I’m ambi­val­ent about whether the lack of soph­ist­ic­ated theo­logy is a prob­lem in the argu­ments of Harris (or Dawkins who has the same prob­lem) in deal­ing with the prob­lem of faith. I agree there are soph­ist­ic­ated meth­ods of inter­pret­ing the Bible. I’m simply not con­vinced that many believ­ers are aware of Midrash, Christian Apologetics or other forms of theo­lo­gical argu­ment. The people attack­ing embassies, killing doc­tors or fight­ing against the use of con­doms in the third world prob­ably aren’t jus­ti­fy­ing their actions on par­tic­u­larly thought­ful inter­pret­a­tions of their holy texts.

    It’s a dif­fi­cult book and a thought-provoking book. Certainly some of it is very good. Eastern reli­gions do tend to come out of it quite well. If I can remem­ber where I’ve put it I’ll lend it you Phil, so you can read it and tell me which bits I got wrong. :)

  9. paul says:

    Concerning Eastern reli­gions, our famili­ar­ity with them comes mainly from edu­cated emigres who are bilin­gual at least and who have writ­ten expos­i­tions of their beliefs.
    I fully con­cur that you won’t see the Dalai Lama attack­ing an embassy any­time soon. But not all buddhists are smil­ing.
    So look at Thomas Merton or Martin Buber or Ar-Rumi to see how the Abrahamic looks into being.
    Look at Commentary, not Argument.
    I won­der what Gandhi-Ji thought of tor­ture?
    I won­der what the Lord Buddha thought of torture?

    Do you think Eastern reli­gions are com­ing out pretty good so we may ignore their mor­al­it­ies as well?

  10. Phil says:

    Being pendantic, your sentence

    Would the deten­tion of Islamic fun­da­ment­al­ists have made the war on Iraq unnecessary?

    per­haps implies a pre war con­nec­tion between the saddham regeim and islamic fun­demen­at­ilsts which wasn’t there perhaps?

    Would like to bor­row the book from you!

    I think paul makes a good point about the pick and mix atti­tude to aspects of the spir­itu­al­ity of ‘easter relei­gons’ — it could also be applied to approaches of mod­ern pagan­ism. Mind you I prefer to stick to a cri­tique of the organ­ised releigeon/ tra­di­tion that I was bought up with, on the grounds I am most famil­iar with it and know where the bod­ies are bur­ied (now tell me about this trin­ity again .…)