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The End of Faith, Sam Harris, 7/3/06

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Books
Date: 07 March 2006


Make religion history

Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is a radical blueprint for a new, post-religious world. By Max Dunbar

Faith is dying. In our country only seven per cent of us regularly attend church; a third have no idea what Easter is supposed to commemorate. What makes me proud to be British is that our country is the most godless on earth. But yet, as religious observance wanes, our leaders seem to be trying to revive it. The Prime Minister is a practicing Christian; if you want to get ahead in the Labour Party, join the Christian Socialists. He has tried to extend the centuries-old blasphemy laws to cover not just Christianity but all other faiths, and is in the process of selling off our comprehensive schools to religious charlatans. As Nick Cohen has said, it’s not the old Marxist way of the cynical elites forcing belief onto the gullible masses; now the cynical masses are abandoning the church while the idiots at the top convert. The government seems intent on promoting a doctrine and a way of life that is of absolutely no relevance to the vast majority of its subjects.

Why is this happening? Okay, so most of us don’t think that the punishment for adultery should be death (Leviticus 20:10) or that we should kill people who no longer believe in God (Deuteronomy 13:12-16). You haven’t been to church since the last wedding or funeral and you don’t have much idea of what the people on Thought for the Day are talking about. You are quietly aware that bad things have been done in the name of religion. But do you not feel that faith can be a positive thing, in and of itself? To have belief, however misplaced or delusory, seems to us to be a sign of good character. It can show an open-mindedness about the world; belief in a higher, greater force can make one seem attractively humble. This is Blair’s position today: no one faith is true but faith itself should be promoted all over the world.

I read Sam Harris with my mind in thundering applause. Harris shows eloquently why faith and belief are not good things- that, in fact, any unjustified belief is the road to violence, ignorance and repression.

There are many arguments that believers use to separate themselves and their beliefs from the countless horrors that faith has unleashed upon our world. Within two chapters Harris has picked them off like a hunter shooting ducks out of the sky. The apologist has always claimed that the Inquisition, 9/11, witch hunts, the oppression of women (I could go on, and Harris does) are the result of a) people ‘misinterpreting’ the teachings of their faith or b) unscrupulous leaders who have perverted the teachings of the faith for their own evil ends. With his knowledge of scripture, Harris shows how the Bible and Koran manifests itself through terror as cleanly as Mein Kampf manifested itself through Nazism. The book contains three pages of doctrinal quotes that incite to murder from the Koran alone.

The apologist then points to the one or two references in scripture that advocate peace and love and then says, well, obviously it’s not all great, we live in the 21st century, so why not pick and choose? And the idea of selecting the best parts of different texts to live by is not a bad one. But, as Harris asks, if we are going to do that, then why derive our wisdom from any holy book at all? Why not live through the morality found in Kant, or Shakespeare, or the novels of Carl Hiaasen?

Our religious apologist, getting a little flustered now, responds with: ah, but Hitler and Stalin were not believers, and look at all the damage they caused. But you cannot deny a link between religious belief and dictatorships simply by pointing to some dictatorships that are not religious. Harris shows us how the dictatorships of Stalin and Mao were essentially cult-based, with a belief in the Great Leader and a utopian afterlife, traces the ways in which anti-semitism and fascism grew out of medieval Christian prejudice – and how the Catholic church stood idly by as millions were slaughtered. But what about, says the apologist, what about all the good people who saved lives because they were motivated by faith? They didn’t need their faith to do this, though. As Harris says, ‘Our common humanity is reason enough to prevent our fellow human beings from coming to harm.’

At this point the apologist will either change the subject or resort to verbal abuse. This is the problem with arguing with a true believer – they are in a different world, or at least think they are. No inconvenient facts, or alternative viewpoints, or even physical laws are allowed to intrude into the steel ball of the believing mind. One of the low points of Richard Dawkins’ recent documentary, The Root of All Evil, was watching the professor interview different stripes of fundamentalist- a redneck Christian, and a secular Jew who had converted to Islam. To Dawkins’ visible frustration, both deflected his questions by the use of stereotyping and verbal insults.

One of the sillier responses to that documentary was a charge that atheism is in itself a fundamentalism. All I can say is that it is better to have a fundamentalist faith in the beauties of this life – the only one we know, and therefore our best chance of happiness- than in some post-death paradise, earned by blood. And perhaps this is a time for militant secularism. As Harris says, ‘The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us as that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.’ Thus, the comment editor of the Guardian – the country’s leading progressive newspaper – can write an article calling for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, and somehow not be fired.

This is where we are now. It is time for us to stop respecting religion, because clearly our respect has not been earned. Recent developments in Iraq have told us that, no, people do not necessarily want to be ruled by priests. Religion has to be phased out of the sphere of practical influence, so that in a thousand years time historians will shake their heads and wonder why we put up with it for so long. The End of Faith, Sam Harris, Free Press 2006

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