Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Book Review: The End of Faith by Sam Harris.

The key to understanding this book is found in the closing acknowledgements.

Author Sam Harris crucially admits: "I began writing this book on September 12, 2001." (p. 323.)

This short sentence lucidly reveals Harris' impetus. Accordingly, his attack on religion arises out out of his disdain for the beliefs (and practice) of those who attacked his country a day earlier. Yet he expands his focus to include just about all people of "faith" whether or not they hold the same views or have engaged (or threaten to engage) in similar conduct. "If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith." (p. 225.)

Harris inconsistently reserves from his indictment, however, some religious people: Jains (p. 148 ["A rise in Jainism would endanger no one."], Buddhists (pp. 216-17) and mystics (p. 221), and in so doing, undermines his sweeping conclusion that all "faith" or religion should be eradicated--i.e. his desired "end of faith." (p. 221 and book's title.)

Curiously, Harris largely deals with the "secondary effects" of religion or its perversions--the existence of which fail to undermine truth in its unadulterated state. The End of Faith discusses "faith," or more accurately, religion on the margins. Christopher Hitchens' g-d Is Not Great (2007) at least recognized the foundation of deistic belief--the origins of humanity--must be addressed. Hitchens aims his most blistering rhetoric at the "intelligent design" crowd (and oddly Mel Gibson). Otherwise, all rantings against religion will eventually encounter the proverbial elephant in the room. In other words, how did the elephant get there? If God created the elephant, then no amount of wishful thinking will justify living without a belief in the Creator. Instead, Harris seems content to relitigate the Inquisition (p. 79-88, 99, 106-07, 242-45, 258), as if that ancient perversion (or others) has any relevance to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead or any of the other core tenants of orthodox Christianity.

Harris diverts even further from his thesis when he launches a lengthy tangent about whether torture or violence is justified (e.g., pp. 192-203). What this political or philosophical discussion has to do with disproving religion is anyone's guess.

Harris provides some useful insight for religious folk. His observation could just as easily be located in devotional literature: "Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings." (p. 12.) Harris however never grapples with the converse--what results from not believing in anything? I doubt such pathologies would support Harris' Godless or faith-free prescription.

The book illuminates the current debate about religion's role. Believers would do well to participate in the conversation and this book represents one of the key, recent voices in it.

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