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The End of Faith – Reason In Exile Sunday, March 4, 2007

Posted by h3nry in atheism, book review, Daniel Dennett, faith, fundamentalism, God, Islam, Koran, rationality, religion, Sam Harris.
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This post is a commentary on the first chapter Reason In Exile of the widely popular book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which I have just started reading with immense interest and expectation. It is written by Sam Harris, who along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is seen as one of the most “self-styled” populariser of the so-called “academic atheism”.

Book Cover of “The End of Faith”

In this chapter Harris establishes one of the central themes of the book, which is best summed up with this quote:

We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.

Simply put, Harris argues that religious moderates are no better than extremists – the reason being that moderates provide the framework and tolerance to which fosters extremism. I have my reservations on this claim; however I have not given this claim much thought before, so I will continue to read the book with great interest.

Harris continues with his argument:

Two myths now keep faith beyond the fray of rational criticism, and they seem to foster religious extremism and religious moderation equally: (1) most of believe that there are good things that people get from religious faith (e.g. strong communities, ethical behaviour, spiritual experience) that cannot be had elsewhere; (2) many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are the products not of faith per se but of our baser natures – forces like greed, hatred, and fear…

I completely agree with the second point. Religion, like no other forces in human history, has the unique ability to unite the many ugly traits of human nature. Yes, ethnic conflicts, power greed and territorial expansions have caused wars and human atrocities throughout history, but religion is often intertwined heavily – and worse, religion is seen as the acceptable and rightfulness justification – even today, at twenty first century! This is what makes religion unique in this regard.

Religious moderation arises not from religions within – not from the scriptures – but from the many cultural, scientific, political… etc advances we accumulated in the past few thousands of years. Stoning people to death is a good point in case, Harris argues, and well stated:

The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among non-fundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt.

Fundamentalists merely practice their religion to the words of the scripture, and their religious knowledge is often unrivalled, says Harris. The so-called moderates, are so because they balance their personal religious beliefs with advances in human knowledge, which has nothing within to do with God:

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scripture ignorance – and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism.

In other words, in religious terms, moderates are hypocrites (I am actually surprised that the word “hypocrites” has not been used at all in this chapter).

Harris throws some worrying statistics in the book, and I really mean, worrying:

According to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe that it is the “inspired” word of the same…

Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation…

Admittedly this survey was conducted in 1996, which is very outdated – however, it does give a good indication of the scale “encyclopedic ignorance” [page 14] of the general American society. I would love to find out what the statistics is now…

Harris then writes about Muslim extremism. He argues that they are extreme in that they believe modernity and secular culture are incompatible with moral and spiritual health, that Muslims extremists appear to suffer a fear of being polluted by the non-Islamic cultures, as well as a feeling of humiliation. Harris goes to briefly argues that the literal believing of the Koran and the Islam religion itself are the simple reasons that can explain the extremism that we see today.

… the problem is that most Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God.

I was slightly disappointed with the passage regarding Muslim extremism, as there are no substantial arguments and deep insights (unlike the rest of the chapter); most of it are more of a generalisation and even simplistic. For example, how and why do Muslims extremists feel humiliated? What is the basis for saying that “Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hatred.” [page 31]. However, the good news is that there is a chapter completely devoted to this topic, so I am looking forward to that

Harris goes on to argue that a person’s view on afterlife largely guides how he/she lives, and ranted about how remarkable it is that even a hairstylist requires a certificate, yet the candidates of United State president cannot openly doubt the existence of heaven and hell – in fact, they do not have to be experts or knowledgeable in areas that matter, such as law and economics; they just need to be expert fund-raisers. This is a great satirical passage, true and sad at the same time.

Sam Harris concludes the chapter by stating that it is time we recognise the dangers of beliefs. Belief is no longer a private or personal thing; it is at a public matter at global scale. Action of a man utterly depends on the beliefs of a person.

I will conclude this post with a nice quote on reason and belief:

We cannot live by reason alone. This is why no quantity of reason, applied as antiseptic, can compete with the balm of faith, once the terrors of this world begin to intrude upon our lives… and reason, no matter how broad its compass, will begin to smell distinctly of formaldehyde. This had lead many of us to conclude, wrongly, that human begins have needs that only faith in certain fantastical ideas can fulfill. It is nowhere written, however, tat human beings must be irrational, or live in a perpetual state of siege, to enjoy an abiding sense of the sacred.

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1. The End of Faith: Sam Harris « Utica Progressive - Friday, May 4, 2007

[...] Here is an in-depth analysis, chapter by chapter from On Evolution. [...]


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