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Sam Harris


Religion, terror, and the future of reason

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Frank Barnaby, an expert on nuclear security, said recently on the radio that he had no doubt at all that terrorists were going to obtain or build a crude nuclear device and detonate it in a city. At present said terrorists are likely to be Muslims, which explains why Sam Harris singles out Islam for particular criticism in his book; in fact, he started writing it the day after the attack on the World Trade Center. However, he sees Islam merely as a particularly egregious example of the danger that he thinks faith of all kinds poses today.

Some theologians seek to distinguish faith from belief, claiming that it is "a spiritual principle that transcends mere motivated credulity". But Harris will have none of this; for him, "religious faith is simply unjustified belief … Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor."

Harris recognizes that this summary dismissal of religious faith will seem callous to many readers, especially those who derive comfort from their religion, but he insists that truth is more important than consolation. (One thinks here of Iris Murdoch's remark: "All that consoles is fake.") The psychology of belief gets a chapter to itself, and I thought it was one of the best sections in the book.

Subsequent chapters look at the horrific ill-effects of faith as manifested in the Inquisition, mediaeval witch trials, and Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Harris finds that all these can be seen as arising, directly or indirectly, from Christian faith. Christianity no longer has its Inquisition and no longer burns heretics, but Islam, Harris maintains, is still a menace, because it is stuck mentally in the fourteenth century (why the fourteenth particularly?). "It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately, they are now armed with twenty-first-century weapons".

Harris states uncompromisingly that we are at war with Islam. He rejects claims that Islam is an otherwise peaceful religion that has been "hijacked" by extremists. Admittedly there are many reasonable and moderate Muslims, but that is in spite of rather than because of their faith. Harris certainly finds numerous quotations from the Koran and from hadith (tradition) to illustrate his thesis, but at times he seems somewhat excessive. Is it true that "Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised [sic], has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death"? I should have thought that the religion of the Aztecs is a better example of a "cult of death". Still, it is true that the prospect of an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons and obsessed with martyrdom gives pause for thought.

But it is not only within Islam that we find enthusiasm for apocalyptic visions; there is a mirror image of this in the USA, where many Christians apparently think we are witnessing events foretold in the Book of Revelation and may even believe it is their divinely appointed task to help the process on its way. Curiously, Harris does not make as much of this as one might expect. Instead, he devotes several pages to the tendency of the religious lobby to curtail other people's pleasures, notably in the use of recreational drugs, which he favours. He also criticizes attempts to restrict medical research using embryonic stem cells. This part of the discussion struck me as digressive and anticlimactic.

From the general tone of his writing one would expect Harris to be an out-and-out rationalist and sceptic, so it is rather surprising to find that he is sympathetic to claims for the existence of the paranormal and advocates meditation and Eastern concepts of enlightenment. He makes a strong contrast between faith-based religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the one hand and Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, on the other.

Harris's position here seems to be similar to that of Aldous Huxley, who was an advocate for what he called the Perennial Philosophy. This is the view that mystics intuit a profound truth that transcends "faith" and is in its essence the same everywhere. Harris claims that "[m]ysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not." I'm not convinced that it is possible to distinguish so neatly between the two.

I agree with quite a lot of what Harris says about faith, but I don't think his position is self-consistent. On p.63 he says that "if a person believes in God because he has had certain spiritual experiences … he is playing the same game of justification that we all play when claiming to know the most ordinary facts". But why are experiences of God not acceptable as evidence while "mystical experiences" are? Harris says that these experiences are transformative and "uncover genuine facts about the world". How do we know this? Why should the insights of the mystics not be as delusive as those of people who claim to have experienced God speaking to them? And it's no use appealing to the perceived value of the insights obtained in this way, since it is precisely their alleged value that is in question.

I think, Harris has undermined his own position by his advocacy of mysticism in opposition to faith. Can mysticism really be isolated so completely from faith? If mystics are to say anything at all about what they have intuited, they must use language, and then they are almost bound to find themselves sliding down the slippery slope that leads to belief. All mystics tend to form what William James called over-beliefs. (For an excellent discussion of this question, see Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy: a study of some secular and religious experiences.)

31 October 2006

%T The End of Faith
%S Religion, terror, and the future of reason
%A Harris, Sam
%I Simon and Schuster
%C London
%D 2005
%G ISBN 0-7432-6808-3
%P 336 pp
%K religion

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