July 21, 2012

Book Review: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

In the book that brought him fame, Sam Harris brings knowledge of philosophy and neuroscience as well as a willingness to ignore taboos to bear on religion, morality, and spirituality. His most oft-quoted and admittedly extreme excerpts, while not entirely misleading the reader as to Harris's ideas, are more interesting and understandable when taken in the context of his arguments, even if those arguments are not always quite convincing in the end.

Harris spends some time critiquing religious literalists, but this is much too easy to be interesting. His criticisms of religious moderates, however, are precisely what puts the "new" in the new atheist movement. Harris's primary assertion with respect to moderates is that they are moderate exactly insofar as they ignore religious ignorance in favor of secular knowledge. Furthermore, to Harris, the demands of religious moderates for religious tolerance provide cover for fundamentalists. He gives religious moderates no credit for finding the signal of spiritual benefit in the noise that is modern religion, where perhaps a (very) little credit is due. But as Harris points out, there are much easier places to find spiritual wisdom (his favorite place is Buddhist teachings), and what religious moderates really seem to do is read the meaning they want into whatever book of antiquity they happen to choose (or more often, whatever book their parents happened to choose). The degree to which religious moderates protect fundamentalists is unclear. But when a father can refuse to install smoke detectors because using electricity is against his beliefs, and console himself that if his children burn to death, then it is all part of God's plan, the freedom of religious practice afforded individuals in this country becomes a concern.

What Harris is most infamous for is his criticism of Islam, and of the way liberals treat Islam. And there is indeed much to criticize. But there is some truth to Harris's arguments. He finds a litany of quotes from the Koran endorsing all sorts of terrible things, and asserts that Islam as a religion is simply more violent and less compatible with liberal ideals then other religions. This is a strange argument coming immediately after his observation that moderate Christians are moderate because they choose to ignore the more onerous passages of the Bible. Harris points to parallels between the modern Muslim world and medieval Christianity (the era of the Spanish Inquisition, in particular), but fails to recognize that if we grant him this comparison, we find that Christianity is every bit as violent as Islam.

Harris's criticisms of liberal ideology are more convincing. Liberals defending Islam as a peaceful religion often seem every bit as ignorant on the matter as conservatives who attack the religion. One might argue that, in ignorance, we should give Islam the benefit of the doubt (and we should certainly give individual Muslims the benefit of the doubt), but this is not the argument that is usually made. Both sides of this debate simply select passages from religious texts that agree with what they want to believe, and scream them at each other. While Harris's conclusions are dubious, his attempt to actually think about what might be true regardless of political correctness is admirable.

The most extreme conclusions at which Harris arrives are that torture should be much more widely used, and that there are situations in which the West should consider utilizing a nuclear first strike. Harris's reasoning on torture is not nearly as terrible as his conclusion might indicate. Surely the collateral damage we accept as necessary is worse than torture, he argues, as it is the death of innocent people, whereas torture would be neither lethal nor (ideally) used against innocents. His argument, then, is not that torture is not a horrible tool, but rather that we already accept the necessity of equally (or more) horrible tools in our prosecution of various military campaigns. We actually have the high ground we claim. And in this, he is correct. The question he dismisses too quickly is whether torture is effective. Harris claims that even a low rate of effectiveness is acceptable, but does not bother to wonder how effective torture actually is. But this is not his only error in this logic. Harris recognizes that morality is based on human emotion, yet analyzes this question entirely rationally. Such an analysis is important, but it is possible that for purely emotional reasons, we find torture to be a tool too immoral to use. Harris even hints that his own (irrational, according to him) emotional impulse would be to find torture more onerous than, for example, collateral damage. But he strives to ignore this impulse, a mistake we cannot afford with stakes so high.

Harris's reasoning regarding a potential nuclear first strike is primarily hypothetical, and thus is little cause for alarm. He does not seem to believe that a country with a Muslim government and nuclear weapons will act rationally, a fear that seems exaggerated. Even among individuals with apocalyptic world views, the instinct to survive is strong, so Harris's notion that a Muslim government would welcome nuclear Armageddon seems unlikely. That is not to say we should not be particularly concerned when people in power look forward to the end of the world. But staring down the barrel of mutually assured destruction ought to have a rationalizing effect on all but the most deluded individuals.

In the later chapters, Harris turns to presenting alternatives to both the moral and spiritual facets of faith. The notion that science cannot inform us about ethics is often repeated by scientists, and is very much wrong, as Harris points out. Harris identifies the goal of morality to be promoting the happiness and diminishing the suffering of sentient beings, a definition that makes so much sense one cannot help but wonder why the matter is yet up for debate. The amount that science and reason can help with this process, it must be admitted, is limited. This is because happiness and suffering are wrapped up with consciousness, a phenomenon we do not understand scientifically, but introspectively. We can not scientifically determine when someone is feeling pain, we can only determine when their bodies are in states in which people typically report feeling pain. This element of self-reporting does not raise major issues when investigating human pain, but suppose we want to extend our knowledge to other animals. We can only compare them to ourselves, so we can only hope to say whether they might be feeling human-like pain or happiness. We can never say exactly what they are feeling. We cannot even claim to know for certain that a rock is not sentient. While these are important theoretical problems, they are not important practical issues. We must be satisfied with what we can, in theory, do, and indeed it is quite a bit more than we have done.

Harris is perhaps the most controversial member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, remarkable in a group that includes Christopher Hitchens. While there are a few spots where his arguments go off the rails, this book is, on the whole, an honest and explicit examination of the sort we critically need. It will not show the faithful the error of their ways, but that is not its intent. Its intent is to assure us skeptics that no, faith is not a virtue.


  1. The main criticism I have of anti-religious atheists is that they seem to think that religious fundamentalism or dogma is worse than any other fundamentalism or dogma. I don't. Dogma is dogma, stupidity is stupidity, ignorance is ignorance, in my view. I'm not convinced that there is any more of it in, say, "Christianity" than in, for example, "Feminism." But there are worthwhile thinkers who identify with both of those belief systems. We shouldn't assume that all Christians are like Michelle Bachmann, any more than we should assume that all Feminists are like Michelle Bachmann. Concerning Harris specifically, after reading a little of one of his books, while I appreciate his advocacy of critical thinking, I had the impression that his analysis can be pretty shallow. Take his advocacy of torture on utilitarian grounds that you describe. Harris needs to think about this some more, in my opinion, and perhaps take into consideration that torture by any party is likely to lead to more torture by other parties, in a vicious cycle that is very difficult to control and is likely to long outlast any short term effects. It seems to me that the advantage of a moral system, whether it be based on religion or not, is that it can rule out things like torture, regardless of their perceived utility.

    1. I think the new atheists would agree with you about dogma, and Harris talks about this some in the context of addressing arguments about the infamous atheist dictatorships. Dogma is absolutely what they go after. The reason, I think, that the new atheists focus on religion is that to them it seems that religion is a form of dogmatism that is widely defended in our culture.

      What seems different about religion is the emphasis on faith as virtue. It seems to me that a sound argument with conclusions agreeing with feminist principles would be considered more valuable than mere faith that feminist principles are correct. But this is not always true with religion. Faith despite reason is a considered a virtue.

      Harris gets a little off-track with his political conclusions, its true. We can't expect him, or anyone, to be entirely outside the influence of ideology. But his main point is to impress upon people the dangers of ideology, and for that I don't think it's unreasonable to focus on religion.